An eminent historian is so dedicated to leftism that, even after savaging the 1619 Project, he still can’t see that modern progressivism is our existential problem.
“They may look and look, yet not see; they may listen and listen, yet not understand.” Mark 4:12.
[This is a long post but, I hope, an illuminating one and one sufficiently interesting and informative to make the long read worthwhile.]
The 1619 Project, which originated in the New York Times, is the most outrageous fraud on this nation in 100 years. It is nothing more than a race hustler’s post-modernist rewrite of American history, explicitly intended to stir racial resentment in this nation for political ends. That is evil.
Princeton Professor Sean Wilentz is an honest and accomplished historian at the top of his profession. Some time ago, he engaged in a lengthy dispute with the Times over the falsehoods that riddled their 1619 Project. It is more than a bit ironic then that while Wilentz is intellectually honest enough to decry the way the 1619 Project bastardizes history, he is nevertheless so besotted with leftism that he seems incapable of realizing that his political positions gave rise to this dangerous academic fraud.
I am a late-comer to the Wilentz-Times dispute over the 1619 Project. I like to think it gives me—and this essay—objective distance. What I’ve found surprised me. On the one hand, it is heartening to see that there are still a few scholars like Prof. Wilentz who are intellectually honest about our nation’s history. On the other hand, it is deeply disheartening to see that most scholars are utter cowards and to learn the horrid calumnies they teach in this nation’s ivory towers.
Professor Wilentz’s laudable objectivity and fairness as to history does not extend to the modern world around him. He has a seemingly obsessive need to denigrate those on the right who raise the same arguments against the 1619 Project that he does, while giving a pass to those on his side of the aisle who actually composed the 1619 Project. Further, he seems unable or unwilling to see the reality, which is that he is part and parcel of the progressive academia that midwifed post-modernism generally, and the 1619 Project specifically.
II. Wilentz honestly challenges the 1619 Project’s accuracy.
According to Wilentz, the 1619 Project promotes “a narrow, highly ideological view of the American past, according to which white supremacy has been the nation’s core principle and chief mission ever since its founding.” He explains more in a recent article, The 1619 Project and Living in Truth:
…I began feeling uneasy a few minutes into reading the lead essay, by the project’s chief contributor, the journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, and then I read a key paragraph so fallacious and dogmatic that it hit me between the eyes. With a tone of absolute assurance, flagging the matter as crucial, the essay informed readers of what it called a “fact”—a fact “conveniently left out of our founding mythology”—specifically that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence” from Britain “was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.”
I instantly wondered how anyone even lightly informed about the history of either slavery or the American Revolution, could write that sentence. Unfortunately, the ensuing explanation only made matters worse. The British, the essay claimed, had grown “deeply conflicted” over slavery, and the British government was facing rising calls to end the Atlantic slave trade – a reform that would have “upended” the entire colonial economy, not just in the South. For that reason – the essay mentioned no other – the American colonists, North and South, believed that the British posed a threat to slavery, an institution they desperately wanted to protect. Rather than run the risk of losing slavery, the colonists declared their independence. The Revolution was supposedly, at its core, a reactionary, proslavery struggle to fend off abolition of slavery by the British.
In succeeding paragraphs, Wilentz recounted the reasons he was so appalled by the 1619 Project. To bullet-point those reasons:
- Nichole Hannah-Jones’s contentions were “historical gibberish.”
- “There is no evidence” in the entire historical record “of a single colonist expressing support for independence in order to protect slavery.”
- The claims made by the 1619 Project’s authors were based wholly “on imputation and inventive mindreading…”
- “The British were not “deeply conflicted” over slavery in 1776.”
- British efforts to end the slave trade did not happen “until years after the American Revolution.”
- There is no evidence that the “colonists believe[d] that ending the slave trade would severely damage their entire economy.”
- “It was the Americans, and not the British, who loudly called for abolishing the [slave] trade” during the colonial era.
- “At the time of the Revolution, there was considerably more in the way of anti-slavery politics in the colonies than in Britain proper.”
- “If [Hannah-Jones’s essay] were a high school history paper,” it would have earned a failing grade. “It’s rare, after all, to read a student get every single stated fact perfectly wrong, in support of a proposition for which there is no other evidence cited, on two of the most important topics in all of U.S. history, indeed, all of modern history, the causes of the American Revolution and the origins of antislavery.”
Prof. Wilentz also found it notable that Hannah-Jones based her “crude and falsified account of American history” on the discredited writing of a “Black studies historian” from the 1960s:
Although touted as startling revelation, the enterprise had an old-fashioned ring to it, reminiscent of long-discredited polemics from decades ago, including the writings of the Ebony magazine editor and Black studies historian, the late Lerone Bennett Jr., who compared Lincoln to Adolf Hitler. (Indeed, Hannah-Jones later credited Bennett as one of her chief inspirations.)
Wilentz’s historical conclusions and his challenge to Bennett’s “scholarship” are accurate. Moreover, Wilentz followed up his statements with a series of lectures on the issue of slavery and the Constitution, culminating in the publication of a book—No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding. It is an excellent book that I recommend highly.
As Wilentz points out in the book, the slave owners at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 pushed for the new Constitution to contain, first, formal recognition of slavery, and second, recognition of the property rights that they claimed in their slaves. On those issues, those opposed to slavery won the day. They refused to give slavery the imprimatur of Constitutional law, and they refused to grant the slave owners a constitutionally recognized right of property in their slaves.
Still, Wilentz makes clear that those opposed to slavery well understood that they had to allow slavery’s continued existence under state laws or the southern states would never agree to join in our constitutional experiment. Neither the slave-owners nor abolitionists felt satisfied when they left the Constitutional Convention, but both felt they had pushed their arguments as far as possible.
What resulted, Wilentz concludes, was a pragmatic document that did not endorse slavery but, instead, contained, intentionally or otherwise, all of the seeds for slavery’s abolition—a reality that led, in 1861, to the Civil War. Based on my independent research, I concur in toto.
Moreover, according to Wilentz’s Princeton bio page:
Professor Wilentz is currently at work on The Triumph of American Antislavery, a companion volume to The Rise of American Democracy, which will offer a comprehensive political history of the antislavery movement from its seventeenth-century origins to the eradication of slavery in 1865.
I look forward to when this book will be released. I find Prof. Wilentz to be a thorough and intellectually honest historian of the colonial and Federalist eras—which makes all the more astonishing his blindness about today’s left and his rabid willingness to defend it and to denigrate those who most support his scholarship.
III. Wilentz destroys his article’s integrity with his obsessive need to lob entirely false and dishonest attacks against conservatives who have made the same arguments he is making.
After reading Wilentz’s fact-based assessment of history, I was shocked to find that his intellectual curiosity did not extend to the modern world he inhabits. Frankly, he seems to be a mindless partisan when it comes to politics, smearing anyone to the right of Hillary Clinton. The professor seems to be as incurious and resistant to facts about modern America as Nicole Hannah-Jones is in her writing about America’s founding. The cognitive dissonance is amazing.
As a threshold matter, Wilentz makes the incredible charge that conservatives caused the 1619 Project:
It took me little time to comprehend the project’s purpose, or what appeared to be its purpose. Historians, if not the public, identify 1619 as the year the first African bondsmen arrived in the British colonies that would become the United States. Clearly, or so it seemed, the Times, at a fraught moment in the nation’s race relations, had commendably decided to popularize half a century’s worth of historical research on American slavery, race, and racism, as a rejoinder to the alarming spread of pro-Trump white nationalism.
This is outrageous. It is nothing more than the left making a last gasp play of the race card. The race card is bankrupt. America is not, as the Times would portray it, 1952 Selma writ large. Yet pushing that grotesque canard is quite literally what underlies the leftist push for power. If (or, I hope, when) it fails to move Americans, the progressive movement ends.
Obscene calumnies like this from an Ivy League professor who has never held a job outside academia are beyond the pale. I cannot adequately express my rage that this person has portrayed me and those like me as white nationalists.
I have never in my life acted with racist motivation. I have never in my life, while in the military or in conservative circles afterward, met a single conservative who espoused racism or, for that matter, have I met a conservative who would tolerate racism even for a moment.
The typical conservative, whether black or white, is color-blind and, shockingly, considers the content of one’s character to be more important than the melanin in one’s skin. It is the progressive left, not conservatives, who are fixated on race, and that as a tool for power, nothing else.
I have spent much of the first half of my life—in military college and then as an Infantry Officer—commanding soldiers of all colors and, on occasion, reporting to black commanding officers. I spent the second half of my professional life as an attorney. I frequently served as plaintiff’s attorney to vindicate minorities’ civil rights and, on occasion, as a defense attorney in civil rights matters.
I would be willing to bet that I have lived a far more integrated existence than this scurrilous professor, safe in his majority-white Ivory Tower ever thought of living. I’d also bet that, in my lifetime, I have done far more to advance and uphold minorities’ civil rights than he has or ever will.
With this in mind, it’s grotesque to see how Wilentz, in an article that is completely honest about America’s founding, nevertheless constantly includes comments about conservatives that read like a screed from a particularly disingenuous MSNBC host:
[T]he prolonged era of regressive conservative politics that culminated in the authoritarian and racially-charged presidency of Donald Trump has badly flattened historical perspectives in the United States, inside as well as outside the academy. Historians as well as their readers and students are increasingly open to simplified, pessimistic, and even cynical caricatures of our past, especially concerning the history of race relations. Under Trump, the complicated history of struggle over slavery and racial oppression – a history where progress has always required bi-racial cooperation and concerted government action against common foes – has faded before dogmatic versions of unceasing, virtually seamless white supremacy. Trump himself – and Fox News – bear heavy responsibility for the use of historical distortion for polarizing and even subversive ends.
These defamatory charges have no facts supporting them. They read like the fevered dreams of the bloggers at Daily Kos, only expressed with a bit more eloquence. Eventually, Wilentz claims that people to the right of the Clintons are a “right-wing attack squad” who have no desire to discuss race in America or the historic place of slavery, the implication being that conservatives are irredeemably racist.
As further evidence of his anti-conservative monomania, Wilentz later praises the Trotskyist World Socialist Web Site for providing a venue for several quite well-known and respected historians (Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, Gordon Wood, James Oakes) to oppose the 1619 Project on grounds essentially the same as Wilentz’s. The Trotskyists, says, Wilentz, are “intellectually honorable” for their willingness to “undertake a systematic critique of The 1619 Project.” And yet this tin-eared academic then immediately claims that the same arguments coming conservatives are illegitimate:
Likewise, I thought that, by appearing on a leftist website, my colleagues at least could not be conflated with the right-wing attack squad, headed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, which had been lambasting the project from the moment it appeared.
It’s ironic that Wilentz accords Gingrich and other conservatives the same treatment he received from Hannah-Jones. Or as Wilentz explains, “Hannah-Jones resorted to personal attacks on her critics, including a broad-brush dismissal of factual objections as the work of biased ‘white historians.’”
What’s most significant, given how meticulous his historic analysis is, is the fact that Wilentz fails to explain how any issue that the “right-wing attack squad” raised against the 1619 Project differs from his own comments or why any such comments from the “right-wing” would be illegitimate. He does not explain why the Trotskyists are brave and intellectually honest while anyone to Wilentz’s right, raising the exact same issues, is not. It’s this type of mindless hostility that has poisoned this nation.
IV. As a general matter, Wilentz is either fatally naïve, completely blind, or dishonestly partisan when it comes to the left’s role in creating an intellectual mindset supporting and promoting the utterly fallacious, but very damaging, 1619 Project.
Prof. Wilentz gives the impression that he has no idea that he and his fellow leftists created the movement that underlies the 1619 Project, a movement determined to fundamentally change this nation through a power-grab wholly outside of the Constitution and, in some cases, congressional customs dating back almost to this nation’s Founding. There is absolutely nothing liberal about this program. It is a tragedy for this country that we may well not survive, at least not without bloodshed.
Wilentz has a deeply unrealistic view of modern leftism (aka progressivism). In all fairness, he is a septuagenarian, and his views were likely carved in stone 50 years ago. Back then, the Times pretended objective non-partisanship and, indeed, though Democrat in its editorial orientation, did have a more intellectually diverse staff. (One of my father’s deeply conservative friends was a staff writer then.)
That was before the deadly toxins of post-modernism, critical race theory, third-wave feminism, and cancel culture began to germinate in academia without restraint by any academic rigor or standards. Back then, the “liberal” movement still produced intellectually honest luminaries that every American could support, such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Zell Miller, and Joe Lieberman.
That world is long past and, while the 1619 Project forced Wilentz to process at least one facet of its disappearance, he still does not understand the ramifications of its passing. If he did, he would not believe that the primary danger from the 1619 Project is that it is amenable to “right-wing” attacks. It is, therefore, tragic-comic to read his intellectual semi-journey, and my hat is off to him for honestly recounting it.
Wilentz writes that, when he first read 1619 Project essays in the New York Times Magazine, he was “surprised that the New York Times would lend its name and credibility to such a crude and falsified account of American history.” Wilentz immediately noted that many of the factual errors stemmed from Lerone Bennett’s discredited writings, which even the New York Times had once debunked:
As for the outright factual errors, I imagined that some bright young historian who could use the attention would write a letter to the editor of the Times Magazine, asking for corrections – corrections that, I thought, the Times, adhering to its longstanding professional standards, of course would make.
The Professor admitted to being mystified when no such letters were forthcoming. To his credit, he gave a lecture on the matter, only finding out later that “four highly distinguished historians—three of them old friends and colleagues, the fourth a scholar I greatly respected—had already been giving interviews to an online forum called the World Socialist Web Site, a Trotskyist venue, taking The 1619 Project seriously to task for its false statements…”
It struck me as a little odd that these well-known historians—none of them socialists as far as I knew, let alone Trotskyists—would appear in such a relatively obscure place. Surely, I thought, one of the leading academic journals would have given them a platform.
It never occurred to Wilentz that mainstream journals had deliberately banned these professors. Nor did he consider the possibility that the 1619 Project was purely a political narrative, meaning that neither the NYT nor those supporting it were interested in its truth or falsity.
Operating from this naivete, Wilentz coordinated with these four other historians to craft a circular letter noting that the 1619 Project lacked any factual basis. They sent their letter to a host of other historians, black and white, male and female, to sign. Wilentz professed surprised as it became apparent that no other academics would sign on to this statement:
There were, to be sure, some early signs around the time we were drafting the letter that trouble was brewing. Hoping to expand the group beyond the five of us, we sent copies of an early draft letter confidentially to various colleagues – Black and white, men and women, scholars with special expertise in the fields that most concerned us – asking if they would be willing to sign as well, and to send any revisions they might have to suggest. (As all five of us are white, we were especially hopeful that one or more Black historians would sign on.) However, we received very few responses, and those that arrived gave one excuse or another for declining. It seemed clear that although many of our colleagues agreed with our criticism as they explained in private, they were wary of saying so publicly. That should have been a warning that we were treading into toxic territory, . . .
Some people clearly were infuriated at our pointing out errors that needing fixing, interpreting any criticism at all as hostile act. Even if the errors, on subjects as vital as slavery and the American Revolution, seriously undermined the project’s credibility as well as its interpretation, pointing them out publicly seemed to be an act of betrayal that amounted to intolerable heresy. Yet we remained confident when we received a friendly email from one of the Times editors acknowledging receipt of our letter, which seemed to affirm our good faith. We then received word that the Magazine would indeed be publishing the letter in late December. I imagined that the Times would run the usual brief editor’s note, own up to the mistakes, and revise the copy that appeared on the newspaper’s website.
The five historians’ letter is behind a Times paywall, as is the response from Jake Silverstein, a Times editor. Because these are important public documents that help serve as the basis for this intellectual critique about the leftist attack on American history, I have included both missives at the end of this post. The historians’ letter is in blue text; the Times’s response is in red.
What’s striking about the five historians’ letter is that they are certain that both the Times and the 1619 Project acted with only the most laudable motives:
We applaud all efforts to address the enduring centrality of slavery and racism to our history. Some of us have devoted our entire professional lives to those efforts, and all of us have worked hard to advance them. Raising profound, unsettling questions about slavery and the nation’s past and present, as The 1619 Project does, is a praiseworthy and urgent public service….
I am unsure if the five historians crafted this passage simply to soften their critique for the Times’s editors and readers or if they actually believe what they’ve written. If it is the latter, then they are completely out of touch with today’s reality.
The resistance of the people who wrote and published the 1619 Project to correct their massive errors can only lead one to conclude that the 1619 Project was not written to illuminate history and, by extension, instruct our future. It was not embraced by the NYT because it shined a fair and honest light on history. There is nothing praiseworthy in the 1619 Project, and the only urgent public service connected threreto was and is in correcting the record and stopping this racial pot-stirring from being taught to our nation’s children. The 1619 Project was designed to grossly lie about our past towards an ideological end, regardless of the cost to our nation. That is evil and, as it is now the overriding mission in many university departments, one wonders how any of these “historians” have survived in modern academia.
What happened next is both expected and, again, a bit of a tragicomedy. The Times’s editor Jake Silverstein rejected the historians demand for corrections, as you can read in his Response at the end of this post.
Wilentz, to his great credit, was not done. He crafted another response to Silverstein—The 1619 Project and Living in Truth— though it too was not published in any major academic journal in America nor in the Times or a newspaper of similar stature. Instead, he published his response in an obscure journal published in Central Europe, Opera Historica. I am unsure if that is a step up from the World Socialist Network.
It could have been worse, though. At least the Professor did not have to appear on, God forbid, Fox News. And you just know that, whenever he sees those two words, he hears Dixie playing in the background and visualizes racist police spraying the fire hose on black marchers. He most certainly deletes the historic fact that those racists manning the hoses were Democrats, the forebearers of today’s race-obsessed Democrats.
Had he gone to Fox News, Wilentz would have found himself rubbing elbows with, by and large, a host of intellectually honest people, some conservatives, some moderates, and a few liberals as well, all of whom would stand ready and willing to give him and his opinions a very fair and respectful hearing. To advise Wilentz as Rev. Jonathan Mayhew advised Royal Governor Bernard about Mayhew’s coterie of Congregationalists in 1762, “…those persons…are of such an irreproachable character that it would be no disgrace even to your Excellency, to be sometimes, or often, seen in such honest company.”
Ultimately, Wilentz is philosophical about the 1619 Project and its consequences:
[S]ubordinating truth to the demands of justice cannot be just, and may be a big step toward creating injustice, even tyranny…. “Living in truth,” as Václav Havel described it, must be the basis for more than politics, including the study of history. It appears to be a lesson that many American historians, in far less onerous but still fragile and worrisome situations, must now learn for themselves.
V. The Times’s response to the five historians’ letter is a perfect distillation of the historic dishonesty and modern political activism behind the 1619 Project and American leftism in general.
As noted above, the Times’s response to the historians is included at the end of this post. Wilentz had his own take on what the Times’s Silverstein had to say. It boils down to shock and dismay that Silverstein was uninterested in any historic facts that contradicted the all-important narrative:
The lengthy reply from the Magazine’s editor, Silverstein, published alongside our letter and more than three times longer, was deeply disappointing. Silverstein refused to make any corrections because, he countered, there was nothing to correct! He then spent the remainder of his lengthy reply unintentionally refuting that claim. Silverstein’s evasions showed that, in fact, he knew very well that Hannah-Jones’s essay demanded corrections, but that he had decided to opt for damage control rather than responsibility. Instead of providing evidence to back up Hannah-Jones’s erroneous arguments that our letter identified, he substituted new arguments of his own, as if they were the same as Hannah-Jones’s, and defended them. (On even cursory inspection, these substitute assertions, based in part on a debunked book by a pair of non- historians, proved just as erroneous as Hannah-Jones’s originals.)
He ignored our objections about the project’s false statements on British antislavery, the slave trade, and American Revolution, as if pretending that errors don’t exist is the same thing as proving they don’t exist. He brought up details that Hannah-Jones never discussed, about the landmark Somerset decision in Britain in 1772 and the promised liberation of Virginia slaves by a British officer in 1775, as if on a frantic mission to find something, anything, which might prove that a chief purpose of the Revolution was proslavery. As I would explain in a later essay of my own, these portions of Silverstein’s reply misreported basic facts, turning them into their opposite, and cropped historical documents, thereby altering their meaning.
Even then, however, flimsy as the corrupt documentation was, it did nothing to affirm the project’s account of slavery and the Revolution. Then Silverstein turned to prevarication. To our objection about The 1619 Project’s absurd claim that Blacks had to fight for civil rights after the Civil War for the most part on their own, he said nothing, although he did remark that African-Americans have taken the lead in struggles to secure the rights of minority groups, a perfectly accurate and perfectly obvious observation that contradicted nothing in our letter.
How much Silverstein, who is no historian, actually believed in the truth of this arcane nonsense, or wanted to believe in it, or invented it himself, is unclear….
We’ll stop there for a moment and I will interject my own observations as to the degree to which Silverstein is not just wrong, but terribly, dishonestly, horribly wrong. I am referring to this passage in his reply to the historian’s letter, where he claims as a factual matter that the narrative of the 1619 Project is supported by the historical record. I add my own thoughts here simply because the general references Wilentz makes to Silverstein’s odious lies on the issues below could do with more context. This from Silverstein’s response:
One main episode that these and other historians refer to is the landmark 1772 decision of the British high court in Somerset v. Stewart. The case concerned a British customs agent named Charles Stewart who bought an enslaved man named Somerset and took him to England, where he briefly escaped. Stewart captured Somerset and planned to sell him and ship him to Jamaica, only for the chief justice, Lord Mansfield, to declare this unlawful, because chattel slavery was not supported by English common law.
. . . [T]he ruling caused a sensation nonetheless….As Waldstreicher writes, “The black-British alliance decisively pushed planters in these [Southern] states toward independence.”
The culmination of this was the Dunmore Proclamation, issued in late 1775 by the colonial governor of Virginia, which offered freedom to any enslaved person who fled his plantation and joined the British Army. A member of South Carolina’s delegation to the Continental Congress wrote that this act did more to sever the ties between Britain and its colonies “than any other expedient which could possibly have been thought of.” The historian Jill Lepore writes in her recent book, “These Truths: A History of the United States,” “Not the taxes and the tea, not the shots at Lexington and Concord, not the siege of Boston; rather, it was this act, Dunmore’s offer of freedom to slaves, that tipped the scales in favor of American independence.”
Wrong, wrong, wrong! Let me offer just three points to explain:
It’s laughably false that Dunmore’s Proclamation was related to Somerset’s Case or that it was the culmination of events that began with Somerset’s Case.
Somerset’s Case and Dunmore’s Proclamation are wholly unrelated. Nothing. including a wholly fictitious “Black-British alliance” from 1772 to 1775 ties the two events together.
Somerset’s case, a lawsuit brought on behalf of a slave brought to England, held only that that slavery on the English mainland was unlawful. Explicitly, it was not a case that applied a single mile outside of the British mainland, nor did the author of the opinion, Lord Mansfield, suggest that the opinion would apply to slavery in the British possessions. The contrary is true.
In his opinion deciding the case, Lord Mansfield first noted that England had legislatively abolished its own unique brand of feudal slavery (“the statute of tenures had abolished villeins regardant to a manor”) in the distant past. Mansfielf then stated that the continuation of slavery in England depended on “positive law” — i.e., a separate legislative act reestablishing slavery in England — and that no such positive law existed. Almost in the same breath, Mansfield said that different locations had such positive laws and that such laws were valid and of lawful effect in the jurisdictions to which they applied:
The power of a master over his slave has been extremely different, in different countries. The state of
slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory.
Nothing in Somerset’s case suggested that Britain intended to override the legislative acts authorizing slavery in any of its colonial possessions. It flows then that there was no “Black-British alliance” between 1772 and Dunmore’s Proclamation in 1775. The British government was not doing a single thing to suggest to anyone that it would bring about the end of slavery in any of its colonial possession. This imaginary “Black-British alliance” is a modern fiction created solely to advance the deadly and evil narrative of the 1619 Project.
Moreover, slavery and slave-trading continued in every British colonial possession between 1772 and 1775. The NYT cites to no evidence that would indicate even a minute slowdown in the transportation of enslaved Africans into the British possessions in the New World.
Lastly, Dunmore’s Proclamation, issued on November 7, 1775, was decidedly not a call to free all slaves. It was one Royal Governor’s strategic attempt, acting on his own authority, to regain control of his Virginia colony. He did not offer all slaves amnesty. Instead, he offered freedom only to the slaves of Patriots, provided that they join with the British Army. Specifically:
. . . I do hereby further declare all indentured Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels) free, that are able and willing to bear Arms, they joining his Majesty’s Troops, as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing this Colony to a proper Sense of their Duty, to his Majesty’s Crown and Dignity. . . .
The slaves whom loyalists owned were not being offered freedom. Nor, as I understand it, did Lord Dunmore ever offer his own slaves their freedom.
It’s laughably false to claim that Dunmore’s Proclamation “did more to sever ties” between Britain and its colonies than any other event leading to the Revolution.
By the time Dunmore made his proclamation on November 7, 1775, every single colony had already rid itself of its British government and, but for occupied Boston, severed British control. Moreover, the members of the First Continental Congress had already unanimously endorsed the Suffolk Resolves in September 1775, an act King George III interpreted as the de facto permanent break with Britain because it contained a call for the colonies to prepare to defend themselves.
The timing alone highlights the fact that not a single colony based its decision to sever ties with Britain on Dunmore’s Proclamation. That even included Virginia, where Governor Dunmore had retreated to a ship in June 1775, relinquishing control of the colony months before his proclamation.
There is no question that, in late 1775, Dunmore momentarily created the fear of a race war in the deep South, where Patriot and Loyalist slave owners alike were stunned by his attempt to raise a slave army. In terms of the revolution’s progress, though, that fear amounted to nothing of substance. It was a flash in the pan. On December 9, 1775, almost a month to the day after Dunmore issued his proclamation, his dream of an Ethiopian Regiment made up of the slaves of rebels died with the Ethiopian Regiment at the Battle of Great Bridge, when the regiment was routed. What remained of it was totally destroyed in the ensuing months from small pox and other diseases.
Dunmore’s proclamation surely caused angst but it did not lead the colonists to take a single concrete act towards revolution. Indeed, new action would not come until a few months later, when Thomas Paine’s Common Sense took the colonies by storm and the Second Continental Congress approved an edited version of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. Notably, Paine’s Common Sense, credited by many with moving the colonists to support complete separation from Britain, does not mention Dunmore’s Proclamation. Further, in the Declaration, Dunmore’s act received only a passing reference ([The King] “has excited domestic insurrections amongst us . . .”) far down on the list of the “long train of abuses” that Congress itemized in the to justify permanently severing ties with Britain.
If the Silverstein letter accurately represents Jill Lepore’s scholarship, God help us all. I will confess that, when I read the editor’s citation to “Jill Lepore” for a proposition with no basis in objective fact, I had to look up Ms. Lepore online. I honestly expected her to be a high school teacher of questionable intellect.
It turns out she occupies a chair at Harvard and teaches both law and history. I have not been so shocked since, in 2017, I read Harvard history professor Joyce Chaplin’s assertion that the United States only began its existence as a nation after it was recognized in international law by the 1783 Treaty of Paris. At any rate, I merely write to say that I hope the editor is portraying Harvard “Professor” Lepore’s scholarship in a false light because that would relieve her of the burden of being both stupid and ignorant.
VI. In the end, when given a choice between wisdom and blind partisanship—the red pill or the blue—Wilentz chose the blue pill and the consolation of aligning himself with a political movement that exists to destroy America — and which ironically enough, also means destroying much of Wilentz’s life’s work.
Through his own recounting, we’ve seen that Wilentz was just exposed to the toxins of post-modernism, racialism, disparate and unequal treatment, and finally, cancel culture running rampant in this country. Every single one of those things is, from alpha to omega, a progressive creation birthed and raised to maturity in academia. Were this issue not serious to the point of being existential—we are in danger of being permanently balkanized into competing tribes and people are having their lives destroyed, some even murdered, over this obscenity—I would sit back with a large bowl of popcorn and enjoy the schadenfreude.
So, has the good Professor learned a single thing from his odyssey that suggests he is undergoing a serious reappraisal of the world about him and how he should respond? No. Quite the opposite according to his own words:
[I]n the spring of 2021, trustees at the University of North Carolina interceded to deny Hannah-Jones a tenured professorship at the university’s journalism school, I felt it especially important to join with a more conservative colleague in criticizing the trustees’ undue interference with faculty authority and indifference to academic freedom, as much as Hannah-Jones’s appointment was open to serious question.
This is mind-numbing. What in God’s name has Hannah-Jones done, besides authoring the single greatest calumny on this nation of the past century and, then when called on it, defending herself by playing the race card on Wilentz? Her toxic historic lies are now taught to vulnerable children in our grade schools. This is criminal. Someone explain to me how any of this is even remotely acceptable. And yet Wilentz thinks this truly evil woman should be given a tenured chair at a public university, apparently embracing a standard-free “academic freedom” as the highest moral good. We’ll come back to that later.
For the moment, let us look at the fact that Wilentz was treated to an education in the reality of modern academia and progressive politics—and he’s been refreshingly honest about the treatment the gatekeepers in academia and the media meted out to him. He got to see first-hand how cancel culture kept virtually all of his fellow academics from speaking the truth. He has seen how the tremendous contagion of post-modernism has elevated the desired narrative over truth and was surprised to find that both the media and academia embrace this (to him) new reality. He has seen how Democrats (or leftists or progressives, or any other of the names behind which they hide) will attack as an enemy anyone challenging the preferred narrative. Leftists explicitly tarred him as a racist and dismissed his work as illegitimate because of his skin color.
To challenge his detractors, he was forced to publish his ideas outside of America. He has accurately forecast that. in the words of Václav Havel, “[S]ubordinating truth to the demands of justice cannot be just, and may be a big step toward creating injustice, even tyranny.”
If that quote is accurate, and I believe it is, then the truth behind it potentially spells the end of our experiment as a constitutional republic. We are not a nation joined by blood, common culture, or a single religion. We are joined by laws and, ultimately, by our Constitution. We are either a melting pot that joins in venerating the Constitution or we are nothing but a seething cauldron of tribes whom the left pits against each other based upon lies. A rather famous politician in our history once observed that such a “house divided cannot stand.”
Yet it seems that Wilentz will only shrug his shoulders at all of it, ignoring the reality hitting him in the face. Or perhaps he simply does not wish to acknowledge that he and his fellow travelers in the Democrat party are responsible for the reality we face—and that, to his dismay, has affected him so directly.
I say the Democrat party created this reality because every single bit of the anecdotal evidence I have seen over the past half-century supports that assessment. In fairness, anecdotal evidence is not a deep dive study. I am wholly open to reevaluating my beliefs in light of contradictory evidence that I can reasonably verify.
With that proviso, my beliefs are as follows: Sometime around 1968, the neo-Marxist left began to merge with the progressive left. They took control of the civil rights movement and much of higher education. These deeply cynical people made a wholly bastardized version of “civil rights” the very foundation of their politics. As I wrote a decade ago:
While Republicans sought equality, what the far left sought when they hijacked the civil rights movement was something different entirely. The far left fundamentally altered the nature of the movement. They imprinted the movement with identity politics, grossly distorting its goals – a level playing field for all Americans – and creating a Marxian world of victimized classes entitled to special treatment. The far left has been the driver of reverse racism and sexism for the past half century….
The far left did not merely hijack the civil rights movement, they also wrote over a century of American history, turning it on its head. They managed to paint the conservative movement and the Republican Party as the prime repositories of racism and sexism. The far left has for decades played the race and gender cards to counter any criticism of their policies and to forestall any reasoned debate. It is their central narrative. It has done incalculable harm to our nation.
These neo-Marxist progressives were particularly powerful in academia, and they began to establish victim’s studies departments, the two most notable being African-American Studies Departments and Gender Studies (which includes Women’s and Queer studies). These departments became notorious repositories for students unable to handle the coursework in any of the actual academic disciplines. Moreover, the institutions of higher learning seem to have left these departments to fester, not holding them to any academic standards for fear of being labeled racist, sexist, or homophobic. It was and is the horrendous soft bigotry of low expectations that actually defines the paternalist, progressive left.
Therefore, it’s not surprising that these victim studies departments have embraced the flabby theory called post-modernism and, particularly, the toxic version of it that seems to have come to America from France on the pen of Michel Foucault, a gay pedophile, nihilist, and atheist. To simplify postmodernism to its basics, the people who embrace it reject all objective facts but for those that fit their desired narrative. In place of the rejected facts, they substitute whatever narrative they want, then demand that everyone accept their narrative as actual reality. Neat trick, that. John Adams, who famously said, “Facts are stubborn things,” must weep in the Heavens.
Post-modernism is at the heart of every major evil in America today, for the people who buy into this obscenity, ironically enough, see everything only in black and white terms. They stand for the moral and the good. Anyone who disagrees with them is immoral, evil, and must be silenced, driven from the public square, punished with the police power of government, or simply subject to random physical attack. Post-modernism is swiftly creating a dystopian post-constitutional world.
You don’t have to trust me to accept this for examples abound. Let’s begin with the horrible wages of post-modernism. They can be seen everywhere in modern society, from claims that there are 112 genders to the assertion that math is racist to the offices of physicians performing surgeries and giving drugs to children in order to give them a fantasy gender that can never fully be reversed.
My favorite example of post-modernism comes from a letter that “black students” at Pomona College wrote several years ago after they had succeeded in preventing Heather MacDonald from speaking. The College President published a letter, holding no one liable for their actions, while impotently bemoaning the loss of freedom of speech. The black students responded to this feckless letter. Here’s just a small snippet of their near-incomprehensible screed written in the language of post-modernism:
…Thus, if “our mission is founded upon the discovery of truth,” how does free speech uphold that value? The notion of discourse, when it comes to discussions about experiences and identities, deters the ‘Columbusing’ of established realities and truths (coded as ‘intellectual inquiry’) that the institution promotes….
…[Y]our statement contains unnuanced views surrounding the academy and a belief in searching for some venerated truth. Historically, white supremacy has venerated the idea of objectivity, and wielded a dichotomy of ‘subjectivity vs. objectivity’ as a means of silencing oppressed peoples. The idea that there is a single truth–’the Truth’–is a construct of the Euro-West that is deeply rooted in the Enlightenment, which was a movement that also described Black and Brown people as both subhuman and impervious to pain. This construction is a myth and white supremacy, imperialism, colonization, capitalism, and the United States of America are all of its progeny. The idea that the truth is an entity for which we must search, in matters that endanger our abilities to exist in open spaces, is an attempt to silence oppressed peoples. We, Black students, exist with a myriad of different identities. We are queer, trans, differently-abled, poor/low-income, undocumented, Muslim, first-generation and/or immigrant, and positioned in different spaces across Africa and the African diaspora. The idea that we must subject ourselves routinely to the hate speech of fascists who want for us not to exist plays on the same Eurocentric constructs that believed Black people to be impervious to pain and apathetic to the brutal and violent conditions of white supremacy.
The idea that the search for this truth involves entertaining Heather Mac Donald’s hate speech is illogical. If engaged, Heather Mac Donald would not be debating on mere difference of opinion, but the right of Black people to exist. Heather Mac Donald is a fascist, a white supremacist, a warhawk, a transphobe, a queerphobe, a classist, and ignorant of interlocking systems of domination that produce the lethal conditions under which oppressed peoples are forced to live. Why are you, and other persons in positions of power at these institutions, protecting a fascist and her hate speech and not students that are directly affected by her presence?
Advocating for white supremacy and giving white supremacists platforms wherefrom their toxic and deadly illogic may be disseminated is condoning violence against Black people. Heather Mac Donald does not have the right to an audience at the Athenaeum, a private venue wherefrom she received compensation. Dictating and condemning non-respectable forms of protest while parroting the phrase that “protest has a celebrated” place on campus is contradictory at best and anti-Black at worst….
If you can, read the whole letter. You’ll see that the students who wrote it are not involved in a search for truth. They are highly radicalized ideologues who are utterly convinced that they occupy the moral high ground and, therefore, they are impervious to considering contrary facts, as well as being determined to ensure that no one else may hear those contrary facts either. Frankly, the professors across academia who teach this to their students should be tarred and feathered before they are dismissed out of hand and never allowed near another student.
But that is just it. They have not been driven out of town on a rail as they deserve. Instead, they have been allowed to introduce their post-modernism without any rigor or discipline in progressive academia, and it has grown like a cancer. We now have students and professors alike ruminating in post-modernist, fact-free narratives in which they paint themselves as heroic victims of evil white men practicing some imaginary white nationalism, while people like Wilentz give them cover by bemoaning evil Republican attack squads.
For a second example, we have Ibram Henry Rogers, a multi-millionaire race hustler and Black Studies professor now known as Ibram X. Kendi. He holds a Ph.D. in African American Studies from Temple University. You may judge for yourself the value of that as you read what Prof. John McWhorter, a black man who is a Columbia University linguist, tells the truth about Dr. Kendi and, by association, every African American Studies Department:
Ibram Kendi is someone who, in the role of social scientist, proposes a “Department of Antiracism,” in neglect of a little something called the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. Kendi’s insight on education, untethered to any engagement with pedagogical or psychometric theory, is that we should evaluate students on the basis of their “desire to know” rather than anything they actually do. This is a person whose most ready counsel to the public about interracial adoption is that white adopters might still be racists even if they don’t think they are.
Kendi is a professor who, in the guise of being trained in intellectual inquiry, bristles at real questions. He dismisses them as either racism or as frustrated responses to envy, as if he bears not proposal but truth. His ideas are couched in simple oppositions mired somewhere between catechism and fable, of a sort alien to what intellectual engagement in the modern world consists of, utterly foreign to exchange among conference academics or even Zooming literati. And on that, let us remember that he is also someone who, into the twenty-first century, was walking around thinking of whites as “devils” à la Minister Farrakhan.
Here’s the rub: The people who sit drinking all of this in and calling it deep wouldn’t let it pass for a minute if he were white.
There is, in short, a degree of bigotry in how this man is received by people of power and influence.
In which academic discipline is this circular, naive, deer-caught-in-the-headlights response to a basic and urgent question considered insightful or excellent?
A national culture exempting this (which, sadly, is typical of him) from judgment is unintentionally racist itself. pic.twitter.com/n493NpjFmx
— John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) June 1, 2021
Leaving Kendi aside, I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that Nicole Hannah-Jones earned her B.A. at Notre Dame in African-American studies. Nor was I surprised when the Times’s editor defended the research underlying the 1619 Project by saying that numerous African-American Studies professors had either developed or approved it. There is zero academic rigor in these departments because feelings substitute for facts and because any factual challenge to those feelings can be met successfully with the race card. I have no expectation that we will ever see anything of objective honesty or anything with scholastic value coming out of any victims’ studies departments. Indeed, the only thing produced in these departments are national toxins. The departments should be burned to the ground and the earth salted.
Let’s turn now to yet one more example of this lack of any legitimate scholarship, this time from the Chair of Emory University’s African Studies Program, another race hustler, this one named Carol Anderson. Anderson recently wrote a ludicrous book, The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America. Among other things, the book blurb promises readers the following:
Black Americans have endured a fractured citizenship since James Madison drafted the Second Amendment primarily to ensure white men could suppress potential slave revolts.
For instance, she asserts that the “well-regulated militia” clause refers to slave patrols, not protection from government overreach. Legal architecture since has limited and outright prohibited Black Americans from owning firearms by perpetuating the narrative that they are a threat.
“The evidence shows that the amendment is based on a foundational fear of Black people,” Anderson says. “We need to document this ongoing fear of Blackness in American society if we are going to have a full discussion about the Second Amendment today.”
These are stunning claims. Now in fairness, I have not bought the book and I don’t intend to. Having said that, my knowledge about Second Amendment history and militias from the Anglo-Saxons to the Founders is extensive. I have never turned up a single fact that would even remotely support this “professor’s” contentions.
Even more amazing than these historically risible claims is that no one with a big platform, and especially no one in academia (hint, hint: Wilentz, who should know better) has challenged Anderson’s claims. Instead, she got the softest of softball interviews as she plugged her latest obscenity on CNN and NPR. No one in media or academia called her out on the obvious falsity of her claims, or even questioned her on the role of English history in the formation of the Second Amendment, given that it was the Amendment’s wellspring.
Let me explain. An English subject’s duty to keep and bear arms went back to a time well before 1619. The duty goes back to the Dark Ages after the Romans left the British Isles and the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Danes moved in. By around 1000 A.D. the Anglo-Saxons had a recognizable militia system in place, which the Norman kings made official following the Norman Conquest in 1066.
By the 1181 Assize of Arms, King Henry II required that all Christian “freemen” in England keep and bear arms in service of the King. This was soon modified by the Assize of Arms of 1252 and then the Statute of Westminster of 1285, to fold the armed militia duty into the proto-police force of English history. Thus, they instituted the requirement that, when constables raised a “hue and cry,” the armed men in each village would assist with capturing lawbreakers resisting arrest.
We can say with certainty that, by the end of the 17th century, it was the unchallenged custom and practice of the English people to keep and bear arms and that had been the case for roughly 1,000 years. We can also say with certainty that, for much of that history, a subset of that right was the freeman’s duty both to act as a militia and to act as part of a local police force.
We cannot say for certain whether the English people during these centuries considered the right to keep and bear arms a private one, but that’s only because the issue never arose before 1688. We can definitively say, after 1689, when King James II forced them to resolve the issue, that the English considered the right to keep and bear arms a private right, inherent in every citizen. This right was cemented over 100 years before our Second Amendment was ratified.
The reason the British cemented the right in the individual was that King James II, who reigned from 1685 to 1688, systematically began to disarm Protestants. The English rebelled against him, forcing him to abdicate to during the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
Immediately following his departure, Parliament listed Protestants’ fundamental rights, foremost among which was the right to keep and bear arms. The new monarchs, King William and Queen Mary, acknowledged this right when they signed the English Bill of Rights of 1689.
It is this history that made the colonists certain that they, as English citizens, had the complete right to “keep and bear arms.” That right has everything to do with English law and nothing to do with black chattel slavery outside of England.
I am not sure where any of the above-uncontested facts fit into Professor Carol Anderson’s dark post-modernist fantasy about the Second Amendment. Moreover, both the majority and dissenting opinions in District of Columbia v. Heller, 128 S. Ct. 2783 (2008) discuss the Second Amendment’s history and its derivation from the English Bill of Rights. Neither of those analyses has so much as a single hint to support Carol Anderson’s “facts.”
There’s one last piece of anecdotal evidence I will point to as proof that none of the victims’ studies programs, all of which are based on post-modernism, have anything to do with legitimate academia. It is a rather subversive experiment that several “left wing” academics did a few years ago to great effect:
You can read a detailed description of their experiment here. Peter Boghossian, by the way, rather than being celebrated for exposing a problem within academia, was relentlessly hounded out of his college position. I wonder if that offends Wilentz’s sense of “academic freedom.” But I digress.
What these researchers discovered was that grievance studies academic journals would print almost anything, no matter how outlandish, so long as it used the right buzzwords and concluded by blaming heterosexual white males for their imagined evil. (If you haven’t yet watched the video or read the linked article, it will tell you everything you need to know that they got journals to reprint large sections of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, as well as creating a panic about race-based rape in a dog park…among the dogs.
All of this was a bit funny just a few years ago. Today, with post-modernists destroying people’s lives and tearing apart our nation with these utterly baseless series of carnards, there is no more humor. There are very, very real-world costs for falsely claiming racism and stirring the pot of race hatred. Along the way to destroying America, these pernicious ideas have already gotten people killed and there will undoubtedly be other victims.
And to take a page from Jen Psaki’s book, let’s circle back to Prof. Sean Wilentz, the man who is rightly offended when post-modernists take liberties with American history, but who also is incapable of seeing that it’s his leftism that incubated this intellectual nihilism. He, therefore, attacks only conservatives, undeterred that they, too, decry the bastardization of American history. He has learned nothing which is why, caught in his leftist straightjacket, Wilentz argues that one of the primary purveyors of this toxin, Nicole Hannah-Jones, deserves a tenured chair in journalism at a major public university.,
When it comes to minorities, women, or the LGBTQ squad, Wilentz is like all progressives in those ivory towers, for he is unconcerned with upholding minimal standards of academic rigor and discipline. I suspect that he is displaying the same bigotry of low expectations towards a black woman that has brought us to this pass in the first place.
And now for a comment from Bookworm herself:
It is tragic that this erudite man is blind to what progressives have created in America. It’s especially surprising because he runs counter to my axiom that the way to lead people out of leftism’s darkness is to show them that the left is lying about something they know intimately and care about deeply. For most people, seeing that big lie leaves them questioning everything else the left has said and, eventually, turning their backs on the left. Wilentz, though, is a true believer and, at the end of the day, leftism is his only real truth.
What’s also ironic is that, as Hannah-Jones and her ilk are elevated to total power in and control over academia, Prof. Wilentz’s entire body of scholarship will be deemed meaningless and discarded. The professor himself will be — dare I say it — erased from history. How’s that for standard-free academic freedom?
APPENDIX 1—The historians’ letter to the New York Times
LETTER TO THE EDITOR
We Respond to the Historians Who Critiqued The 1619 Project
Five historians wrote to us with their reservations. Our editor in chief replies.
Published Dec. 20, 2019Updated Jan. 19, 2021
The letter below was published in the Dec. 29 issue of The New York Times Magazine.
RE: The 1619 Project
We write as historians to express our strong reservations about important aspects of The 1619 Project. The project is intended to offer a new version of American history in which slavery and white supremacy become the dominant organizing themes. The Times has announced ambitious plans to make the project available to schools in the form of curriculums and related instructional material.
We applaud all efforts to address the enduring centrality of slavery and racism to our history. Some of us have devoted our entire professional lives to those efforts, and all of us have worked hard to advance them. Raising profound, unsettling questions about slavery and the nation’s past and present, as The 1619 Project does, is a praiseworthy and urgent public service. Nevertheless, we are dismayed at some of the factual errors in the project and the closed process behind it.
These errors, which concern major events, cannot be described as interpretation or “framing.” They are matters of verifiable fact, which are the foundation of both honest scholarship and honest journalism. They suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology. Dismissal of objections on racial grounds—that they are the objections of only “white historians”—has affirmed that displacement.
On the American Revolution, pivotal to any account of our history, the project asserts that the founders declared the colonies’ independence of Britain “in order to ensure slavery would continue.” This is not true. If supportable, the allegation would be astounding—yet every statement offered by the project to validate it is false. Some of the other material in the project is distorted, including the claim that “for the most part,” black Americans have fought their freedom struggles “alone.”
Still other material is misleading. The project criticizes Abraham Lincoln’s views on racial equality but ignores his conviction that the Declaration of Independence proclaimed universal equality, for blacks as well as whites, a view he upheld repeatedly against powerful white supremacists who opposed him. The project also ignores Lincoln’s agreement with Frederick Douglass that the Constitution was, in Douglass’s words, “a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.” Instead, the project asserts that the United States was founded on racial slavery, an argument rejected by a majority of abolitionists and proclaimed by champions of slavery like John C. Calhoun.
The 1619 Project has not been presented as the views of individual writers—views that in some cases, as on the supposed direct connections between slavery and modern corporate practices, have so far failed to establish any empirical veracity or reliability and have been seriously challenged by other historians. Instead, the project is offered as an authoritative account that bears the imprimatur and credibility of The New York Times. Those connected with the project have assured the public that its materials were shaped by a panel of historians and have been scrupulously fact-checked. Yet the process remains opaque. The names of only some of the historians involved have been released, and the extent of their involvement as “consultants” and fact checkers remains vague. The selective transparency deepens our concern.
We ask that The Times, according to its own high standards of accuracy and truth, issue prominent corrections of all the errors and distortions presented in The 1619 Project. We also ask for the removal of these mistakes from any materials destined for use in schools, as well as in all further publications, including books bearing the name of The New York Times. We ask finally that The Times reveal fully the process through which the historical materials were and continue to be assembled, checked and authenticated.
Victoria Bynum, distinguished emerita professor of history, Texas State University;
James M. McPherson, George Henry Davis 1886 emeritus professor of American history, Princeton University;
James Oakes, distinguished professor, the Graduate Center, the City University of New York;
Sean Wilentz, George Henry Davis 1886 professor of American history, Princeton University;
Gordon S. Wood, Alva O. Wade University emeritus professor and emeritus professor of history, Brown University.
APPENDIX 2—The New York Times’s response
Since The 1619 Project was published in August, we have received a great deal of feedback from readers, many of them educators, academics and historians. A majority have reacted positively to the project, but there have also been criticisms. Some I would describe as constructive, noting episodes we might have overlooked; others have treated the work more harshly. We are happy to accept all of this input, as it helps us continue to think deeply about the subject of slavery and its legacy.
The letter from Professors Bynum, McPherson, Oakes, Wilentz and Wood differs from the previous critiques we have received in that it contains the first major request for correction. We are familiar with the objections of the letter writers, as four of them have been interviewed in recent months by the World Socialist Web Site. We’re glad for a chance to respond directly to some of their objections.
Though we respect the work of the signatories, appreciate that they are motivated by scholarly concern and applaud the efforts they have made in their own writings to illuminate the nation’s past, we disagree with their claim that our project contains significant factual errors and is driven by ideology rather than historical understanding. While we welcome criticism, we don’t believe that the request for corrections to The 1619 Project is warranted.
The project was intended to address the marginalization of African-American history in the telling of our national story and examine the legacy of slavery in contemporary American life. We are not ourselves historians, it is true. We are journalists, trained to look at current events and situations and ask the question: Why is this the way it is? In the case of the persistent racism and inequality that plague this country, the answer to that question led us inexorably into the past—and not just for this project. The project’s creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, a staff writer at the magazine, has consistently used history to inform her journalism, primarily in her work on educational segregation (work for which she has been recognized with numerous honors, including a MacArthur Fellowship).
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Though we may not be historians, we take seriously the responsibility of accurately presenting history to readers of The New York Times. The letter writers express concern about a “closed process” and an opaque “panel of historians,” so I’d like to make clear the steps we took. We did not assemble a formal panel for this project. Instead, during the early stages of development, we consulted with numerous scholars of African-American history and related fields, in a group meeting at The Times as well as in a series of individual conversations. (Five of those who initially consulted with us—Mehrsa Baradaran of the University of California, Irvine; Matthew Desmond and Kevin M. Kruse, both of Princeton University; and Tiya Miles and Khalil G. Muhammad, both of Harvard University—went on to publish articles in the issue.) After those consultations, writers conducted their own research, reading widely, examining primary documents and artifacts and interviewing historians. Finally, during the fact-checking process, our researchers carefully reviewed all the articles in the issue with subject-area experts. This is no different from what we do on any article.
As the five letter writers well know, there are often debates, even among subject-area experts, about how to see the past. Historical understanding is not fixed; it is constantly being adjusted by new scholarship and new voices. Within the world of academic history, differing views exist, if not over what precisely happened, then about why it happened, who made it happen, how to interpret the motivations of historical actors and what it all means.
The passages cited in the letter, regarding the causes of the American Revolution and the attitudes toward black equality of Abraham Lincoln, are good examples of this. Both are found in the lead essay by Hannah-Jones. We can hardly claim to have studied the Revolutionary period as long as some of the signatories, nor do we presume to tell them anything they don’t already know, but I think it would be useful for readers to hear why we believe that Hannah-Jones’s claim that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery” is grounded in the historical record.
The work of various historians, among them David Waldstreicher and Alfred W. and Ruth G. Blumrosen, supports the contention that uneasiness among slaveholders in the colonies about growing antislavery sentiment in Britain and increasing imperial regulation helped motivate the Revolution. One main episode that these and other historians refer to is the landmark 1772 decision of the British high court in Somerset v. Stewart. The case concerned a British customs agent named Charles Stewart who bought an enslaved man named Somerset and took him to England, where he briefly escaped. Stewart captured Somerset and planned to sell him and ship him to Jamaica, only for the chief justice, Lord Mansfield, to declare this unlawful, because chattel slavery was not supported by English common law.
It is true, as Professor Wilentz has noted elsewhere, that the Somerset decision did not legally threaten slavery in the colonies, but the ruling caused a sensation nonetheless. Numerous colonial newspapers covered it and warned of the tyranny it represented. Multiple historians have pointed out that in part because of the Somerset case, slavery joined other issues in helping to gradually drive apart the patriots and their colonial governments. The British often tried to undermine the patriots by mocking their hypocrisy in fighting for liberty while keeping Africans in bondage, and colonial officials repeatedly encouraged enslaved people to seek freedom by fleeing to British lines. For their part, large numbers of the enslaved came to see the struggle as one between freedom and continued subjugation. As Waldstreicher writes, “The black-British alliance decisively pushed planters in these [Southern] states toward independence.”
The culmination of this was the Dunmore Proclamation, issued in late 1775 by the colonial governor of Virginia, which offered freedom to any enslaved person who fled his plantation and joined the British Army. A member of South Carolina’s delegation to the Continental Congress wrote that this act did more to sever the ties between Britain and its colonies “than any other expedient which could possibly have been thought of.” The historian Jill Lepore writes in her recent book, “These Truths: A History of the United States,” “Not the taxes and the tea, not the shots at Lexington and Concord, not the siege of Boston; rather, it was this act, Dunmore’s offer of freedom to slaves, that tipped the scales in favor of American independence.” And yet how many contemporary Americans have ever even heard of it? Enslaved people at the time certainly knew about it. During the Revolution, thousands sought freedom by taking refuge with British forces.
As for the question of Lincoln’s attitudes on black equality, the letter writers imply that Hannah-Jones was unfairly harsh toward our 16th president. Admittedly, in an essay that covered several centuries and ranged from the personal to the historical, she did not set out to explore in full his continually shifting ideas about abolition and the rights of black Americans. But she provides an important historical lesson by simply reminding the public, which tends to view Lincoln as a saint, that for much of his career, he believed that a necessary prerequisite for freedom would be a plan to encourage the four million formerly enslaved people to leave the country. To be sure, at the end of his life, Lincoln’s racial outlook had evolved considerably in the direction of real equality. Yet the story of abolition becomes more complicated, and more instructive, when readers understand that even the Great Emancipator was ambivalent about full black citizenship.
The letter writers also protest that Hannah-Jones, and the project’s authors more broadly, ignore Lincoln’s admiration, which he shared with Frederick Douglass, for the commitment to liberty espoused in the Constitution. This seems to me a more general point of dispute. The writers believe that the Revolution and the Constitution provided the framework for the eventual abolition of slavery and for the equality of black Americans, and that our project insufficiently credits both the founders and 19th-century Republican leaders like Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner and others for their contributions toward achieving these goals.
It may be true that under a less egalitarian system of government, slavery would have continued for longer, but the United States was still one of the last nations in the Americas to abolish the institution—only Cuba and Brazil did so after us. And while our democratic system has certainly led to many progressive advances for the rights of minority groups over the past two centuries, these advances, as Hannah-Jones argues in her essay, have almost always come as a result of political and social struggles in which African-Americans have generally taken the lead, not as a working-out of the immanent logic of the Constitution.
And yet for all that, it is difficult to argue that equality has ever been truly achieved for black Americans—not in 1776, not in 1865, not in 1964, not in 2008 and not today. The very premise of The 1619 Project, in fact, is that many of the inequalities that continue to afflict the nation are a direct result of the unhealed wound created by 250 years of slavery and an additional century of second-class citizenship and white-supremacist terrorism inflicted on black people (together, those two periods account for 88 percent of our history since 1619). These inequalities were the starting point of our project—the facts that, to take just a few examples, black men are nearly six times as likely to wind up in prison as white men, or that black women are three times as likely to die in childbirth as white women, or that the median family wealth for white people is $171,000, compared with just $17,600 for black people. The rampant discrimination that black people continue to face across nearly every aspect of American life suggests that neither the framework of the Constitution nor the strenuous efforts of political leaders in the past and the present, both white and black, has yet been able to achieve the democratic ideals of the founding for all Americans.
This is an important discussion to have, and we are eager to see it continue. To that end, we are planning to host public conversations next year among academics with differing perspectives on American history. Good-faith critiques of our project only help us refine and improve it—an important goal for us now that we are in the process of expanding it into a book. For example, we have heard from several scholars who profess to admire the project a great deal but wish it had included some mention of African slavery in Spanish Florida during the century before 1619. Though we stand by the logic of marking the beginning of American slavery with the year it was introduced in the English colonies, this feedback has helped us think about the importance of considering the prehistory of the period our project addresses.
Valuable critiques may come from many sources. The letter misperceives our attitudes when it charges that we dismiss objections on racial grounds. This appears to be a reference not to anything published in The 1619 Project itself, but rather to a November Twitter post from Hannah-Jones in which she questioned whether “white historians” have always produced objective accounts of American history. As is so often the case on Twitter, context is important. In this instance, Hannah-Jones was responding to a post, since deleted, from another user claiming that many “white historians” objected to the project but were hesitant to speak up. In her reply, she was trying to make the point that for the most part, the history of this country has been told by white historians (some of whom, as in the case of the Dunning School, which grossly miseducated Americans about the history of Reconstruction for much of the 20th century, produced accounts that were deeply flawed), and that to truly understand the fullness and complexity of our nation’s story, we need a greater variety of voices doing the telling.
That, above all, is what we hoped our project would do: expand the reader’s sense of the American past. (This is how some educators are using it to supplement their teaching of United States history.) That is what the letter writers have done, in different ways, over the course of their distinguished careers and in their many books. Though we may disagree on some important matters, we are grateful for their input and their interest in discussing these fundamental questions about the country’s history.
Editor in chief
Image: Sean Wilentz (edited in befunky). YouTube screen grab.