Writing in the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf makes an interesting and perhaps overlooked argument about why the NY Times’ 1619 Project is arguably a bad idea in ways that haven’t been fully explored yet. After surveying the criticism of the Project by prominent historians, most of which has been published by the World Socialist Website (see here, here, and here), Friedersdorf makes a broader point about why, to choose a favored SJW term, the Project is problematic.
Marking 1619 as the true founding of the country does focus attention on America’s “original sin” of slavery but at the expense of downplaying the universal truths (life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness) to which all Americans aspire. If 1619 is the real founding, what does that mean for people who became Americans yesterday or those who aren’t part of that legacy of slavery for other reasons? The 1619 Project seems to imply that some who legally adopt our creed may not be as fully a part of our story as others. Is that really the message we want to send to the world? To our own children?
…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.