The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine that began in August 2019 and aims to frame the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative. Its name comes from the events of August 1619 when a ship appeared on the 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. Writing in The New York Times Magazine, Nicole Hannah-Jones declares that,
“No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.”
In the view of Hannah-Jones, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written.” Jones argues that 1619 was the real date of America’s founding—-not 1776, with the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In her view, defending slavery was one of the motivations for the American Revolution itself.
Revising American history to align with the 1619 Project in public schools
Many public school systems are now considering the use of the 1619 Project in the teaching of history. It has already been embraced by Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Buffalo, New York, despite the fact that it has been sharply criticized by leading historians. Prominent historians wrote a letter to The Times expressing dismay at the factual errors found in the project’s materials.
They said, for example, that the Project’s contention that the American Revolution was launched “in order to ensure that slavery would continue” was completely wrong.
Among the historians signing this letter were Gordon S. Wood (An interview with historian Gordon Wood on the New York Times’ 1619 Project), James M. McPherson (An interview with historian James McPherson on the New York Times’ 1619 Project), Sean Wilentz, and Victoria Bynum (Historian Victoria Bynum on the inaccuracies of the New York Times 1619 Project).
The 1619 project ignores the fact that slavery has a long history and is hardly unique to America.
From the beginning of recorded history, until the 19th century, slavery was the way of the world. Slavery was a prominent feature of life in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. Indeed, the 1619 Project does not mention the role of African slave-traders who sold the African slaves captured by African chiefs to the Europeans.
Do the authors of the 1619 Project understand that in 1787, when the U.S. Constitution was written, slavery was legal every place in the world? To condemn the Founding Fathers for not having eliminated slavery at that time is to condemn them for not having done something which had never before been done in history.
This is comparing colonial America with a 21st century ideal of perfection, not with other places in the real world In that era.
In fact, the Framers of the Constitution created the freest country in the world at that time.
They established religious freedom and separation of church and state at a time when European countries persecuted religious minorities. They established freedom of speech and of the press, also unique ideas at that time. Being imperfect human beings, they could hardly have created a perfect society. But, even then, the leading figures who established the country recognized that slavery was evil, and many wanted to eliminate it at the Constitutional Convention.
What is historically unique is not that slavery was the accepted way of the world in 1787, even sanctioned by Christianity, but that so many of the men of the American colonies of that day wanted to eliminate it—-and pressed vigorously to do so.
Historians Nathaniel Weyl and William Marina write:
“When the Federal Convention met in May 1787 to form a Constitution for the United States, a significant minority of the delegates were staunch opponents of slavery. Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton were ardent abolitionists. John Jay, who would become the first Chief Justice was president of the New York Anti-Slavery Society…Rufus King and Gouverneur Morris were in the forefront of opposition to slavery and the slave trade.”
One of the great debates at the Constitutional Convention related to the African Slave trade. George Mason of Virginia made an eloquent plea for making it illegal:
“This infernal traffic originated in the avarice of British merchants. The British Government constantly checked the attempt of Virginia to put a stop to it. The present question concerns not the importing of slaves alone, but the whole Union. The evil of having slaves was experienced during the last war. Had slaves been treated as they might have been by the enemy, they would have proved dangerous instruments in their hands.”
More than this declared Mason,
“Slavery discourages arts and manufactures. The poor despise labor when performed by slaves…Every owner of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven on a country.”
In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, one of the principal charges made by Thomas Jefferson against King George lll and his predecessors. was that they would not allow the American colonies to outlaw the importation of slaves. This, unfortunately, was not adopted. Even a slaveholder such as Jefferson understood the evils of slavery. In his autobiography, Jefferson wrote:
“Nothing is more certainly written in the book of life than that these people are to be free.”
In “Notes on The State of Virginia,” Jefferson wrote:
“The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submission on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it…”
In the end, in order to secure all 13 colonies in the new nation, the question of slavery was postponed. This decision may be criticized, as it has been over the years. Many of the Framers felt they had set in motion an opposition to slavery which would bear fruit in the future. James Wilson of Pennsylvania declared:
“I am sorry that it could be extended no further, but so far as it operates, it presents us with the pleasing prospect that the rights of mankind will be acknowledged and established throughout the Union….The lapse of a few years and Congress will have the power to eliminate slavery from within our borders.”
Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut stated,
“Slavery, in time, will not be a speck in our country. Provision is already made in Connecticut for abolishing it. And the abolition has already taken place in Massachusetts.”
The U.S. Constitution is unique in history. It established a system of government. Which was based upon the realities of human nature and attempted to learn the lessons of the past? The framers knew that change would be necessary, and incorporated an amending process. They established a system which has lasted for more than 200 years—-the oldest system of government in the world today. With all its faults and shortcomings, ours has been the freest society in the world’s history. It has welcomed men and women of every race, religion, and nation to its shores to be equal citizens.
Being flawed human beings, we have mistreated black Americans, Japanese-Americans, Chinese-Americans, and others. Yet, we have sought to move beyond these injustices and we have slowly moved toward equality which is our ideal. We ended segregation and today black Americans hold every conceivable position in our society. We have elected a black president twice and, despite continuing problems with racism, as manifested in the police killing of George Floyd, we now have black mayors in Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, D.C.and other major cities.
There is no position in American society to which black men and women cannot aspire.
American history is complex. The Founding Fathers were committed to building a new civilization that would become a model for the rest of mankind. James Madison wrote,
“Happily for Americans, happily we trust for the whole human race, they (the founders). pursued a new and more noble course.”
In announcing its 1619 project, The New York Times said it wanted to “tell our story truthfully.” But American history, and the history of every other nation and civilization, is many-faceted. All of us want to tell our story truthfully. This should involve its good and unique contributions, not only its weaknesses and shortcomings. Focusing only on slavery and questions of race leaves a great deal of our recent history out of the picture. Man’s history in Europe, Asia, and Africa is filled with examples of racism, religious bigotry, and slavery.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, European countries—-England, France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal—-occupied countries in Asia and Africa and, in some cases, slaughtered tens of thousands of their inhabitants.
With all its imperfections, America represented something new in the world. The 1619 Project seems, at least thus far, not to understand this reality.