Princeton historian: The 1619 Project is 'built on partial truths and misstatements of the facts' (Update)

Princeton’s Sean Wilentz is one of five historians who sent a letter to the NY Times last month requesting that the paper address factual errors in the 1619 Project. In response, the NY Times published the letter along with a lengthy response denying that any corrections were necessary. Today, Wilentz has written a piece for the Atlantic in which he addresses three false claims in the 1619 Project in more detail. He begins with the claim by lead-author Nikole Hannah-Jones 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.” Not so, says Wilentz. In fact, he argues convincingly that British efforts to stop the international slave were inspired by prior colonial efforts:

“By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere,” Hannah-Jones wrote. But apart from the activity of the pioneering abolitionist Granville Sharp, Britain was hardly conflicted at all in 1776 over its involvement in the slave system. Sharp played a key role in securing the 1772 Somerset v. Stewart ruling, which declared that chattel slavery was not recognized in English common law. That ruling did little, however, to reverse Britain’s devotion to human bondage, which lay almost entirely in its colonial slavery and its heavy involvement in the Atlantic slave trade. Nor did it generate a movement inside Britain in opposition to either slavery or the slave trade. As the historian Christopher Leslie Brown writes in his authoritative study of British abolitionism, Moral Capital, Sharp “worked tirelessly against the institution of slavery everywhere within the British Empire after 1772, but for many years in England he would stand nearly alone.” What Hannah-Jones described as a perceptible British threat to American slavery in 1776 in fact did not exist.

“In London, there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade,” Hannah-Jones continued. But the movement in London to abolish the slave trade formed only in 1787, largely inspired, as Brown demonstrates in great detail, by American antislavery opinion that had arisen in the 1760s and ’70s. There were no “growing calls” in London to abolish the trade as early as 1776.

“This would have upended the economy of the colonies, in both the North and the South,” Hannah-Jones wrote. But the colonists had themselves taken decisive steps to end the Atlantic slave trade from 1769 to 1774. During that time, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Rhode Island either outlawed the trade or imposed prohibitive duties on it. Measures to abolish the trade also won approval in Massachusetts, Delaware, New York, and Virginia, but were denied by royal officials. The colonials’ motives were not always humanitarian: Virginia, for example, had more enslaved black people than it needed to sustain its economy and saw the further importation of Africans as a threat to social order. But the Americans who attempted to end the trade did not believe that they were committing economic suicide.

Assertions that a primary reason the Revolution was fought was to protect slavery are as inaccurate as the assertions, still current, that southern secession and the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery.

There’s much more to this section dealing with the Times’ response to this criticism, all of which is worth a look. Next, Wilentz moves on the Hannah-Jones’ claims about Lincoln. Again, this section is long so I’ll just consider a portion of his response to one specific claim from the 1619 Project:

“Like many white Americans,” she wrote, Lincoln “opposed slavery as a cruel system at odds with American ideals, but he also opposed black equality.” This elides the crucial difference between Lincoln and the white supremacists who opposed him. Lincoln asserted on many occasions, most notably during his famous debates with the racist Stephen A. Douglas in 1858, that the Declaration of Independence’s famous precept that “all men are created equal” was a human universal that applied to black people as well as white people. Like the majority of white Americans of his time, including many radical abolitionists, Lincoln harbored the belief that white people were socially superior to black people. He insisted, however, that “in the right to eat the bread without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, [the Negro] is my equal, and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every other man.” To state flatly, as Hannah-Jones’s essay does, that Lincoln “opposed black equality” is to deny the very basis of his opposition to slavery.

Nor was Lincoln, who had close relations with the free black people of Springfield, Illinois, and represented a number of them as clients, known to treat black people as inferior. After meeting with Lincoln at the White House, Sojourner Truth, the black abolitionist, said that he “showed as much respect and kindness to the coloured persons present as to the white,” and that she “never was treated by any one with more kindness and cordiality” than “by that great and good man.”

Wilentz writes, “particularly with regard to the ideas and actions of Abraham Lincoln, Hannah-Jones’s argument is built on partial truths and misstatements of the facts, which combine to impart a fundamentally misleading impression.”

Near the end of the piece Wilentz reaffirms his own liberal bona fides and fondness for the NY Times:

The New York Times has taken a lead in combatting the degradation of truth and assault on a free press propagated by Donald Trump’s White House, aided and abetted by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and spun by the far right on social media. American democracy is in a perilous condition, and the Times can report on that danger only by upholding its standards “without fear or favor.” That is why it is so important that lapses such as those pointed out in our letter receive attention and timely correction. When describing history, more is at stake than the past.

Despite this, many on the left clearly see these criticisms as a revanchist attempt to undo progressive gains in the retelling of American history. I posted this example previously:

I don’t think the critics are trying to “bring down” the 1619 Project. Every one of them, including Wilentz, has said they think the Project is a worthy goal. One side of this ongoing argument (the critics) are trying to talk about a handful of specific facts while the other side (the NY Times) is trying to spin a grand narrative. At the moment, the narrative seems to be winning out over the inconvenient facts. Hopefully that won’t always be the case.

Update: I asked Nikole Hannah-Jones if she planned to respond to Wilentz’ criticism:

To her credit, she replied (but has since deleted, here’s a screenshot):

Nicholas Guyatt is a professor of American history at Cambridge. He has written a lengthy thread replying to the piece. I won’t include all of it but I will refer to the portions that are responsive to the criticisms I quoted above (you can click on any tweet and read the whole thing):

This doesn’t strike me as a definitive rebuttal of Wilentz so much as a plea for further discussion. Guyatt seems to admit that Hannah-Jones hasn’t really substantiated it’s claim, it’s just that he believes it could do so given time and space. That’s fair enough I guess but it’s a lot less cut and dried than the flat claims (about the Revolutionary War, about Lincoln) made in the 1619 Project. It’s one thing to say ‘there might be an alternative way to look at this which has validity.’ It’s something else to state in America’s leading newspaper “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” That does sound like a claim about undeniable facts rather than a point open to vigorous debate.