Wednesday the NY Times Magazine issued a correction to the opening essay of the 1619 Project along with an explanation of the correction:
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 stand behind the basic point, which is that among the various motivations that drove the patriots toward independence was a concern that the British would seek or were already seeking to disrupt in various ways the entrenched system of American slavery…
If the scholarship of the past several decades has taught us anything, it is that we should be careful not to assume unanimity on the part of the colonists, as many previous interpretive histories of the patriot cause did. 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.
Here’s how the contested paragraph of the essay now reads:
Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.
On Twitter, author Nikole Hannah-Jones described the change as small but important. To her credit she admitted her previous claim, which she has defended for weeks, lacked “important context and nuance.”
Well, it’s doesn’t always pay to double down when you are wrong and in this case, as she belatedly admits, she was wrong.
That sounds like a veiled shot at the critics of the Project who presumably did not engage in good faith. Last year, five historians sent the Times a letter arguing that some of the errors in the piece, including the part about the Revolution suggested ideology was trumping history. They wrote “These errors, which concern major events, cannot be described as interpretation or “framing.” They are matters of verifiable fact, which are the foundation of both honest scholarship and honest journalism. They suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.”
In December, the NY Times issued a response to that letter flatly refusing to make any correction regarding the claim about the Revolutionary War.
While we welcome criticism, we don’t believe that the request for corrections to The 1619 Project is warranted…
Within the world of academic history, differing views exist, if not over what precisely happened, then about why it happened, who made it happen, how to interpret the motivations of historical actors and what it all means.
The passages cited in the letter, regarding the causes of the American Revolution and the attitudes toward black equality of Abraham Lincoln, are good examples of this.
It’s not clear what prompted the belated change of heart but if I had to guess it was, at least in part, the piece Politico published March 6 by Northwestern historian Leslie Harris who said she had objected to the same passage about the revolution prior to publication. Here’s a bit of what she wrote:
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.
Harris was making the same point about the Revolution that previous critics had made. In fact, it’s fair to ask if the change made yesterday will satisfy the critics. Pulitzer Prize winning historian Gordon Wood wrote, in his response to the NY Times refusal to issue a correction, that there was no evidence any significant group of American colonists were motivated by the 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.
Finally, the other factor in why the NY Times finally issued this correction may be a live event held last week featuring five historians. Asked directly about that passage of the 1619 Project, some argue that some colonists in the south may have been motivated by this but none seemed to believe it was a primary motive for all colonists. Here’s the event cued up to that question. The answer goes on for about 20 minutes.