The New York Times seems to have made a grand splash with the August debut of its 1619 Project, which it unveiled to the world as an audacious effort to “reframe” all of American history as little more than the lengthened shadow of slavery. The title derives from the historical fact that 400 years ago, some 20 Africans were dropped off by (probably) a British privateer at Jamestown, Virginia—the first such individuals to appear in the British mainland North American colonies.
The first effort in what is promised as an ongoing 1619 endeavor throughout the paper was a 100-page issue of the Sunday Magazine, devoted entirely (except for the oddly jarring inclusion of the Times crossword and other puzzles) to a series of short articles of varying length and genre. They ranged from highly compressed historical arguments to poems and other literary or memoiristic pieces, all of which are in some way devoted to the idea that slavery “and the anti-black racism it required” constitute the true foundation of American history. “Out of slavery,” declare the introductory remarks, “grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system,” and so on, down to the nation’s propensity for violence and its “endemic racial fears and hatreds.” The Project is therefore dedicated to “considering” the proposition that 1619, rather than 1776, should be regarded as “our nation’s birth year.”
The language is both sweepingly hyperbolic and coy, since it leaves open the possibility that all that is being suggested here is merely a “what if” thought experiment. Hence it is frankly difficult to know how seriously we should take such vast declarations, or the 1619 Project as a whole. It is not even clear what such a proposition could possibly mean.
Does it put forward the hypothesis that the introduction of these 20 individuals—who many scholars argue must have been indentured servants rather than slaves, since there was no provision for chattel slavery in the English common law—is to be taken to represent the nation’s real beginning, and thereby to supersede the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution, among many other conventional items, in understanding and accounting for the nation’s creation?
Does it mean that the existence of those elements we associate with American exceptionalism, such as individualism, political democracy, constitutional liberty, economic freedom, egalitarianism, inventiveness, and so on, are somehow to be attributable to slavery? Surely not, but then what could such statements mean?
Perhaps they are best understood as flights of fancy. But it would not be overly cynical to suspect that they are better understood as part of the Times’ journalistic battlefield preparation for the 2020 election. That interpretation is given fairly incontrovertible support by a revealing leaked transcript of a recent meeting between Times executive editor Dean Baquet and his staff writers, in which it becomes clear that some Times reporters are itching to inject the theme of America’s endemic racism into virtually all of the Times’ reporting, as a way of tilting public opinion toward whichever candidate the Democratic Party ends up nominating—and that Baquet is not the least bit inclined to resist his staff’s desires.
Be that as it may, we can say this much: Considered strictly as an exercise in historical understanding, and in deepening the public’s understanding of a profound issue in our national past, the Project represents a giant missed opportunity. It passes over the complex truth in favor of an exaggeration bordering on travesty. And if it has any influence, that influence will be as likely as not to damage the nation and distort its self-understanding in truly harmful ways—ways that will perhaps be most harmful of all to Americans of African descent, who do not need to be supplied with yet another reason to feel cut off from the promise of American life.
None of which is to deny that it is entirely fitting and proper to observe, with solemnity and respect, and no small measure of remorse, the 400th anniversary of this event. Nor can anyone familiar with the record of American history deny that slavery is one of that history’s central themes in our nation’s past—a brutal institution that existed in contradiction to the nation’s highest ideals, whose consequences we have had to work very hard to overcome, and have yet to overcome completely.
But to acknowledge that slavery and its effects have been woven deeply and indelibly into the fabric of American society, and will always be a part of the American story, is one thing. To say that they represent the predominant forces shaping American life down to the present—that is quite another.
There are two fundamental sets of questions, then, to be asked of the 1619 Project.
First, are its fundamental assertions plausible? Do they rest on a solid and uncontroversial scholarly basis? Is there an evidentiary basis at all for saying that “everything exceptional about American history” rests upon slavery?
The second set of questions involves what we are to make of the New York Times’ decision to take on this project in the way that it has. Is it the proper role of a journalistic organization, especially one as powerful as the Times, to promote and advocate for a particular interpretation of American history? Do such actions constitute responsible journalism? Do they contribute to the solution of our current problems through the introduction of honest, unflinching, and fair-minded consideration of the issues raised by the American experience with slavery?
Or are they doing something far less creditable, less balanced, and more polemical, using a distorted and one-sided account of our history to intervene in our current political wars, in ways that can only broaden and deepen those conflicts, and turn them into far worse forms of warfare?
The answer to the second set of questions will depend on what we conclude about the first set. And with them the Project seems to go astray almost immediately.
To begin with, there is an implication running through much of the 1619 Project that slavery is a subject that somehow is rarely if ever spoken of in American history. It would be hard to imagine a more absurd claim. The historical literature about the United States is vast, but the historiography of American slavery is exceptionally rich and deep. It has held a central place in American historical inquiry for most of the 20th and 21st centuries, attracting the attention of many of the most talented historians of those generations. The shelves of American libraries groan with books on the subject by many of the greatest American historians, from Oscar Handlin and John Hope Franklin to Winthrop Jordan, Edmund Morgan, Eugene Genovese, Lawrence Levine, David Brion Davis, Stanley Engerman, Gavin Wright, and so on. It is a subject taken up by great American writers from Melville and Stowe to Faulkner and Morrison. No account of the coming of the Civil War is complete, let alone intelligible, without detailed reference to the issue—and so every high-school student who has taken American history has been, is, and will be well acquainted with at least the political facts of American slavery.
And that is not all. One reason that slavery has been and remains such a lively field of study for scholars is that it has always been such a contentious one, in which feelings are strong and debates are forceful. There is always a strong current of moral electricity running through the subject, and that fact attracts historians of strong conviction, particularly those whose concern about present-day racial and labor issues leads them to search out the past for antecedents and answers. But the subject also is inherently controversial, since it speaks not only to issues of fundamental humanity, equality, and dignity, but also to the complex historical circumstances in which those values come to express themselves in actual human relations.
Some historians emphasize the grinding dehumanization and exploitative brutality of the institution; others, like Genovese himself, have gone deeper. In books such as Genovese’s Roll Jordan Roll (published in 1974), they have managed to plumb the psychological depths of the master-slave relationship, and the opportunities for resistance and psychological freedom that emerged even under what would seem to be the most comprehensive of tyrannies.
The variety of positions taken on almost every issue in this rich body of historiography about American slavery is both staggering and fascinating. Was the coerced labor of slavery a source of added wealth for the relentlessly profit-seeking proto-capitalist Southern planters who employed it? Was the slavery of the Old South something entirely different, a quasi-paternalistic institution, grounded in older pre-modern ideals of natural hierarchy and authority? Or was it, as Genovese believed, an awkward mixture of the two?
Was slavery an essentially static thing, the same in all circumstances? Or did it vary dramatically in different settings and time periods—sometimes relatively mild, as in Kentucky farms where slaves lived like hired hands, and sometimes horrifyingly cruel, as in the giant Louisiana sugar plantations?
And what are we to believe about the effect of slavery on those who were enslaved? Were slaves psychologically broken by the experience, just as the inmates of the Nazi concentration camps had been broken? Were slaves’ capacity for marriage and family formation pulverized as a by-product of the traffic in human flesh? Or did slaves develop resources for effective resistance, partly with the aid of a powerful hybrid religion that blended surviving African elements with the great biblical tales of exodus and liberation, stories from the master’s world that could nevertheless serve as figures of their own condition and their own hopes?
And to come closer to the issues animating the 1619 Project, there has always been a question about what might be called the longer legacy of slavery. Obviously on some level the existence of that legacy is indisputable; the question is how deep and how lasting. It would appear to be a fundamental but unstated premise of the 1619 Project that that legacy is clear, continuous, and devastating, and that the woes of the present are traceable back to that fateful day in August of 1619.
But that has not been the conclusion of several generations of scholars.
Indeed, the historian Herbert Gutman in his classic 1976 book The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925 argued that the black family was not devastated by slavery or by the immediate aftermath of slavery; instead, the book demonstrates, the black family proved remarkably resilient. According to Gutman, it was not until much later, in time periods well beyond the scope of his book, that the family dysfunctions that are now so evident gradually began to appear. If Gutman was right, the legacy of slavery could not be blamed for them.
It seems fairly clear that, to the extent that the Times’ assessment draws upon slavery scholarship, its sources have been scholars associated with the so-called new history of capitalism. They seek to link the alleged productivity of slavery to the triumph of capitalism in America—and thereby seek to transfer the stain of slavery to every malady of present-day American life, from income inequality to climate change to the decline of unions to the Great Recession of 2008.
Far from downplaying the effects of the legacy, these scholars play it up, finding it to be massive and all-determinative. In the process, as economic historian Philip Magness has brilliantly pointed out, they have virtually rehabilitated the claims of antebellum Southern planters that “Cotton is king,” and that slavery was the true source of the bulk of the nation’s wealth. For example, Cornell historian Edward Baptist’s 2014 book The Half Has Never Been Told argues that the wealth piled up by the minutely managed institutions of slavery was the source of all subsequent American wealth. Baptist asserts that almost half of the economic activity of the United States by the year 1836 was a product of slavery. That stunning statistic was cited recently by the journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates in his testimony before Congress, in favor of reparations for slavery.
The only problem is that Baptist’s statistic is demonstrably wrong. As Magness and others have shown, it is based on elementary accounting errors, incorrectly double- and triple-counting intermediate transaction costs in a way that greatly inflates the final figure. The correct number should have been closer to 5 percent than 50. Now, 5 percent is not an insignificant amount by any means, but it’s vastly different from half of the national economy.
This was not a one-off error. The reviews of Baptist’s book by distinguished scholars such as Trevor Burnard, Stanley Engerman, and Robert Paquette are among the most devastating that I have ever seen in a specialized professional setting for a book of its prominence. Burnard’s many criticisms can be summed up in his statement that the book’s “deficiencies are so serious as to cast considerable doubt about the capacity of the author to present evidence properly.”1
And yet when Philip Magness asked Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Times’ editor for the 1619 Project, whether she was aware of the problems with Baptist’s credibility, she airily dismissed his inquiry. “Economists dispute a few of Baptist’s calculations,” she responded, “but not the book itself nor its thesis.” If she really believes that, it can only be because she hasn’t been looking.
So no, there is not a scholarly basis for the marquee claims of the 1619 Project. Let us turn, then, to the question of the Times’s role.
Here we come to an example of a real failure in our educational system, something that the Times could actually help address. Most of my college students come to class without any larger context for their understanding of American slavery. They compare the realities of American life against an abstract standard of perfection and find them wanting. Moreover, they believe that slavery is uniquely American, and uniquely Southern, and that freedom and prosperity are the default position of the human race. They are shocked and disbelieving when they are told that slavery has existed all over the world, in most cultures and most time periods of human history, and that it has in fact been more the rule than the exception in human history. They do not know that the Greeks, the Romans, the Vikings, the Byzantines, the Ethiopians all embraced slavery. They are shocked to learn that American slavery was exponentially more humane than that of, say, Brazil, and that the American portion of the slaves imported from Africa was only about 4 to 5 percent of the total number imported to the Western hemisphere. They are shocked to learn about the role of Islam in the propagation of slavery. They are shocked to know that slavery still exists openly today in countries such as Mauritania, and our vaunted agencies of international governance do little to nothing about it.
Will the 1619 Project bring these facts to light? Will it seek to give us a better- informed perspective on the uniqueness of the liberty and prosperity and order that we enjoy, and the obstacles in our own history that we have managed to overcome to get where we are? Will it point out that the United States did not create slavery, did not create racism or racial prejudice, that these things are as old as human history and are the default position of human nature, absent some strong countervailing moral force; but that the United States, while having a history that is touched by these evils and while having participated in them, is also a country that has a larger history of which it can be proud, a history of seeking to overcome such things?
It could indeed do that, if it chose to. But that is not what it has chosen to do.
Instead, the Times has chosen to link the commemoration of 1619—a project that in itself is indisputably worthy and important—with a highly questionable scholarly agenda and an equally questionable journalistic one. It uses 1619 as a pretext for other things. I have no idea whether the political gambit of attributing comprehensive bred-in-the-bone racism to the overwhelming majority of Americans can be successful. I doubt that it can, but who knows? But I do know this:
Rooting the nation’s institutions in 1619 not only becomes a way of denying the grandeur of the nation’s actual founding a century and a half later, and of the institutions, including the world’s oldest constitution, that were established then; and of denying the nation’s immense moral progress since that time, and its capacity for even greater progress. Even more important, it becomes a massive distraction, a way of not thinking constructively about the problems that face us, and the changes that could bring progress. Do we really want to continue down that road? I hope that we won’t. But the example being set by the New York Times is far from encouraging.