Inaugurated in a 100-page special issue of The New York Times Magazine on August 14, 2019, the so-called “1619 Project” began mostly as a collection of essays — plus some short stories and poems — whose unifying theme is their claim that America is a racist nation that was born with the original sin of slavery and can never be redeemed. The Project was the brainchild of Nikole Hannah-Jones, a 43-year-old black nationalist employed as a staff writer at The New York Times. The date of the Project’s launch was intended to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans in the English colonies of North America.
The 1619 Project is an expression of Hannah-Jones’s worldview, which, as evidenced by a letter she wrote to the editor of the Notre Dame Observer in 1995, was formed at an early age. Titled “Modern Savagery,” that letter reveals the author’s visceral hatred for America and for white people, despite the fact that her own mother is white. Condemning “the white race’s rape, plunder and genocide of a whole race of people,” the letter declares: “The white race is the biggest murderer, rapist, pillager and thief of the modern world…. Christopher Columbus and those like him were no different than Hitler. The crimes they committed were unnecessarily cruel and can only be described as acts of the devil.”
That, in essence, represents the philosophical underpinning of The 1619 Project. When the Project was first unveiled, Times editorial board member Mara Gay wrote: “In the days and weeks to come, we will publish [more] essays demonstrating that nearly everything that has made America exceptional grew out of slavery.” And in a formal statement, the Times editorial board elaborated collectively: “The 1619 Project is a major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”
Hannah-Jones wrote an introduction to The 1619 Project, titled “America Wasn’t a Democracy Until Black Americans Made It One.” In that essay, which appeared in the aforementioned special issue of The New York Times Magazine, she asserts that America’s declaration of independence from England was nothing more than a sham designed chiefly to protect the institution of slavery. Such American ideals as freedom and equality of rights were, by the author’s telling, merely rhetorical smokescreens in whose name the country’s apparent Founders mobilized their own material self-interests. But the real Founders — those who “have fought to make … our democracy’s founding ideals … true” — have always been “black Americans,” writes Hannah-Jones.
The other essays that appeared along with Hannah-Jones’s in The New York Times Magazine were the following:
The 1619 Project’s self-evident purpose is to erase the actual foundation of the nation born in 1776 and memorialized by Lincoln as a “new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Quite simply, The Project embodies a narrative that paints America as nothing more than an uninterrupted exercise of “white supremacy” and of brutal oppression by whites of nonwhite peoples, particularly nonwhites who were brought to America’s shores from Africa. To put it another way, The 1619 Project is a moral melodrama whose main characters are single-dimensional constructs of collectives — whites, blacks, “the colonists,” “slaves,” etc. — whose storylines coalesce around one over-arching plot. This plot is slavery.
Hannah-Jones’s explanation of the project to trace America’s Founding to 1619 instead of 1776 or 1787, describes the pivotal event in these words: “In August 1619, just 12 years after the English settled Jamestown, Va.,… the Jamestown colonists bought 20 to 30 enslaved Africans from English pirates. The pirates had stolen them from a Portuguese slave ship that had forcibly taken them from what is now the country of Angola. Those men and women who came ashore on that August day were the beginning of American slavery. They were among the 12.5 million Africans who would be kidnapped from their homes and brought in chains across the Atlantic Ocean in the largest forced migration in human history until the Second World War.”
That description is a tissue of fictions beginning with the insinuation that 12.5 million Africans were shipped to America in the Atlantic Slave Trade. The proper figure is 330,000 – a sign that American slavery even in the Western Hemisphere was significantly less extensive than Hannah-Jones pretends that it was. More strikingly, the statement that this was “the beginning of American slavery” is false on its face. It was a continuation of English – not American – practice.
And the 20 Africans who were brought to Virginia in 1619 were not slaves. As the distinguished African-American Princeton historian, Nell Painter, observed in a critique of The 1619 Project, the African newcomers to Virginia in 1619 were indentured servants, meaning that they would be free within a set number of years, usually five to seven. In fact, the majority of laborers in the Virginia colony were indentured servants, almost all of them white. Moreover, neither the 20 indentured servants who arrived in Virginia in 1619, nor the vast majority of actual slaves who came later, were “kidnapped” by white Englishmen or any other whites. They were bought from black African slave owners at slave auctions centered in Ghana and Benin. The 20 indentured servants who arrived in Virginia in 1619 had been captured and indentured by black African warlords as spoils of war. “It was the Africans themselves who were enslaving their fellow Africans, sending them to the coast to be shipped outside,” said researcher Akosua Perbi of the University of Ghana as quoted in a 1995 article posted on CNN’s website. All of these facts undermine the Times’ attack on America’s founding, so Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project omits them.
The ideological character of The 1619 Project is manifest in the subtitle of Hannah-Jones’ introduction: “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.” This claim is based first of all on a grammatical misunderstanding of the word “ideals,” and then on an extravagant distortion of the historical record. “Ideals” are, by their very nature, aspirations, not facts. The Founders’ ideals were actually commitments they made which they and their heirs did carry out.
Secondly, Hannah-Jones’ characterization of the Founders as pro-slavery in her introduction is likewise a slander. In the words of C. Bradley Thompson’s America’s Revolutionary Mind, his scholarly study of the Founders’ attitudes: “Not a single revolutionary leader ever publicly praised slavery as a positive good. Benjamin Franklin, speaking as president of the Pennsylvania Society of Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, described slavery as ‘an atrocious debasement of human nature.’ George Washington, a slaveholder, told a friend, ‘There is not a man living, who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of [slavery].’ At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, James Madison told his colleagues, ‘We have seen the mere distinction of color made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.’”
Hannah-Jones’ claim that the Founders led a revolution to protect slavery is also transparently false. The year 1787 saw the passing of the Northwest Ordinance, which established settlement of the region that would become Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. It was a geographical area as large as the existing 13 states. The Ordinance outlawed slavery in this unsettled land.
Inspired by their commitment to equality and liberty, the American Founders immediately began dismantling the institution of slavery in the northern states, which were soon referred to as the “Free States,” a process completed by 1804.
Critics ask why the Founders did not simply abolish slavery throughout all the United States. An obvious, compelling reason was that they feared the catastrophe of a civil war which eventually did kill more Americans than all of America’s other wars combined.
But there was an even worse prospect for them to consider. If the Founders had attempted to abolish slavery in the Slave South in 1787, the South would have joined forces with the British – the greatest empire in the world, whose soldiers managed to burn the White House in the War of 1812. Such an alliance would likely have defeated the free states of the North, and the victorious South might have extended the reign of slavery for a very long time. Thus, the Founders sought to delay a bloodbath that might result in an extension of slavery, believing that the South’s backward economic system was bound to fall of its own weight.
But neither Hannah-Jones nor the Times editors choose to ask the serious question of why the anti-slavery signers of the Declaration of Independence might have had reason to compromise with the Slave South. For them, the only possible answer is white hypocrisy, white perfidy, and white racism.
Neither does The 1619 Project mention that the Constitution contained a critical clause permitting the possibility of a firm prohibition on any further importation of slaves starting on January 1, 1808. Nor does the Project note that Congress, in the meantime, passed legislation regulating the trade in slaves by U.S. ships in the open ocean waters.
The 1619 Project is likewise silent on the fact that in December 1806, President Thomas Jefferson’s annual message to Congress included the following passage: “I congratulate you, fellow-citizens, on the approach of the period at which you may interpose your authority constitutionally to withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa, and which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country have long been eager to proscribe.”
The real purpose of The 1619 Project is revealed in Nikole Hannah-Jones’s claim that “Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.” The obvious point of the DNA metaphor is that racism, rather than liberty and the proposition that all men are created equal, are the essence of America’s democracy.
James Oakes, himself a leftist, was one of four major American historians to sign a joint statement challenging the historical distortions and ideological nature of The 1619 Project: “These are really dangerous tropes,” he warned. “They’re not only ahistorical, they’re actually anti-historical. The function of those tropes is to deny change over time…. They say, ‘look at how terribly black people were treated under slavery. And look at the incarceration rate for black people today. It’s the same thing. Nothing changes. There has been no industrialization. There has been no Great Migration. We’re all in the same boat we were back then. And that’s what original sin is. It’s passed down. Every single generation is born with the same original sin…. There’s nothing we can do to get out of it.’ If it’s the DNA, there’s nothing you can do. What do you do? Alter your DNA?”
Another world-renowned historian who has repudiated The 1619 Project is Gordon Wood, who was a co-signatory to a letter authored by a group of historians and sent to Jake Silverstein, editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine. But Silverstein refused to make any of the corrections to the claims of The 1619 Project that the letter urged him to make. Wood, in turn, replied: “I don’t know of any colonist who said that they wanted independence in order to preserve their slaves.” And as far as Northerners were concerned, Wood noted that far “from preserving slavery [,] the North saw the Revolution as an opportunity to abolish the institution.” In the years immediately following 1776, said Wood, the “first anti-slave movements in the history of the world, supported by whites as well as blacks, took place in the northern states [.]” Wood also alluded to John Adams, “who hated slavery and owned no slaves,” and who was more “responsible for the Declaration of Independence” than anyone, as the quintessential Northerner who could not possibly have found slavery “worth preserving.”
The 1619 Project also contends that slavery made America wealthy, and that the nation’s modern-day affluence is thus a dividend of the most pernicious evil imaginable. Wilfred Reilly, an African American associate professor of political science at Kentucky State University, has answered this claim. Says Reilly:
“Slavery made some Americans rich—true enough. Eli Yale, for example, made a fortune in the slave trade. He donated money and land for the university that is named after him. But the institution of slavery didn’t make America rich. In fact, the slave system badly slowed the economic development of half the country.
“As economist Thomas Sowell points out, in 1860, just one year before the Civil War began, the South had only one-sixth as many factories as the North. Almost 90% of the country’s skilled, well-paid laborers and professionals were based in the North. Banking, railroads, manufacturing—all were concentrated in the North. The South was an economic backwater.
“And the cost of abolishing slavery was enormous—not merely in terms of dollars (Lincoln borrowed billions to pay for it), but also in terms of human life: 360,000 Union soldiers died in order to free 4 million slaves. That works out to about one soldier in blue for every ten slaves freed. It’s hard to look at that butcher’s bill and conclude that the nation turned a profit from slavery.”
Nikole Hannah-Jones was awarded, for her 1619 Project, the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. Moreover, the Pulitzer Center, as The 1619 Project’s official education partner, facilitated the implantation of curricula based on the Project into some 4,500 classrooms nationwide between August 2019 and May 2020. As the Pulitzer Center boasts:
The 1619 Project is also supported by the Smithsonian Institution.
Major Sources: “The Hate America Project” (by David Horowitz, February “The ‘1619 Project’ Wins a Pulitzer” (by Jack Kerwick, How the 1619 Project Destroys the True Moral Meaning of America” (by Jason Hill, M
The Fight Over the 1619 Project
By Cathy Young
February 9, 2020
1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project (book review)
By Danusha V. Goska
The Missing Half of the 1619 Project
By Bill Warner
June 8, 2021
What’s Wrong With the 1619 Project?
By Wilfred Reilly (Prager University)