Nikole Hannah-Jones, author of the lead essay for the NY Times’ 1619 Project, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for commentary today. The Pulitzer website describes the Project as, “a sweeping, deeply reported and personal essay…which seeks to place the enslavement of Africans at the center of America’s story, prompting public conversation about the nation’s founding and evolution.”

It certainly did prompt a lot of conversation, I’ll give it that. Still, it’s a bit odd that the committee overlooked the fact that the Times and author Nikole Hannah-Jones were strongly criticized by a number of professional historians for the accuracy of claims made in the essay. One particular flashpoint was the claim that the Revolutionary War was prompted by a desire on the part of colonists to protect the institution of slavery. The Times initially refused to make any corrections to the piece after it was criticized by several experts in the field, but eventually, in March, they issued a belated “clarification.

Today we are making a clarification to a passage in an essay from The 1619 Project that has sparked a great deal of online debate. The passage in question states that one primary reason the colonists fought the American Revolution was to protect the institution of slavery. This assertion has elicited criticism from some historians and support from others…

We recognize that our original language could be read to suggest that protecting slavery was a primary motivation for all of the colonists. The passage has been changed to make clear that this was a primary motivation for some of the colonists. A note has been appended to the story as well.

Author Hannah-Jones admitted she had made an error that needed “clarification.”

That was a reversal because back in December of 2019, the Times looked over the criticism and pronounced that no correction was necessary about any subject the critics of the piece had raised, including the one about the motivations for the Revolutionary War.

As I wrote at the time, the change of heart seemed to be prompted by a story published by Politico in which Northwestern historian Leslie Harris said she had been asked about this specific assertion before the essay was published, but her opposition to it was ignored:

On August 19 of last year I listened in stunned silence as Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for the New York Times, repeated an idea that I had vigorously argued against with her fact-checker: that the patriots fought the American Revolution in large part to preserve slavery in North America…

Weeks before, I had received an email from a New York Times research editor. Because I’m an historian of African American life and slavery, in New York, specifically, and the pre-Civil War era more generally, she wanted me to verify some statements for the project. At one point, she sent me this assertion: “One critical reason that the colonists declared their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery in the colonies, which had produced tremendous wealth. At the time there were growing calls to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire, which would have badly damaged the economies of colonies in both North and South.”

I vigorously disputed the claim. Although slavery was certainly an issue in the American Revolution, the protection of slavery was not one of the main reasons the 13 Colonies went to war.

So Nikole Hannah-Jones had been warned by a historian ahead of time that this wasn’t true and ran with it anyway. Why? The reason for that is the real story of the 1619 Project. The goal was to re-frame American history as entirely concerned with slavery and the perpetuation of slavery. As such, the Revolutionary War and the founding of American in 1776 had to be displaced with the new founding date of 1619. But that meant that the story of the American Revolution had to be worked into the narrative. So that’s what Hannah-Jones did by claiming that the Revolutionary War itself was primarily about the protection of slavery. The problem is that it’s just not true. In fact, Pulitzer Prize winning historian Gordon Wood wrote that there was no significant group of American colonists who were motivated by a desire to protect slavery:

I have spent my career studying the American Revolution and cannot accept the view 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.” I don’t know of any colonist who said that they wanted independence in order to preserve their slaves. No colonist expressed alarm that the mother country was out to abolish slavery in 1776. If southerners were concerned about losing their slaves, why didn’t they make efforts to ally with the slaveholding planters in the British West Indies? Perhaps some southern slaveholders were alarmed by news of the Somerset decision, but we don’t have any evidence of that. Besides, that decision was not known in the colonies until the fall of 1772 and by that date the colonists were well along in their drive to independence. Remember, it all started in 1765 with the Stamp Act. The same is true of Dunmore’s proclamation of 1775. It may have tipped the scales for some hesitant Virginia planters, but by then the revolutionary movement was already well along in Virginia.

There is no evidence in 1776 of a rising movement to abolish the Atlantic slave trade, as the 1619 Project erroneously asserts, nor is there any evidence the British government was eager to do so. But even if either were the case, ending the Atlantic slave trade would have been welcomed by the Virginia planters, who already had more slaves than they needed. Indeed, the Virginians in the years following independence took the lead in moving to abolish the despicable international slave trade.

In any case, none of this seems to have mattered to the Pulitzer Prize committee.

A good point here. Just as with the Tara Reade allegations, people on the left and right can complain but the tastemakers handing out prizes just don’t care:

This award is how an essay of dubious accuracy gets turned into a national curriculum:

James Lindsay pointed to this prestigious prize as one step in the process of “idea laundering.”

It won’t be long before this award-winning commentary is required reading for students, minus the part where professional historians dispute its accuracy.

A whole new host of social justice warriors pushing identity politics. That does seem to be where this is headed.