In a series of recent interviews, prominent historians criticized The New York Times’ “1619 Project” — which describes itself as seeking “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 the story we tell ourselves about who we are” — as an “unbalanced, one-sided account,” which lacks important “context and perspective” on the complexity of slavery’s role in America’s history.
“In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the English colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists,” the “1619 Project” splash page reads. “No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed. In the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.”
Recent interviews with three highly regarded historians published by the World Socialist Web Site, which presents analysis and news from a socialist perspective, focus on the degree of historical accuracy and perspective fueling key claims made in the Times’ highly touted series and found it glaringly “biased” and at times even “anti-historical” (h/t HotAir’s John Sexton).
For the first of the interview series, published Nov. 14, WSWS spoke with Princeton University’s James McPherson, “the author of dozens of books and articles, including thePulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom, widely regarded as the authoritative account of the Civil War.” Asked about his initial reaction to the “1619 Project,” McPherson delivered a rather scathing rebuke of its “biased” and “narrow view” of the country’s history:
McPherson: Well, I didn’t know anything about it until I got my Sunday paper, with the magazine section entirely devoted to the 1619 Project. Because this is a subject I’ve long been interested in I sat down and started to read some of the essays. I’d say that, almost from the outset, I was disturbed by what seemed like a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lacked context and perspective on the complexity of slavery, which was clearly, obviously, not an exclusively American institution, but existed throughout history. And slavery in the United States was only a small part of a larger world process that unfolded over many centuries. And in the United States, too, there was not only slavery but also an antislavery movement. So I thought the account, which emphasized American racism — which is obviously a major part of the history, no question about it — but it focused so narrowly on that part of the story that it left most of the history out. So I read a few of the essays and skimmed the rest, but didn’t pursue much more about it because it seemed to me that I wasn’t learning very much new. And I was a little bit unhappy with the idea that people who did not have a good knowledge of the subject would be influenced by this and would then have a biased or narrow view.
In an interview published four days later, City University of New York’s James Oakes — author of two Lincoln Prize-winning books, “The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of anti-slavery Politics” (2007) and “Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861–1865” (2012), as well as “The Scorpion’s Sting: anti-slavery and the Coming of the Civil War” (2014) — likewise expressed his dismay at the degree of bias and lack of context permeating the “1619 Project.”
Asked to discuss the claim that “the horrors of contemporary American capitalism are rooted in slavery,” as suggested by Matthew Desmond in a piece for the “1619 Project,” Oakes noted that the attempt to connect chattel slavery and capitalism has received “some very strong criticism from scholars in the field” and mocked the overly simplistic thinking that guides Desmond’s argument:
Oakes: There’s been a kind of standard bourgeois-liberal way of arguing that goes all the way back to the 18th century, that whenever you are talking about some form of oppression, or whenever you yourself are oppressed, you instinctively go to the analogy of slavery. At least since the 18th century in our society, in western liberal societies, slavery has been the gold standard of oppression. The colonists, in the imperial crisis, complained that they were the “slaves” of Great Britain. It was the same thing all the way through the 19th century. The leaders of the first women’s movement would sometimes liken the position of a woman in a northern household to that of a slave on a southern plantation. The first workers’ movement, coming out of the culture of republican independence, attacked wage labor as wage slavery. Civil War soldiers would complain that they were treated like slaves. Desmond, following the lead of the scholars he’s citing, basically relies on the same analogy. They’re saying, “look at the ways capitalism is just like slavery, and that’s because capitalism came from slavery.” But there’s no actual critique of capitalism in any of it. They’re saying, “Oh my God! Slavery looks just like capitalism. They had highly developed management techniques just like we do!” Slaveholders were greedy, just like capitalists. Slavery was violent, just like our society is. So there’s a critique of violence and a critique of greed. But greed and violence are everywhere in human history, not just in capitalist societies. So there’s no actual critique of capitalism as such, at least as I read it.
In a third “1619” interview, published Nov. 28, WSWS spoke with Brown University’s Gordon Wood — author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” and “Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815” — who likewise expressed disappointment, and even disbelief, at the reductive nature of the Times’ series:
Wood: I was surprised when I opened my Sunday New York Times in August and found the magazine containing the project. I had no warning about this. I read the first essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones, which alleges that the Revolution occurred primarily because of the Americans’ desire to save their slaves. She claims the British were on the warpath against the slave trade and slavery and that rebellion was the only hope for American slavery. This made the American Revolution out to be like the Civil War, where the South seceded to save and protect slavery, and that the Americans 70 years earlier revolted to protect their institution of slavery. I just couldn’t believe this. I was surprised, as many other people were, by the scope of this thing, especially since it’s going to become the basis for high school education and has the authority of the New York Times behind it, and yet it is so wrong in so many ways.
Asked to expand on his comment about not being approached about the project, Wood said, “None of the leading scholars of the whole period from the Revolution to the Civil War, as far I know, have been consulted. ” Asked for his perspective on the relationship between the American Revolution and the institution of slavery, Wood replied:
Wood: One of the things that I have emphasized in my writing is how many southerners and northerners in 1776 thought slavery was on its last legs and that it would naturally die away. You can find quotation after quotation from people seriously thinking that slavery was going to wither away in several decades. Now we know they couldn’t have been more wrong. But they lived with illusions and were so wrong about so many things. We may be living with illusions too. One of the big lessons of history is to realize how the past doesn’t know its future. We know how the story turned out, and we somehow assume they should know what we know, but they don’t, of course. They don’t know their future any more than we know our future, and so many of them thought that slavery would die away, and at first there was considerable evidence that that was indeed the case. At the time of the Revolution, the Virginians had more slaves than they knew what to do with, so they were eager to end the international slave trade. But the Georgians and the South Carolinians weren’t ready to do that yet. That was one of the compromises that came out of the Constitutional Convention. The Deep South was given 20 years to import more slaves, but most Americans were confident that the despicable transatlantic slave trade was definitely going to end in 1808.