Historians’ Beef with the New York Times 1619 Project’s View of the American Revolution

The paradox of the antislavery feelings of Founding Fathers

In the summer of 2019, the New York Times Magazine published a series of essays on the role of slavery and racism in American history it called the “1619 Project”. Named for the year in which the first Africans were sold in Virginia, the 1619 Project became a target for a group of renowned historians who took particular aim at its characterization of the American Revolution.

Lead essayist Nikole Hannah-Jones re-centered the history of America through slavery. Among all of Hannah-Jones’ claims, perhaps none riled up this group of historians more than her contention that “Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact 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.” Apparently, this breach in the founding mythology was worth defending and they rushed to repel the assault.

A number of distinguished historians of early America, Sean Wilentz and James McPherson of Princeton, Gordon Wood of Brown, Victoria Bynum of Texas State, and James Oakes of CUNY, wrote a protest to the New York Times Magazine’s editor, Jake Silverstein, in which they wrote: “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…”

Defending his authors, Silverstein noted that a number of noted scholars had documented a series of events that supported the contention that slavery was a factor in the American Revolution, including the ruling of the British High Court in the 1772 case of Somerset v. Stewart that slavery could not be enforced on the English mainland.

Princeton’s Sean Wilentz, eager to have the last word, fired off a more detailed critique to the Atlantic magazine, misleadingly entitled “A Matter of Facts”, that he largely devoted to downplaying the Somerset episode and arguing that English policies never actually posed a threat to American slavery. To do this, Wilentz employs a tactic of specificity: making it appear that he is merely correcting the newspaper of record when he is actually challenging the framing of facts, not their existence.

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