Michael Barone / Jan. 24, 2020

Historians Say New York Times Gets History Wrong

We live in history-making times.

We live in history-making times. Not so much because of the impeachment trial going on in the Senate, which will make history only if it routinizes impeachments of impolite presidents when their opposition party gets control of the House, but because of what looks like an ongoing battle for control of the central narrative of American history.

That battle was opened back in August when The New York Times ran the first several articles of its 1619 Project. Named for the year when the first African slaves were offloaded in the dozen-year-old colony of Virginia, the central theme is that slavery and its effects are the central driving force in American history, the underpinning of everything from corporate capitalism to suburban sprawl.

The latest salvo on the other side comes from Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, writing in The Atlantic. Wilentz makes mincemeat of The 1619 Project lead Nikole Hannah-Jones’ contention that protecting slavery was a main motive of the American Revolution, of her statement that Abraham Lincoln “opposed black equality” and of her avowal that blacks fought “alone” for equal rights after the Civil War.

Wilentz was also a co-signer of a letter to The Times lamenting factual errors in its articles, along with Brown University’s Gordon Wood, Princeton’s James McPherson and City University of New York’s James Oakes. Wood is a premier historian of the American Revolution. “I don’t know of any colonist who said that they wanted independence in order to preserve their slaves,” he wrote in a separate letter to The Times’ editor-in-chief, as reported by the World Socialist Web Site, which has taken an interest in the controversy. “No colonist expressed alarm that the mother country was out to abolish slavery in 1776.”

McPherson, the leading scholar of the Civil War, said he was “disturbed by what seemed like a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lacked context and perspective on the complexity of slavery.” Oakes, a leading historian of Reconstruction, calls the idea that “slavery or racism is built into the DNA of America” one of several “really dangerous tropes.” He adds: “They’re not only ahistorical, they’re actually anti-historical. The function of those tropes is to deny change over time.”

Which helps explain why The 1619 Project makes short shrift of black leaders and their white allies who led successful fights to make enormous change. “One of the many odd things about the New York Times’s ‘1619 Project,’ on slavery,” notes Steven Hayward, author of the two-volume “The Age of Reagan,” “is that Martin Luther King Jr is barely mentioned (ditto Frederick Douglass).” Nor is there mention of A. Philip Randolph, organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, or the 1920s Harlem Renaissance.

Wilentz, McPherson and Oakes aren’t conservative polemicists; Wilentz is a strong partisan Democrat and supporter of the impeachment of President Donald Trump. Their point is that The 1619 Project is inaccurate in many important respects — on certain facts and, even more so, in the overall lesson it seeks to teach, as The Times promotes its use in schools.

As Wilentz told The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer, “To teach children that the American Revolution was fought in part to secure slavery would be giving a fundamental misunderstanding not only of what the American Revolution was all about but what America stood for and has stood for since the Founding.” Anti-slavery ideology was a “very new thing in the world in the 18th century … there was more anti-slavery activity in the colonies than in Britain.”

Or, as McPherson explains, every human society has had slavery, and the British Atlantic seaboard colonies were one of the first societies to spawn an anti-slavery movement, with several voting to abolish slavery in the first years of the republic.

One peculiar thing about The Times’ effort to seize control of the central narrative of American history is that it comes just a few years after American voters elected and reelected an African American president. Barack Obama was only the seventh president (and only the third Democrat, after Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt) to win a majority of the popular vote twice in the 188 years it had been the primary means of determining electoral votes.

The election of Donald Trump has been taken by many of his critics, not least of whom is The Times, as the election of a racist by a racist country — an irremediably racist country, if you take the view promoted by The 1619 Project. Slavery determines everything and always will. Serious historians criticize The Times’ inaccuracies because they know that sometimes things can change for the better, and have changed for the better. We should not forget.

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