This story isn’t really that complicated except for the fact that the person at the center of it, 1619 Project author Nikole Hannah-Jones, has been doing her best to gaslight everyone else. If you cut through that intentional fog of misdirection and deleted tweets what you’re left with is a clumsy effort to obfuscate what was the most oft-used summary of the entire project by the author herself: The idea that 1619, not 1776, should be considered America’s “true founding.”

Those exact words were used in a preface to the project when it was published by the NY Times (see 2nd tweet below) but at some point the Times quietly removed that language and Hannah-Jones has recently complained that right-wing critics have done a great job at framing those words as if they were a part of her project when, according to her, they never were. I can’t show you the tweet Hannah-Jones wrote complaining about this because she deleted it the next day, but many outlets noted it:

“One thing in which the right has been tremendously successful is getting media to frame stories in their language and through their lens,” wrote Hannah-Jones in a subsequently deleted tweet. “The #1619Project does not argue that 1619 is our true founding. We know this nation marks its founding at 1776.”

She continued this revisionist argument in other now-deleted tweets: “It was one digital description used in promotional material that we took down 9 or 10 months ago.”

Why does this matter? Well, it matters because what Hannah-Jones is claiming is simply not anywhere close to a fair account of how this claim featured in the roll out of the 1619 Project. Simply put, the Pulitzer Prize winning author is lying when she says this appeared once in promotional materials and was never really part of her Project. On the contrary, this same phrase actually appeared over and over from her own mouth when she was describing the Project in various interviews. Yesterday, Atlantic author Conor Friedersdorf pointed those out, albeit somewhat reluctantly:

Friedersdorf said earlier in the thread that he is not against teaching the 1619 Project in schools. What clearly irritates him is that Hannah-Jones is responding to criticism by claiming that the critics are focusing on something she never said or meant. She is basically claiming her critics are fabricating evidence against her instead of admitting this came directly (and repeatedly) from her.

She’s now claiming this is a confusion over literal vs. symbolic meaning:

This supposed distinction Hannah-Jones has introduced over whether she meant 1619 was the actual legal foundation of America or just the symbolic/spiritual founding is more misdirection. Her critics never took her to mean that 1619 was the literal/legal founding. This was always a debate over which date better represents America, the arrival of slaves in 1619 or the Declaration of Independence in 1776. In fact, I wrote about Conor Friedersdorf’s criticism of the 1619 Project and this is how I summed up his criticism at the time:

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?

…I think Friedersdorf is on to something. The focus on 1619 is arbitrary and winds up diminishing the country not just because it puts a spotlight on its most glaring error but because it takes the spotlight off it’s highest ideals.

Again, no one was making a legal argument about the correct technical date of the founding. That’s a dodge. The argument was always understood as one about the adoption of different dates placed on history.

And the claim that 1619 was our “true founding” matters because it’s very much a claim that 1619 matters more than 1776. Again, not as a legal date but as the most important part of the nation’s history. The fact that Hannah-Jones has made this exact claim multiple times demonstrates that, even if those words never appeared in her essay, she considered them a fair and useful way to sum up the gist of her project. Here, via Friedersdorf, are the receipts:

“You don’t make certain arguments like, let’s consider 1619 our true founding and not 1776…”

She’s almost repeated herself verbatim, like this was a script: “I mean one does not make the arguments that we were making—that we should consider 1619 our true founding…”

“I think it was the evocative nature of the argument, an argument saying actually 1776 is not our true founding.”

The NY Times editor who worked with Hannah-Jones called it “a powerful simplification of the project” and she didn’t disagree with that.

That last tweet is really the bottom line. Everyone involved in this discussion has understood what Hannah-Jones was trying to do, The question is whether 1619 really does represent the “true founding” or not. She doesn’t seem prepared to acknowledge or debate with critics, like Friedersdorf, who offer good reasons that maybe this isn’t the best or most accurate representation of America to perpetuate or pass on to children. Here’s a bit of what he said:

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.

These are good questions and ones Hannah-Jones should attempt to address. Instead, she’s claiming, contra evidence, that “true founding” was never part of what she claimed about the Project or, alternatively, that she meant those words symbolically while critics are taking them literally. This isn’t an argument in good faith, it’s a dodge, similar to when she ignored and downplayed criticisms of her take on the Revolutionary War until it came out that she’d been told her claims weren’t true prior to publication but ran with them anyway. She doesn’t seem to have any good answers to her critics now, just as she didn’t then.

Finally, while I don’t always agree with Conor Friedersdorf, he deserves a lot of credit in this case for sticking to his guns and not allowing himself to be bullied into submission. I hope he can keep it up but the pressure to fall in line must be tremendous.