As explained in a prior post, in August 2019, the New York Times Magazine published what it called “The 1619 Project” to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first slaves brought to the British Colonies in North America and to “reframe American history by considering . . . 1619 as our nation’s birth year . . . when a ship arrived . . . in the British colony of Virginia, bearing a cargo of 20 to 30 enslaved Africans [and inaugurating] a barbaric system of chattel slavery that would last for the next 250 years. . . . Out of slavery—and the anti-black racism it required—grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional.” It also claimed, “One of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.”
Historians’ Letter to Times
Sean Wilentz (the George Henry Davis 1886 professor of American history, Princeton University) and four other prominent American historians in a letter to the New York Times Magazine applauded “all efforts to address the enduring centrality of slavery and racism in our history” while saying The 1619 Project raised “profound, unsettling questions about slavery and the nation’s past and present” and was “a praiseworthy and urgent public service.”
Nevertheless, these historians expressed “strong reservations about important aspects” of the Project, including its intent “to offer a new version of American history in which slavery and white supremacy become the dominant organizing themes.”
These historians also were “dismayed at some of the factual errors in the project and the closed processes behind it.” Moreover, they asserted, “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.”
This critique continued. “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 [in the Project] 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 . . . [while being] 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.”
Response by the Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief
Jake Silverstein, Editor in Chief of the Magazine, disagreed “with . . . [these historians’] 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.” In so doing, the Times “consulted with numerous scholars of African-American history and related fields” plus independent research by the authors of the articles in the Project and more consultation with “subject-area experts.” In addition, “as the five letter-writers well know, there are often debates, even among subject-area experts, about how to see the past.”
For example, other historians support “the contention that uneasiness among slaveholders in the colonies about growing antislavery sentiment in Britain and increasing imperial regulation helped motivate the [American] Revolution.” One main reason for this uneasiness was the 1772 decision of the British high court that slavery was unlawful because it was not supported by English common law. Although this case “did not legally threaten slavery in the colonies,” it along with the 1775 Dunmore Proclamation by the colonial governor of Virginia offering freedom to any enslaved person who fled and joined the British Army were major reasons for slave owners to support the Revolution.
The Times believes that it is important to have a wide-ranging discussion of the many issues around slavery and its continuing impact on America, involving “academics with differing perspectives,” and the Times will be pursuing such discussions.
We now have two recent articles about slavery and antislavery forces involved in creating the U.S. Constitution and Government by Sean Wilentz, who was one of the five historians who wrote the above letter about The 1619 Project. They provide some of the historians’ reasons for their criticism of The Project.
Foremost was Wilentz’ assertion that although slavery is important, if not central, to American history, the United States was defined, from the start, neither by American slavery alone or by American antislavery but in their conflict” and “few things if any in modern history were more unexpected than the eradication of human bondage in the Atlantic world.”
Wilentz focuses on the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the conflicts between the small states and big states, between the states-rights proponents and the strong national government supporters and between the slavery and anti-slavery advocates and the resulting necessity for compromises prompted by their mutual belief that all of the colonies needed to be in one national government under a Constitution that was endorsed by the Convention for submittal to the states for ratification.
Some of those compromises favored the slave-holding states: no abolition of slavery in the document and an implicit bar on the new national government’s direct interference with slavery where it already existed; counting 3/5th of the slaves for representation in the House of Representative and Electoral College; a fugitive slave clause; and prevention of abolition of foreign slave trade until 1808.
Other compromises favored the anti-slavery forces: refusal to recognize slavery in national law; the national power to regulate or ban slavery in territories under national purview; and the right to ban foreign slave trade after 1808.
The Project, however, focuses in part on the causes for the Revolutionary War of 1775-83 and its 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.” Wilentz flatly says this is “simply untrue. Neither the British government nor the British people were ‘deeply conflicted’ over slavery” in this period. Yes, a British court in 1772 did hold slavery illegal in Britain, but this decision did not affect many slaves in that country and had no effect on the country’s foreign slave trade.
The arguments of Wilentz are persuasive, but The 1619 Project should continue by encouraging scholarly and citizen debate over slavery and racism in the U.S.
 Evaluation of the Report of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights and Its Endorsement by Secretary Pompeo, dwkcommentaries.com (Aug. 3, 2020).
 Bynum, McPherson, Oakes, Wilentz & Wood, We Respond to the Historians Who Critiqued The 1619 Project, N.Y. Times Magazine (Dec. 29, 2019; updated Jan. 4, 2020).
 The other authors of the letter were 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; and Gordon S. Wood, Alva O. Wade University emeritus professor and emeritus professor of history, Brown University.
 See Historian Wilentz’ Response to Senator Tom Cotton on the Issue of Slavery, dwkcommentaries.com (Aug. 11, 2020).