The complexities of the past
Pay attention to racial history—but be skeptical about the 1619 Project
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Allen Guelzo, an American historian and Princeton University professor, is the author of more than a dozen books and winner of both the Lincoln Prize and the Abraham Lincoln Institute Prize for books on America’s 16th president. Here are edited excerpts of our recent conversation on the 1619 Project—coming soon to a school near you—and the history of race in America.
The New York Times’ 1619 Project—a special 100-page magazine issue and podcast series—has drawn a lot of attention and even a Pulitzer Prize. But you have called it a “grand conspiracy theory.” Let’s unpack that. Its expressed aim was to “re-center” American history around the experience of slavery. And not just chronologically, but comprehensively: Everything in American life is a product of the oppressive experience of slavery—from the food we eat to the laws that we pass. As a historian, I have learned to be very suspicious of simple, one-purpose answers. That’s because one trait they all share is they’re wrong. And at their worst they degenerate into conspiracy theories.
What are some of the specific errors? The first one is in the title. It claims 1619 is the beginning of American history because 1619 is when African slaves were first brought to North America at Jamestown. That’s not right. The Spanish actually brought the first African slaves to Georgia in 1529. But that’s comparatively minor. What’s more important is the 1619 Project argues that one of the primary reasons for the American Revolution was that the American colonists were anxious that Britain was turning in anti-slavery directions. So to protect slavery, they staged this revolution from British rule. That story has not a shred of historical evidence to support it.
What case does 1619 make? In 1772 the British courts handed down a ruling in the case of James Somerset and declares that slavery cannot operate in the British Isles—ergo James Somerset is a free person. The 1619 Project argues American slave owners looked at the Somerset case and said, “Oh, let’s freak out. Let’s have a revolution because the British are going to apply this to America.” But opinion surveys in the 1770s showed that hardly anyone in America noticed the Somerset decision. What’s more, there were parts of the British Empire which had much, much deeper investments in slavery—the British West Indies, Jamaica, Barbados. If anybody was inclined to stage a revolution to defend slavery, it would have been the sugar islands of the West Indies. And yet, when the American Revolutionaries make overtures to these other British colonies to join them in revolution, the West Indian colonies routinely refuse. If the revolution was about protecting slavery, the West Indies sugar islands should have joined with us right away.
The New York Times can’t claim ignorance on that point. One historian whom the 1619 Project consulted—Leslie Harris of Northwestern University—told the lead essay writer, Nikole Hannah-Jones, no, you can’t say that. That’s not true. Hannah-Jones went ahead anyway. Harris then wrote an article in Politico saying she told them not to do this, and The New York Times Magazine was forced to issue a walk-back. They called it an “update.”
Why did this happen? The historian in me is tempted to say it’s because it was written by journalists. These were not people who had a lot of depth and experience in what they were writing about, and it shows in place after place. Historically speaking, the 1619 Project cannot be taken seriously as history.
Yet it still won a Pulitzer. The Times was pressing very hard for a Pulitzer, and the Pulitzer board awarded a prize not to the 1619 Project, but to Nikole Hannah-Jones for editorial journalism, not for history. So even with the Pulitzer board, there was a real sense of discomfort. That raises serious questions about the credibility of the 1619 Project and why the Pulitzer Center—different from the Pulitzer Prize board—is pushing it so hard.
1619 is headed for schools this fall. The Pulitzer Center is preparing teaching materials, lesson plans, and class activities. At least three major metropolitan school districts have adopted the 1619 Project, and some 3,500 classrooms are planning to use it for history teaching. I think there are two reasons. One is a political agenda: The second big essay of the 1619 Project is about the relationship of slavery and capitalism, and it argues slavery is the foundation of American capitalism. Another reason is the impatient desire for cheap, simple solutions in trying to understand history. The strategy moves toward questioning the very basis of American identity in our founding documents. I find that profoundly troubling.
Let’s talk about better sources for history. I’m listening to the audiobook version of Fateful Lightning, your book about the Civil War and the events surrounding it. What do you want readers to take away from that book? I hope they will read the human stories, see the complexities, the troubles, the pain, the suffering, that took place in this time of Civil War. I also want people to think about the “what if” question. Not what if this general had done this or that. But what if the United States had actually fractured? What would have been the consequences for world history? When you push that question to its conclusion, it makes your hair stand on end.
What are some other good American history resources? For a comprehensive American history textbook, I recommend Wilfred McClay’s Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story. I also encourage people to look at important moments in American history—the Revolution, the Constitutional Convention. The best book on the Constitutional Convention is the late Richard Beeman’s Plain, Honest Men.
Is a proper understanding of America’s racial history part of the path forward for our society? It certainly is. Race is a continual problem for human societies to cope with, to define, and to try to understand. It’s an incredibly complex subject and involves everything from genetics to cultural perception. But race has a role to play in American history because we have been a nation of so many different races.
Is our situation unique? Unlike almost all other nations in human history, we have been a people who have identified ourselves not by race, blood, soil, language, or religion, but by the propositions of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the way we fought for freedom in the Revolution, the Civil War, and two world wars. We believe, going back to Thomas Jefferson, certain natural rights are inherent in human beings. Among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—and that the possession of those rights is the possession of everybody, irrespective of race, and in equal quantities. But race does pose a challenge: Can our dedication to those propositions show itself to be stronger than an understanding of human society built upon race, ethnicity, or other considerations?
Have we recently seen an oversimplification of some of these complex issues? We’ve been seeing oversimplifications for generations, almost from before the beginning of the United States. We have struggled to deal with definitions of what constitutes race and difference. They have changed dramatically over time, because what enters into considerations of race is culture, ethnicity, appearance. And perception plays a major role: Is race all about skin color? If so, there are some real difficulties in understanding how race operates among the various shades of human biology. And what’s the relationship between color and culture? These questions have continued to be with us, to plague us, to show inconsistencies—but at the same time to also show remarkable degrees of triumph.
And you can’t triumph if you are not wrestling with these issues. Exactly. Wrestling with it, while painful, may actually be a sign of health. Lincoln compared what was said in the Declaration of Independence to the announcement in the Gospels, “Be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” It was not a statement that you are going to be as perfect as your Father in heaven. It’s that you’re going to aspire to a standard of what is right, good, and true, that gives glory to your Father. Likewise, the promise of equality in the declaration is something we aspire to.
What about the opposite: Is refusing to deal with race a sign of poor societal health? We often talk about the importance of colorblindness, and there is a degree of virtue in colorblindness, if we’re talking about a refusal to impute inferiority to people when it’s not deserved. But colorblindness can also have the downside of saying that cultural identity should mean nothing, that you have no right to a cultural identity. For many African Americans today, the idea of being treated purely on the basis of one’s own merits is highly desirable. But does that require the sacrifice of black cultural aspects—from jazz to Spike Lee—in the name of colorblindness? The best way to start to address these complexities is to go back to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
And for Christians, God’s Word. Natural rights and natural law cannot be easily separated from the gospel. We see marvelous parallels. After all, what did Jefferson invoke when he talked about these self-evident truths? He said we are endowed with them by our Creator. When we look in the Gospels, we see lots of difference based on nationality and ethnicity. There is the Ethiopian eunuch, there is gentile, Jew, Greek, Roman. There’s a recognition of those differences, and yet, God has made of one flesh, of one blood, all the nations of the earth.
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