Oxford historian on the 1619 Project: 'A preposterous and one-dimensional reading' of American history

The World Socialist Website published another interview with a historian who takes issue with the NY Times’ 1619 Project. Oxford historian Richard Carwardine is the author of a book on Lincoln and an expert on the Civil War. Like the other historians the WSWS has interviewed, Carwardine found the 1619 Project troubling and ultimately “wrong” in some ways:

[WSWS] Let me begin by asking you your reaction to the 1619 Project’s lead essay, by Nikole Hannah-Jones, upon reading it.

[Carwardine] As well as the essay I have read your interviews with James McPherson and James Oakes. I share their sense that, putting it politely, this is a tendentious and partial reading of American history.

I understand where this Project is coming from, politically and culturally. Of course, the economic well-being of the United States and the colonies that preceded it was constructed for over two-and-a-half centuries on the labor and sufferings of slaves; of course, like all entrenched wielders of power, the white political elite resisted efforts to yield up its privileges. But the idea that the 1619 Project’s lead essay is a rounded history of America—with relations between the races so stark and unyielding—I find quite shocking. I am troubled that this is designed to make its way into classrooms as the true story of the United States, because, as I say, it is so partial. It is also wrong in some fundamentals.

I’m all for recovering and celebrating the history of those whose voices have been historically muted and I certainly understand the concern of historians in recent times, black and white, that the black contribution to the United States has not been fully recognized. But the idea that the central, fundamental story of the United States is one of white racism and that black protest and rejection of white superiority has been the essential, indispensable driving force for change—which I take to be the central message of that lead essay—seems to me to be a preposterous and one-dimensional reading of the American past.

Much of the interview focuses on the context of two incidents involving President Lincoln which Carwardine suggests have been cherry-picked by the Times to presented a misleading picture of his developing views on race. I won’t excerpt this section because it’s too long, but Carwardine notes that Frederick Douglass’ view of Lincoln was much more positive than the picture the 1619 Project presents, which may explain why Douglass’ views of Lincoln simply aren’t mentioned:

[Carwardine] Where in Nikole Hannah-Jones’s reading of Lincoln, and in her wider perspective, is the voice of the greatest of all African-Americans, Frederick Douglass? He doesn’t appear. Douglass was not uncritical of Lincoln: he famously said that the black race were only Lincoln’s stepchildren. But he also came to extol Lincoln, too, as a white man who put him at his ease, treating him as an equal, with no thought of the “color of our skins,” and showing he could conceive of a society in which blacks and whites lived together in a degree of harmony, that racial relationships in the US America were not irredeemably fixed by its 17th and 18th century past…

My concern with the 1619 Project is not that it highlights the often-cited Lincoln remarks of 1858 and the White House meeting of August 1862. They are part of the overall story. They are real and are not to Lincoln’s credit. But they are thoroughly un-contexted, historically deaf, and blind to a broader reality. Which of us would want to be judged on the basis of two snapshots in our lives? If the essence of Lincoln is captured in these episodes, then why does Frederick Douglass, arguably the preeminent African-American of all time, come to admire Lincoln as a great man and leader? Through his successive encounters with Lincoln, Douglass developed a growing respect and admiration for a president who sought to live up to a progressive reading of the principles of the Declaration of Independence—one, by the way, that is very much at odds with the reading of that document in the 1619 lead essay.

[WSWS] I’m glad you’ve raised Frederick Douglass. I think there’s been, from some quarters, this sort of knee-jerk reaction to any criticism of the 1619 Project, and some of this has been playing out on Twitter, where one person said, “You’re trying to silence black voices.” But one of the ironies is that there are very few historical black voices in the entire 1619 Project. As you say, Douglass isn’t there. Neither is Martin Luther King, whose name appears only in a photo caption. To say nothing of wage labor, or any attempt to present the African-American experience as having to do with masses of actually existing people. Instead, the focus is on white racism as this sort of supra-historical force.

[Carwardine] You’re exactly right.

There’s much more in the interview, including Carwardine’s views on the importance of protestant abolitionists in the decades prior to the Civil War.

Finally, I pointed out earlier that the Times published a letter written by a few of its historian-critics, but also published a response refusing to make any corrections to the 1619 Project. One of the historians, Gordon Wood, has written his own response to the Times’ rebuttal. A sample:

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.

You can read Wood’s full response here.