1776 Honors America’s Diversity in a Way 1619 Does Not

Academic historians, conservatives, and Trotskyist socialists rightly reject The New York Times’ reframing of the past.

"1619" illustration
Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

America’s original revolutionaries, along with Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King Jr., all placed the universalist ideals of the Declaration of Independence at the center of this country’s founding. But that paradigm is under vigorous challenge from The New York Times Magazine. Last summer, the magazine began publishing the 1619 Project, marking the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans’ arrival in Virginia. In essays, stories, poems, podcast episodes, and more, the Times has grappled with how slavery shaped all that followed.

More controversially, the project explicitly aims to reframe American history, rejecting the centrality of 1776 and instead “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.” In 2020, the Times will expand the 1619 Project into a book and promote classroom materials adapted from it.

That revisionist ambition quickly brought out critics—in outlets as normally antagonistic as The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and the World Socialist Web Site—who challenged the Times’s reframing and the factual claims offered as its basis. Last month, five historians alleged significant factual errors in a letter published in the magazine, alongside a response from Jake Silverstein, its editor in chief, who declined to issue corrections. That prompted another round of critical coverage from the World Socialist Web Site and historian Gordon Wood, a leading scholar of the period, who was irked most by the Times Magazine’s doubling down on the claim that a primary reason American colonists favored independence was to protect slavery. “I don’t know of any colonist who said that they wanted independence in order to preserve their slaves,” he wrote. “No colonist expressed alarm that the mother country was out to abolish slavery in 1776.”

That movement conservatives, tenured historians, and the editors of the World Socialist Web Site align so substantially in their critiques has broader significance. The debate over the relative salience of class, race, and hierarchy in the United States has divided the left while yielding odd convergences, and not only between classical liberals on the left and right. Both Trotskyist and movement conservatives can be fiercely protective of the revolution of 1776 and worry that centering race in history and politics divides America in corrosive ways (though they differ wildly on what should or will likely happen if racial fissures recede).

My own judgment diverges somewhat from the main rival factions in this debate. Like many critics, I hope the Times Magazine’s work succeeds in causing more Americans to recognize the remarkable faith that African Americans showed in our country’s promise even in eras when America least deserved it. Yet the core reframing that the 1619 Project advocates would unwittingly set back, rather than advance, the causes of equity and racial inclusion. Placing America’s founding moment in 1776 honors the diversity of its people in a way that 1619 does not.

The 1619 Project began with an introductory piece from its creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and segued into a series of articles surveying the enormous influence of slavery over American music, housing patterns, voting rules, and crime policies, and over American capitalism more generally.

Many initial responses, such as Damon Linker’s in The Week, praised the ambition of the Times project even as they lodged strenuous objections to it. Linker argued that the paper treated history “in a highly sensationalistic, reductionistic, and tendentious way, with the cumulative result resembling agitprop more than responsible journalism or scholarship.” Other early critics worth engaging include Rich Lowry, Michael Brendan Dougherty, and Phillip W. Magness at National Review; Andrew Sullivan at New York; Glenn Loury and John McWhorter at Bloggingheads.tv; Lucas Morel at The American Mind; Wilfred M. McClay at Commentary; Timothy Sandefur at Reason; and Magness again at the American Institute for Economic Research. But little constructive debate about the substance of these critiques ensued, in part because center-left publications such as Vox, Slate, and The Nation tended to mock or pathologize those conservative responses to the 1619 Project that they found vapid (Newt Gingrich came up a lot), instead of grappling with the most thoughtful objections.

The most sustained, ambitious critiques came later—and from an unexpected source: the World Socialist Web Site, published by the Trotskyists at the International Committee of the Fourth International. Social-media users circulated the site’s interviews with academic historians who believe that the 1619 Project got something important wrong about slavery. Among them were Texas State University’s Victoria Bynum, Adolph Reed Jr. of the University of Pennsylvania, Brown’s Gordon Wood, the City University of New York’s James Oakes, and Princeton’s James McPherson. They raised some of the same counterpoints as the widely ignored center-right critics.

Why did a socialist website invest so much time and attention to the 1619 Project? In the view of the site’s editors, The New York Times is engaged in a reactionary, politically motivated “falsification of history” that wrongly centers racial rather than class conflict. “The establishment of a racialist narrative is extremely dangerous,” the Marxist theoretician David North, chairman of the site’s international editorial board, told me in a phone interview. “I cannot think of any action, intellectually or politically, more harmful to the struggle to unite the working class than an argument which asserts the primacy of race as the motivating factor in history.” His efforts to rebut the project flow from his related belief that “the uncompromising defense of the progressive heritage of the two American revolutions”––the Revolutionary and Civil Wars––“is necessary for resisting intellectual retrogression and political reaction, educating the working class, and building a powerful American and international socialist movement.”

Conservatives and socialists alike tread on more perilous ground when they go beyond critique and impute hidden motives to the 1619 Project. In City Journal, Allen C. Guelzo confidently proclaims, “The 1619 Project is not history: it is polemic, born in the imaginations of those whose primary target is capitalism itself and who hope to tarnish capitalism by associating it with slavery.” Just as confidently, the World Socialist Web Site asserts that the Times project comes from an “affluent petty-bourgeois social stratum, determined to make as much money as possible, regardless of where it is coming from,” and that the 1619 Project’s identitarian politics is “a mechanism for dividing the working class, subordinating it to the right-wing, pro-war politics of the Democratic Party, and a mechanism for carrying out bitter struggles within the top ten percent for access to positions in academia, corporate boardrooms and the state.”

Both of these camps can’t be right, but both could be wrong. (While a few critiques of Hannah-Jones at the World Socialist Web Site have struck me as needlessly personal and uncharitable, she is on similarly shaky ground when she characterizes its several writers as “claiming to be socialists”—as if she doubted the Marxist ideological commitments of people who have been publishing Trotskyist polemics for years.)

Multiple sides in this debate see their factions as fighting against a dominant historical narrative. “It is finally time to tell our story truthfully,” the display text introducing the 1619 Project declares, implying that Americans have until now been telling an untruthful or woefully incomplete story.

“There is an implication running through much of the 1619 Project that slavery is a subject that somehow is rarely if ever spoken of in American history,” McClay writes at Commentary. He adds, “The shelves of American libraries groan with books on the subject by many of the greatest American historians, from Oscar Handlin and John Hope Franklin to Winthrop Jordan, Edmund Morgan, Eugene Genovese, Lawrence Levine, David Brion Davis, Stanley Engerman, Gavin Wright, and so on.”

The World Socialist Web Site argues plausibly that the educational establishment and the press already do much more to adequately teach about slavery and its modern legacy than the worker’s movement. “A reader of the 1619 Project would not know that the struggle against slave labor gave way to a violent struggle against wage slavery, in which countless workers were killed,” yet another of its published critiques declared. North and his co-authors Niles Niemuth and Tom Mackaman contend that by omitting major events in the American class struggle—from the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 to the founding of the Socialist Party to the massive industrial battles of the 1930s—the 1619 Project offers “no real history of the African-American population and the events which shaped a population of freed slaves into a critical section of the working class.” How many Americans could describe the origins of something as central to their lives as the eight-hour workday?

These rival claims about which historical facts and narratives are given short shrift mirror a larger divide in which conservatives, socialists, 1619 Project authors, and their allies all represent themselves as marginalized voices.

World Socialist Web Site writers believe they are punching up against conspiring corporate media outlets, well-to-do journalists, international corporations like Shell Oil—which sponsored a Houston event related to the 1619 Project—and a Democratic Party that emphasizes the politics of personal identity rather than class. “The politics of racial, gender and other forms of identity is the politics of the upper-middle class, of all races and genders,” Socialist Equality Party National Secretary Joseph Kishore argued in a lecture on the 1619 Project.

Yet my colleague Ibram X. Kendi, the author of How to Be an Antiracist, casts the 1619 Project project itself as a vehicle for the historically disempowered to punch upward. In his telling, the Trotskyists at the World Socialist Web Site are giving voice to the establishment—which is to say, the professors from prestigious universities that they interviewed precisely because of their stature. “The criticism of the #1619 Project by these historians is part of a larger criticism in response to the tidal wave of revisionist racial history over the last five decades,” Kendi wrote on Twitter. “This revisionist history,” he added, “has largely been written by women, by historians of color, by younger historians, by antiracist white historians. We have rejected the master narrative that has in fact been the master’s narrative.” (Antebellum slave masters and tenured liberals at modern universities do not follow a common master narrative about slavery and its effects on American life.) For years, he continued, these revisionists have been met with “master narrative historians” trying “to limit our access to graduate history programs and tenure-track history jobs.”

I adhere to the classical liberal belief that one needn’t know who possesses which degree of academic, social, or political influence to evaluate whether an asserted fact, a piece of analysis, or a narrative is true or false. But truth-seekers are being thwarted in the 1619 debate, which has hinged on not only what happened in the past, but also who is commenting on it—and how loudly.

In my colleague Adam Serwer’s recent article about five scholars who criticized the 1619 Project in a letter, he noted “a recurrent theme” among historians he spoke with who saw the letter but declined to sign it. “While they may have agreed with some of the factual objections in the letter or had other reservations of their own,” he wrote, “several told me they thought the letter was an unnecessary escalation.” Similarly, North told me the World Socialist Web Site’s editors contacted several historians who have factual critiques but fear the backlash from voicing them publicly. Insofar as such historians are refraining from public comment at all, they do a disservice to public discourse.

In contrast, the Princeton historian Nell Irvin Painter, who declined to sign the letter, had already explained her substantive disagreements with the 1619 Project in a Guardian article. Painter argued that the first Africans who arrived in Virginia were indentured servants, not enslaved ones, and that enslavement was a gradual process. More recently, she told Serwer that the 1619 Project was not history “as I would write it,” but added, “I felt that if I signed on to that [letter], 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.” I’d fault Painter only for implying that the race of a historian is among the factors that should influence whether colleagues sign on to his or her critiques.

Regarding the five signatories who criticized the 1619 Project, the Duke University historian Thavolia Glymph told Serwer, “Maybe some of their factual criticisms are correct. But they’ve set a tone that makes it hard to deal with that.” A letter’s tone is not beyond criticism (though in my view the tone of the letter by the scholars is not particularly noteworthy, let alone disqualifying). But whether certain historians are right or wrong on the facts should matter more than whether the tone of their letter is perfect.

In my outsider’s estimation, historians sympathetic to the goals of the 1619 Project but skeptical of its factual claims do a disservice to its contributors by tiptoeing around them. For a mode of engagement more useful to readers and less patronizing of 1619 Project contributors, see “Fact Checking the 1619 Project and Its Critics,” in which Magness summarizes the Times Magazine’s major assertions and responds to them one by one. He persuasively argues that the Times errs in some disputes but prevails on the merits in others. Whether you agree or disagree with his fact-checking, his judgments are forthright, substantive, and falsifiable.

How does the story of the United States change if we mark the beginning of its history in 1619 instead of 1776? That question, posed in material that the 1619 Project is putting before schoolchildren, moves us beyond matters of fact. But I think a revision of the nation’s founding date would be a substantive mistake that would impede social justice, diminishing a moment that elicits this country’s best while pushing tens of millions of Americans further toward the margins of our national story.

In her essay, Hannah-Jones illuminates the brutality of slavery and the vital ways in which African Americans helped bring about a more perfect union, underscoring the impressiveness of their contributions by skillfully juxtaposing the subjugation most faced with the patriotism most exhibited. “Despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all,” she wrote, “black Americans believed fervently in the American creed.” I concur with her that the plantations of antebellum America are better called “forced labor camps,” that black abolitionists warrant status as Founding Fathers, and that “no people has a greater claim” than African Americans to the Stars and Stripes.

I would add that neither the white settlers at Jamestown, nor the enslaved Africans sold there, nor the author of the Declaration, nor the African Americans denied the rights enumerated therein, nor any of the people celebrated on national holidays has any greater claim to this country’s flag than the most recently naturalized American of any race, color, or creed. Neither white nor black Americans belong at the center of U.S. history, because no racial group belongs there more or less than any other.

American members of the Mayflower Society; descendants of enslaved Africans; Navajos; grandchildren of refugees from Communist dictatorships; Hispanics with ancestors subsumed into the U.S. with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo; and newly naturalized, foreign-born Muslims all share this: utterly equal claims to this creedal, individualist nation, where citizenship is grounded in universalist ideals. The United States can flourish, with its many races, ethnicities, religions, and national-origin groups, because all sorts of people can unite around the principles that every human is created equal and endowed with unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. America flounders most when blood-and-soil factions reject those principles.

For those reasons, I’ve always wanted children to be taught—as I was—that the United States was founded on July 4, 1776, with the declaration of those revolutionary ideals, rather than when the first North Americans crossed a land bridge from Asia into modern Alaska, when the Mayflower arrived, when George Washington’s army secured victory over the British, or when the Constitution was ratified. The words put forth in 1776 would inspire people all over the world to insist that governments are meant to secure rights, and that “when any government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it.” Those words resonated with Toussaint Louverture every bit as much as with Thomas Jefferson. How unique and useful to peg our founding to the expression of ideals that all can share, that are relevant across identities and generations, and that coincided with the moment when the earliest residents of our country formally broke with the prior regime, establishing a nation that endures today. To assert such ideals as our exalted beginning is to intensify the pressure to live up to them.

Any other choice is divisive and arbitrary. To underscore why, consider a 2017 Smithsonian Magazine article by Michael Guasco critiquing “the overstated significance of 1619” and fretting that the elevation of that date “erases the memory of many more African peoples than it memorializes.” In 1526, he wrote, a rebellion by enslaved Africans crippled and ultimately thwarted plans for a Spanish settlement on the coast of what is now South Carolina. Long before Jamestown, Guasco pointed out, African actors wielded the power to destroy European colonial ventures. He went on to argue that “telling the story of 1619 as an ‘English’ story also ignores the entirely transnational nature of the early modern Atlantic world.” And most poisonous of all, he adds, elevating 1619 “casually normalizes white Christian Europeans as historical constants and makes African actors little more than dependent variables in the effort to understand what it means to be American.” It has the unintended consequence of “cementing in our minds” that recently arrived Europeans were already home. “They were not,” he observes. “Europeans were the outsiders. Selective memory has conditioned us to employ terms like settlers and colonists when we would be better served by thinking of the English as invaders or occupiers. In 1619, Virginia was still Tsenacommacah, Europeans were the non-native species, and the English were the illegal aliens. Uncertainty was still very much the order of the day.”

Is that narrative of 1619 any more true or false, any more or less enlightened or intersectional, than the Times narrative? Against charges of arbitrariness or problematic implications, the Times offers no adequate or even straightforward defense of the premise that the arrival of slaves in Jamestown was our true founding, leaning on vague, slippery formulations like “No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed.” Isn’t it equally true that no aspect of subsequent history “has been untouched” by the birth of Christ, the Magna Carta, the genocide of Native Americans, early colonists fleeing religious persecution, the appearance of The Wealth of Nations in 1776, the influence of Spain on the large swaths of North America first colonized by that nation, and a dozen other factors that echo across the centuries?

To substitute 1619 as America’s true founding not only centers one original sin, chattel slavery, over an earlier sin that was also abhorrent and consequential: the genocide and subjugation of indigenous North Americans. That substitution centers a story of white oppressors and black victims while overlooking groups as numerous and varied as indigenous Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, and almost everyone whose ancestors got here after the Civil War (not to mention confounding characters like African slave traders and white abolitionists). Those exclusions will grow in salience to this debate as the U.S. becomes less demographically black and white than today, but no less in need of a unifying national narrative and civic creed.

What relationship, I wonder, does an indigenous Hawaiian have to 1619? How about Andrew Yang? And what about me? I was born in New Mexico, which entered the union in 1912, and raised in California, whose 1850 constitution banned slave labor by consensus. Circa 1860, travelers still arrived more quickly from Manila than New York City or Washington, D.C., and one in 10 California residents was Chinese. Years before I set foot in any of the 13 original colonies, I visited Spanish missions not far from my house, where the hierarchy of the Church in which I was raised subjugated indigenous people. My ancestors were German farmers who settled in the Midwest in the middle of the 19th century and French Cajuns who were expelled from Canada by the British and harassed in Louisiana by Catholic-hating Klansmen. I have no English ancestors I’m aware of. If English Virginia circa 1619 was America’s true founding, I’m not sure what that means for me, let alone a member of the Chumash tribe or a once-interned Japanese American.

But if America’s true founding was the moment in 1776 when universalist ideals were put forth with the aspiration of a nation that would realize them in the future––if those ideals resonated with people from Haiti to France to Russia, with people of all races and religions, benefiting wildly diverse groups as they were more widely realized––that moment is equally inclusive of everyone, past, present, and future, who shares those ideals.

One might counter that a founding narrative of black subjugation and white oppression needn’t be divisive or exclusionary––that everyone born in 2020 is a distinct person from Americans of bygone generations of the same race, that people of any skin color can and should identify with the enslaved victims of 1619 to 1865. I agree. But the 1619 Project itself at times treats African slaves of bygone centuries and African Americans born after Jim Crow ended as one coherent group and bygone slaveholders and today’s white Americans as another, echoing a contestable, reductive, widespread, yet perhaps inevitable conceit. For most, ideals are more easily conceived as transcending race than people, even if one believes that, in truth, race is a pernicious fiction.

The horrors of 1619 are worth commemorating, as are the extraordinary contributions of African Americans. The legacy of slavery, which persists, is worth understanding and remedying. Yet the timeless words and values of the Declaration of 1776, as distinct from its fallible, hypocritical author, are still worth uniting around as the moment our unfinished effort to form a more perfect union began.