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Photo Credit: Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

University professors James McPherson and Sean Wilentz were two of the five historians who sent a letter to The New York Times in December requesting corrections to its 1619 Project, igniting debates in national media and on Twitter over the role of slavery in American history.

The 1619 Project, published by The New York Times Magazine, aimed to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” The project began with a 100-page spread of essays, photos, poetry, and fiction published in Aug. 2019 — what the magazine called the “400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery.” 

University professor emeritus Nell Irvin Painter, critiqued that claim. When asked for comment, Painter deferred to her previous remarks.

In addition, Columbia professor John McWhorter criticized the project.

In their letter, the five historians called the project’s assertion that a primary reason behind the American Revolution was colonists’ desire to protect slavery “not true” and its treatment of Lincoln’s views on black equality “misleading.” They also disputed the project’s arguments about the connections between slavery and modern capitalism, as well as its allegation that, “For the most part, black Americans fought back alone.”

Furthermore, they contended that the sources consulted in the project’s research and historical vetting were “opaque.”

James McPherson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1988 Civil War history, “Battle Cry of Freedom,” is the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History, Emeritus. Sean Wilentz, the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History, won the Bancroft Prize for his 2005 “The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln.”

The other signatories of the letter are Victoria Bynum of Texas State University, James Oakes of the City University of New York, and Gordon S. Wood of Brown University.

In response to their letter, multiple History and African American Studies professors at the University did not respond to requests for comment or declined to speak with The Daily Princetonian.

In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ McPherson said that in October he was approached by a reporter for the World Socialist Website (WSWS), which was soliciting critiques of the 1619 Project. Although he said he doesn’t share the WSWS’s Trotskyist ideology, McPherson had interviewed with the organization on some of his books years earlier and said they did “pretty sound work.” WSWS published interviews with four of the historians who later signed the letter, with the exception of Wilentz. Those conversations subsequently went viral.

On Nov. 4, before McPherson’s interview was published, Wilentz delivered the fourth annual Philip Roth Lecture, entitled “American Slavery and ‘the Relentless Unforeseen,” in Newark. In his speech, he expressed several of his reservations on the 1619 Project.

His lecture was later published in the New York Review of Books.

“I ran into him [Wilentz] in the hall one day, and he mentioned he had seen my interview, and we chatted for a while about our mutual criticisms of the 1619 Project,” McPherson recounted. “He drafted the letter and recruited those of us who signed it.”

In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ Wilentz said that after his initial draft the five historians “went back and forth and cowrote it,” and that “I saw that the five of us had a common theme in the question of factual accuracy.”

On Dec. 20, The New York Times Magazine Editor-in-Chief Jake Silverstein published a 2000-word reply, in which he defended the claims in the project’s lead essay, written by Nikole Hannah-Jones, on the American Revolution and Lincoln’s views. 

“We don’t agree that the areas that they are disputing need to be corrected,” Hannah-Jones, who envisioned and oversaw the 1619 Project, told the ‘Prince.’ She pointed to a number of pieces written in response to the letter, including ones in the Boston Review and the American Historical Review that defended the project.

Hannah-Jones added, “not a single one of those historians has ever reached out to me for a correction.” 

“I’ve never been included on a single piece of correspondence on the project I created,” Hannah-Jones said.

To address the letter’s contention that the Times conducted a “closed process,” Silverstein wrote that the paper consulted numerous scholars in a group meeting, as well as in individual conversations. Among those who initially consulted with the Times were University professors Matthew Desmond and Kevin Kruse, according to Silverstein’s letter.

Kruse and Desmond had not responded to requests for comment at the time of publication.

The five historians contesting the project’s accuracy wrote that, though they applaud the larger work of the 1619 Project in bringing attention to the centrality of slavery in American history, their corrections are “matters of verifiable fact.” 

“I think the purpose is a good one, which is to alert people who are interested in American history to the importance of slavery, of race and racism, in shaping important aspects of American history,” McPherson said.

“No matter what people tell you that it’s not about the facts, it’s about the facts,” Wilentz said, in a possible allusion to Adam Serwer’s article in The Atlantic. He added, “we weren’t attacking the whole project.”

Both professors said that American slaveholders did not view Britain as in any way threatening slavery or the slave trade. In his rebuttal, Silverstein cited the 1772 Somerset decision, in which the British high court ruled, “chattel slavery was not supported by English common law,” according to the Times. Wilentz said the case made no difference because it applied only in England, not the colonies. 

McPherson concurred, saying, “And from there, the author of the introductory article [in the 1619 Project] extrapolates that the British represented a threat to the survival of slavery in the American colonies.”

“In fact, the British didn’t abolish slavery in their West Indies colonies until more half a century later,” McPherson added.

Silverstein also cited the Dunmore Proclamation of 1775, which offered freedom to slaves who fled to the British army. McPherson pointed out first that the revolution had already been fought for close to eight months when the proclamation was made. 

“It applied only to the slaves of those who had already committed themselves to the war against the British,” McPherson explained. “If you stayed on the British side you could keep your slaves, so in fact the opposite was true. Those people who supported the revolution were doing so in spite of the threat that their support for the revolution posed to slavery, exactly the opposite of the argument that the motive was to preserve slavery.”

McPherson said that even if the project’s assertion had been true, many northern supporters of the revolution actually opposed slavery. 

“One of the impulses that grew out of the revolution was the abolition of slavery by more than half of the states that became part of the United States, starting with Massachusetts and Vermont,” he noted.

Regarding Hannah-Jones’ claim that, “In London, there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade,” Wilentz said, “The Americans were the ones who were trying to close the slave trade. They had tried throughout the 1760s and 1770s repeatedly,” adding that for Britain, abolition would have been “economic suicide.”

“There was not a rising clamor around slavery, that’s for sure, and the English government showed absolutely no interest in getting rid of slavery at all, as of 1776,” Wilentz said, “So the idea that American slaveholders were shaking in their boots because of an abolitionist or anti-slavery British government is ludicrous.”

“To say without very persuasive proof that the American Revolution was about protecting slavery is as grave as a distortion as the old assertion which is still current in some places that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. It’s just as damaging,” Wilentz added.

Hannah-Jones argued that she never claimed that the British government was anti-slavery, saying she pointed instead to “growing abolitionist sentiment in Britain.”

“I don’t point specifically to the government,“ said Hannah-Jones. “We know that there had been major slave rebellions in the other British colonies, we know that there was a pre-existing abolitionist movement in Britain at the time of the revolution, and I never make the argument that it was the British government that was planning to abolish slavery.”

“I would appreciate if we argued the terms of my essay on the facts of what was actually written in the essay,” Hannah-Jones added. “That’s not what my essay argues.”

On the question of whether African Americans have fought largely alone, Wilentz commented, “There have always been white liberals and white radicals standing up against white supremacy.”

On Desmond’s essay for the 1619 project, which draws on American capitalism’s roots in slavery, Wilentz said, “He draws on an historical literature which I think is much less well-settled than I think he might have thought.”

The five historians also requested a correction with regards to Lincoln. 

“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,” they wrote.

“If they had said that Lincoln, like most Americans, could not imagine full social and political equality between blacks and whites, I would have had no objection. But to say that he’s opposed to black equality — that’s wrong,” Wilentz said.

The 1619 Project, in Wilentz’s words, takes Stephen Douglas’ position that “the Constitution did not cover blacks, it’s only about white people.” He noted that although Lincoln did for a time believe in colonization, towards the end of his life he was much closer to the view of the abolitionist Radical Republicans.

“[Lincoln] didn’t view blacks as an obstacle to national unity, he viewed slavery as an obstacle to national unity,” McPherson said.

Silverstein defended the project’s portrayal of Lincoln on the grounds that a comprehensive account of his views was unfeasible and the public “tends to view Lincoln as a saint.”

Both professors saw the project’s reading of the Constitution and American racism as overly cynical, noting that it is a question of interpretation and beyond the scope of their letter.

Silverstein wrote in his reply that the United States was one of the last nations to abolish slavery and that social progress has generally not come “as a working-out of the immanent logic of the Constitution.”

Wilentz took issue with the project’s broader treatment of the Constitution, which he said conforms to the orthodoxy that the Constitution was a victory for the slave trade and a pro-slavery document, “that simply by tolerating it, we were enshrining it in the Constitution.” 

In his 2018 book “No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding,” he argues that founders weren’t so untroubled. “That’s just not true, and if you look hard, go back in the debates as they were transcribed by James Madison, you see that it was very different,” he told the ‘Prince.’

McPherson rejected Hannah-Jones’ claim that “[a]nti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country,” saying, “The implication is that if racism is baked into our DNA it’s an irrevocable part of the American historical experience, and I think that’s a rather gross exaggeration.”

Wilentz identified two dangers in writing about slavery. The first was complacency, the idea that slavery was doomed from the founding. 

“There’s nothing immanent in the founding that was going to lead to the end of slavery,” he said, in agreement with Silverstein. 

The second danger, Wilentz said, was cynicism. 

“They don’t really believe that America has the capacity to undo racial oppression, because it’s baked in,” he commented.

Hannah-Jones said that the use of the phrase “runs in the very DNA” was a metaphor, and one “cannot use historiography to prove or disprove a metaphor.”

“It is my perspective, and I actually frankly think it is a silly thing to try to refute,” Hannah-Jones said.

Hannah-Jones also pointed to the fact that Pulitzer-prize winning Yale historian David Blight also used the “DNA metaphor” in his own writing in the Teaching Tolerances report.

“It would be interesting to know if these historians have also publicly challenged David Blight and asked him to issue corrections of that metaphor,” Hannah-Jones said.

Furthermore, Wilentz said that the Constitution did “open up the possibilities for abolitionist politics.” 

“There’s a conflict; the conflict is embedded in the Constitution. And I think if you see it that way, it’s much more fruitful than one way or the other,” he said. 

“In these very bleak and pessimistic times, as far as race is concerned, one side of American history tends to come to the fore, but another side is forgotten,” Wilentz said. 

“The struggle was there from the beginning,” he said. “That’s what was missing in the 1619 Project. They don’t see the struggle. They only see the oppression, and the oppression is real, but there’s the struggle.”

McPherson argued that America is built on compromise, with many conflicting points of view. He invoked the concept of “cognitive dissonance,” the necessity to “reconcile opposites or differences, and that we have to be able to live with these contradictions. And one contradiction is that America means liberty, but for a long time it meant slavery.”

McPherson argued, “I think the argument that the Constitution is a pro-slavery document is wrong. It’s not an anti-slavery document either.”

Both McPherson and Wilentz believe that the project has not attended to the literature on American slavery adequately.  

“There’s kind of an implication, and it’s not explicit, it’s implicit, that mainline history has ignored the importance of these matters, of slavery, of racial discrimination and racism,” McPherson said. “That’s just not true.”

The letter also referred to a “[d]ismissal of objections on racial grounds — that they are the objections of only ‘white historians.’” According to The Wall Street Journal, Hannah-Jones called the project’s critics old, white male historians, although Silverstein wrote that the authors of the letter took the quote out of context.

“The stress on identity undercuts everything we do,” Wilentz said. “In that, it disallows the possibilities for reasoned inquiry,” he said, “There is no social justice without truth.”

Hannah-Jones denied that she said anything about “old white historians not being able to comment,” pointing out that a number of white scholars contributed to the project.

“What I’ve said, and what I’ve always said, is that white historians are no more objective than any other race of historians at producing historians,” Hannah-Jones said.

Several professors declined to sign the correction request because they believed it was an unnecessary escalation or that it aimed to discredit the whole project, according to Serwer’s article. These included University professor emeritus Nell Irvin Painter.

“I felt that if I signed on to that, I would be signing on to the white guy’s attack of something that has given a lot of black journalists and writers a chance to speak up in a really big way,“ Painter said. “So I support the 1619 Project as kind of a cultural event.” 

Wilentz, however, reiterated what he saw as the necessity of the corrections.

“One of the things I’m worried about is … people on the other side, politically, I suppose, who are going to use this as an event to show how corrupt the left is. Unfortunately, you’re giving them the sword to kill you with, if they leave this stuff uncorrected. Gingrich has said we should run the 2020 campaign on the basis of this 1619 Project,” Wilentz said.

“The New York Times has a reputation it has to uphold,” Wilentz said, “And I think it will strengthen it if they correct it.” 

Hannah-Jones disputed that necessity.

“Historians disagree all the time, but to go to this depth of demanding a correction, is taking this disagreement of interpretations to a realm outside of what I would consider normative historiography,” Hannah-Jones said.

Hannah-Jones added, however, that a debate around these topics is “healthy” and “fruitful” for the public.

“I think a good-faith debate around the project is a very good thing,” Hannah-Jones said. “I just wish these historians who had critiques of the project would have gone about it a different way.”

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