Slanting History to Smear Hulu’s 1619 Series

Promotional image for the 1619 Project. Image Source: Hulu – Fair Use

This month, Nicole Hannah-Jones, with the help of Oprah, took the Right’s favorite target of historical censorship, the New York Times’ “1619 Project” to Hulu as a six-part mini-series. Phillip W. Magness, an early historical critic of the 1619 Project, immediately jumped on the first episode proclaiming in Reason magazine that Hannah-Jones and her consulting expert, historian Woody Holton, “peddles false history.” But a closer look at Magness’ criticisms reveals that lacking actual historical evidence, the MAGA attempt to malign historians who document that slavery was an integral factor in the American Revolution is just a furious blur of misdirection, omission, and half-truths.

Phillip W. Magness was one of the first to pen a book condemning the 1619 Project. His instant book, The1619 Project: A Critique, was published in 2020 by the rightwing think-tank that signs his paychecks, the American Institute for Economic Research, whose mission is to promote “the value of personal freedom, free enterprise, property rights, limited government, and sound money.” Ever since Magness has been flogging away at Hannah-Jones and any historians who defend the proposition that the American Revolution had anything to do with slavery.

Like most conservatives, Magness is deeply troubled by the suggestion that American patriots may have been angered by British plans to emancipate enslaved Americans and use them to pacify the troublesome colonists. Magness brands “the assertion that British overtures toward emancipation impelled the American colonists into revolution” the “most troublesome claim”.  In particular, Magness objects to a scene in which Hannah-Jones and Holton sit in front of Virginia’s old capitol in Williamsburg and Holton observes that “Dunmore issued that Emancipation Proclamation November 1775…and that Emancipation Proclamation infuriated white southerners.”

Magness’ pounces on this assertion, declaring this to be “false history” because “at the time of his decree, the real Dunmore had not set foot in Williamsburg in almost five months.” He then explains that Dunmore’s proclamation could not have been a cause of the rebellion in Virginia because it was a reaction to it: “By November 7, 1775—the date of the order—he had long lost any semblance of control over the colony…In retrospect, it was a desperate move to restore himself to power by inducing a slave revolt amid the already-unfolding revolution, rather than any true attempt to affect ‘emancipation’ at large…[this] inescapable progression of the timeline has always worked against Hannah-Jones’ narrative.” Triumphantly, Magness then crows, “Hannah-Jones’ latest chronological mishap adds to a long list of errors that have plagued the 1619 Project.”

Then Magness drops what he thinks is his big gotcha: Dunmore could not have been such a great ‘emancipator’ because he owned slaves himself! “Yes, the 1619 Project’s designated agent of “emancipation” for the British crown was an enslaver himself.” Boom.

All this is, of course, rank sophistry. Whether Dunmore himself owned slaves is irrelevant and just a ball of dust Magness throws in the face of the public to distract them from the real story. More importantly, Magness misrepresents the history that Holton and Hannah-Jones present. They do not, in fact, argue that Dunmore’s Proclamation was the spark of revolution in Virginia, but carefully walk the audience through a chain of evidence showing that what began as rumors of English recruitment of American slaves grew into widespread belief in the governor’s plans to turn patriot slaves against them when Dunmore attempted to sneak the colony’s cache of gunpowder out of the armory.

Hannah-Jones narrates this history earlier in that episode, ““In April of 1775, rumors of slave revolts were running rampant in Virginia, sparking paranoia among the white colonists.” Holton then adds, “Governor Dunmore said, ‘If you touch a hair on my head, I will declare freedom to the slaves and reduce the town of Williamsburg to ashes.’ He thought, ‘if I play this card of threatening to free the slaves, that will scare them off.’” Holton also notes that James Madison at the time “reported that African Americans had started to hold meetings to choose who would lead them, to quote him, “when the English troops should arrive.”

The fact is that the actual proclamation that came months later only confirmed what Virginia’s rebels had long believed and were acting upon, namely, that their own government was preparing to put down their rebellion by offering freedom to the people they enslaved. For example, in early 1775, before the Williamsburg gunpowder episode, William Lee, son of one of Virginia’s most powerful and wealthy families, wrote home from London: “I am informed by unquestionable authority, that he, Lord Dunmore, has wrote to the ministry that the negroes have a notion the King intends to make them all free, and that the [patriot] Associations, Congress and Conventions are all contrivances of their masters to prevent the King’s good intentions towards them and keep them still slaves”.[1]

What Magness will not reveal to his readers is this: that Long before Dunsmore’s official announcement in November, many Virginians believed that England’s plan was to turn their slaves against them. As early as June of 1775, the Virginia House of Burgesses discussed Dunsmore’s secret plan “to enfranchise the slaves, on condition they would rebel against their masters.”[2]

No historian has ever claimed, as Magness implies, that protecting slavery was the only reason Virginians rebelled against the Crown, or that Dunmore acted out of benevolence towards enslaved people. Rather, historians have long worked to answer a question that is at the heart of the events leading up to 1776: why were southern colonies so reluctant to rebel compared to the colonies in New England and what pushed them to so rapidly embrace independence in that fateful year? In the last decade an increasing number have documented that fears of English plots to recruit their own slaves to put down their rebellion turned the tide in favor of independence and these rumors solidified with the Williamsburg gunpowder fiasco, just as Holton explained to the camera.

But the right-wing outrage machine is not interested in accuracy or historical facts, only keeping its MAGA base convinced that liberals are the ones slanting history.


[1] William Lee to Robert Carter Nicholas, Mar. 6, 1775, in Letters of William Lee, Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., vol. 1 (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Historical Printing Club, 1891), p. 143, 144.

[2] American Archives, 4th Series, Vol. 2, Peter Force, ed. (Washington, 1839), pp. 1209, 1218.