Scholars Critique the 1619 Project

To the Editor of The New York Times Magazine  12/30/2019 
Re: The 1619 Project

We are writing to you today, in tandem with numerous others, to express our deep concern about the New York Times’ promotion of The 1619 Project, which first appeared in the pages of the New York Times Magazine on August 14th in the form of ten essays, poems and fiction by a variety of authors. The Project’s avowed purpose is to restore the history of slavery to a central place in American memory and history, and in conjunction with the New York Times, the Project now plans to create and distribute school curriculums which will feature this re-centering of the American experience.

It is not our purpose to question the significance of slavery in the American past. None of us have any disagreement with the need for Americans, as they consider their history, to understand that the past is populated by sinners as well as saints, by horrors as well as honors, and that is particularly true of the scarred legacy of slavery.

As historians and students of the Founding and the Civil War era, our concern is that The 1619 Project offers a historically-limited view of slavery, especially since slavery was not just (or even exclusively) an American malady, and grew up in a larger context of forced labor and race. Moreover, the breadth of 400 years and 300 million people cannot be compressed into single-size interpretations; yet, The 1619 Project asserts that every aspect of American life has only one lens for viewing, that of slavery and its fall-out. “America Wasn’t a Democracy Until Black Americans Made It One,” insists the lead essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones; “American Capitalism Is Brutal. You Can Trace That to the Plantation,” asserts another by Matthew Desmond. In some cases, history is reduced to metaphor: “How Segregation Caused Your Traffic Jam.”

We are also dismayed by the problematic treatment of major issues and personalities of the Founding and Civil War eras. For instance: The 1619 Project construes slavery as a capitalist venture, yet it fails to note how Southern slaveholders scorned capitalism as “a conglomeration of greasy mechanics, petty operators, small-fisted farmers, and moon-struck theorists.”[1] Although the Project asserts that “New Orleans boasted a denser concentration of banking capital than New York City,” the phrase “banking capital” elides the reality that on the eve of the Civil War, New York possessed more banks (294) than the entire future Confederacy (208), and that Southern “banking capital” in 1858 amounted to less than 80% of that held by New York banks alone.[2]

Again: we are presented with an image of Abraham Lincoln in 1862, informing a delegation of “five esteemed free black men” at the White House that, because black Americans were a “troublesome presence,” his solution was colonization — “to ship black people, once freed, to another country.” No mention, however, is made that the “troublesome presence” comment is Lincoln’s description in 1852 of the views of Henry Clay,[3] or that colonization would be “sloughed off” by him (in John Hay’s diary) as a “barbarous humbug,”[4] or that Lincoln would eventually be murdered by a white supremacist in 1865 after calling for black voting rights, or that this was the man whom Frederick Douglass described as “emphatically the black man’s president.”[5]

We do not believe that the authors of The 1619 Project have considered these larger contexts with sufficient seriousness, or invited a candid review of its assertions by the larger community of historians. We are also troubled that these materials are now to become the basis of school curriculums, with the imprimatur of the New York Times. The remedy for past historical oversights is not their replacement by modern oversights. We therefore respectfully ask the New York Times to withhold any steps to publish and distribute The 1619 Project until these concerns can be addressed in a thorough and open fashion.

William B. Allen, Emeritus Dean and Professor, Michigan State University
Michael A. Burlingame, Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies,
University of Illinois, Springfield
Joseph R. Fornieri, Professor of Political Science, Rochester Institute of Technology
Allen C. Guelzo, Senior Research Scholar, Princeton University
Peter Kolchin, Henry Clay Reed Professor Emeritus of History, University of Delaware
Glenn W. LaFantasie, Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History and Director of
the Institute for Civil War Studies, Western Kentucky University
Lucas E. Morel, Professor of Politics, Washington & Lee University
George C. Rable, Professor Emeritus, University of Alabama
Diana J. Schaub, Professor of Political Science, Loyola University
Colleen A. Sheehan, Professor of Political Science and Director, The Matthew J. Ryan Center, Villanova University
Steven B. Smith, Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science, Yale University.
Michael P. Zuckert, N. Reeves Dreux Professor of Political Science, University
of Notre Dame

Story continues at: 1619 Debacle


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