The New York Times has chosen an odd time to issue a new version of its controversial 1619 Project. In the aftermath of off-year elections that highlighted Americans’ dissatisfaction with progressive attempts to rewrite history and introduce questionable, racially essentialist frameworks for curricula in public schools, the Times is doubling down on the strategy with the release of a book-length version of the project, originally the brainchild of Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones.
New York Times Magazine editor Jake Silverstein introduced the expanded project in an essay, “The 1619 Project and the Long Battle Over U.S. History,” which ostensibly engages the controversies that erupted over the project’s many factual and interpretive errors. In fact, and in keeping with the approach of the initial 1619 Project, Silverstein’s essay merely piles false claim upon false claim.
Silverstein begins by noting that the project was enthusiastically received, conceding only that “Substantive criticisms of the project began a few months later. Five historians, led by the Princeton scholar Sean Wilentz, sent a letter that asked the Times to issue ‘prominent corrections’ for what they claimed were the project’s ‘errors and distortions’.”
This is incorrect. The first substantive criticisms of the Project came from the World Socialist Website, which published an essay a few weeks after the Project was launched calling it, correctly, “a racialist falsification of American and world history.”
As socialists, WSW members, of course, were incensed by the Project’s failure to take class conflict into consideration. But they also offered a blistering critique of the Project’s approach to history, one that historians from across the political spectrum would soon echo: “Hannah-Jones and the other 1619 Project contributors—claiming that slavery was the unique ‘original sin’ of the United States, and discrediting the American Revolution and the Civil War as elaborate conspiracies to perpetuate white racism—have little to add for the rest of American history. Nothing ever changed. Slavery was simply replaced by Jim Crow segregation, and this in turn has given way to the permanent condition of racism that is the inescapable fate of being a ‘white American.’ It all goes back to 1619,” the WSW noted. “This is not simply a ‘reframing’ of history. It is an attack and falsification that ignores more than a half-century of scholarship.”
Silverstein also ignores the fact that historians had alerted the paper to both factual and conceptual errors in the Project before publication. Historian of slavery Leslie Harris, a supporter of the Project, ended up writing an essay for Politico whose title explains it all: “I Helped Fact-Check the 1619 Project. The Times Ignored Me.” Harris had “vigorously disputed” the claim sent to her by a fact-checker that the Revolutionary War was fought over slavery. “Although slavery was certainly an issue in the American Revolution,” Harris notes, “the protection of slavery was not one of the main reasons the 13 Colonies went to war.” According to Harris, “Despite my advice, the Times published the incorrect statement about the American Revolution anyway, in Hannah-Jones’ introductory essay.”
Other scholars, like Philip Magness, found serious factual errors in other essays in the project, including Matthew Desmond’s piece about slavery and capitalism, which Silverstein also ignores.
Silverstein also fails to acknowledge one of the Times’ most egregious actions regarding the 1619 Project: Its stealth-editing of the Project’s more controversial claims. In publicity packets, Times newsletters, and the printed text itself the Project stated loudly and often that it was intended to reimagine 1619 as the nation’s “true founding.” The print magazine states explicitly that 1619 and slavery is the nation’s “original sin, but it is more than that: It is the country’s very origin.”
When critics pointed out this was a statement unsupported by historical evidence, as well as a highly controversial and ideologically motivated way to teach the history of America’s founding, Hannah-Jones claimed this was a right-wing fiction and that she had never said 1619 was meant to be seen as the new founding date.
In fact, she’d been saying it on Twitter and in interviews for months: In an interview published in January 2020, for example, she said, “I certainly expected there’d be conservative pushback to this reframing of this idea that 1619 is our true founding, no one is more American than black folks, that we are perfecters of democracy.” The week after the print publication of the Project, she tweeted, “I argue that 1619 is our true founding. Also, look at the banner pic in my profile.” (The banner pic featured the date 1776 crossed out). “We are talking the founding of America. And that’s 1619,” she tweeted another time. No wonder Hannah Jones later erased all of her old tweets. They revealed what Reason’s Robby Soave correctly diagnosed as her penchant for dissembling and doublespeak about her own work.
As criticism of the project’s “true origins” claim mounted, the Times embarked on a stealth-editing project to memory-hole any evidence of this phrase. The original print statement read: “The 1619 project is a major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative” (emphasis added).
As Magness noted, the graphics featured in the magazine, like Hannah-Jones’ Twitter profile, showed 1776 crossed out and replaced with 1619. The stealth-edited version that later appeared on the Internet removed the “true founding” wording.
As Silverstein’s new essay reveals, the Project has always had a presentist, political motivation rather than an historical one. “2020 seemed to be offering a demonstration of the 1619 Project’s themes,” he writes, citing “racial disparities in Covid infections and deaths” and the killing of George Floyd. “In demonstrations around the country, we saw the language and ideas of the 1619 Project on cardboard signs amid huge crowds of mostly peaceful protesters gathering in cities and small towns,” Silverstein adds. We also saw 1619 spray-painted on the toppled statues of the nation’s founders, including a statue of George Washington in Portland. (As for the “mostly peaceful” claim, approximately 25 people died during the riots and protests, and Americans suffered millions in looting and property damage).
When the 1619 Project first emerged, many people criticized it not because they didn’t welcome a new understanding of the country’s history, but because they disliked the fact that something so controversial was being added to public school curricula (distributed by the Pulitzer Center) and forced on children. And now, as Silverstein boasts, the book (and a companion children’s book) will be additional resources used by schools across the country to teach a flawed story about the country’s founding.
What the new, expanded 1619 Project seeks to do is normalize an ideologically divisive story about this country’s founding and history by pushing questionable stories on public school students. It is neither factually accurate nor in keeping with what most Americans believe about their nation and its values. Its purpose isn’t to expand our understanding of our nation’s rich, complicated, and, yes, flawed past. It is to enforce ideological conformity in the present. That’s not a project; it’s a recipe for a more divided, self-censoring citizenry.