1619 and the Poisoned Well of Identity Politics

When it comes to the New York Times’s 1619 Project, anthropologist Peter Wood minces no words.

Toward the end of his book, 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project, he makes abundantly clear why such a response is essential. “The 1619 Project is, arguably, part of a larger effort to destroy America by people who find it unbearably bad,” writes Wood. “The project treats the founding principles of our nation as an illusion—a contemptible illusion. In their place is a single idea: that America was founded on racist exploitation.”

In other words, as he methodically demolishes its main arguments, Wood pays the project a compliment: he takes it seriously, but as a threat to our national wellbeing. The 1619 Project, he avers, “poses a particular danger to America.”

A courtly and erudite former tenured professor at Boston University, who now heads the National Association of Scholars in New York, the naturally diffident Wood has decided to take up pen to defend America against this peril. The country is lucky that he has.

Almost immediately upon its appearance on Sunday, August 18, 2019, in a special edition of the New York Times Magazine, the 1619 Project hit a nerve. In some ways, it energized people, especially conservatives, who had become too complacent about seeing America and its ideals torn down by the culture-makers. In the oft-used urban legend of the frog being boiled to death in a pot of water by someone very incrementally ratcheting up the heat, the 1619 Project represented a sudden turn of the flame to full intensity.

Wood’s 1620 may be one sign that the frog is finally waking from its torpor and is jumping to safety just in time. My colleagues at The Heritage Foundation’s Edwin J. Feulner Institute, which includes as visiting scholars the historians Allen Guelzo and Wilfred McClay, have also led a campaign to spotlight the many problems with the 1619 Project. I have written a few of these arguments myself. Robert Woodson, the founder of the Woodson Center, has assembled a number of black academics to join the campaign against what the New York Times is doing, and formed what is now known as 1776 Unites.

Crafting the Narrative

Why is this all needed? The 1619 Project is a venture by the Times to rewrite history and to put slavery at the center of America’s story. It contends that everything about our lives today still revolves around slavery and racism. Along the way, its authors have made a series of other outlandish claims.

One of its main ones, and from which it derives its name, is that America’s real foundational year is not 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was signed, but 1619, when the first enslaved Africans were brought to what is now the United States. Another is that the colonists fought the revolution because they feared that Britain would end the practice of slavery. We’re also told that slavery begat America’s form of capitalism, which is “low road” and brutal, and which was then exported to the rest of the world. Abraham Lincoln himself is not spared revisionism; rather than the Great Emancipator, he is cast as an aberrant racist. “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written,” began the project’s foundational essay, by Nikole Hannah-Jones, the pugnacious architect of the 1619 Project.

It is not a one-time event but an ongoing venture. The inaugural special issue the 1619 Project appeared in was comprised of articles that spelled out its mission, but that was just the opening salvo. Most perniciously, and the reason so many of us swung into action immediately, the 1619 Project also offers a curriculum, one introduced by the Times’ partner in the project, the Pulitzer Center, into classrooms from elementary school on up (4,500 classrooms at last count).

Other 1619-related articles have since appeared. Hannah-Jones penned one of the most important of these, and the essay clarified that one of the main goals of the project was reparations, to be paid to Black Americans today, for the enslavement of their ancestors. The headline, “What Is Owed,” was written in yellow in large type against a black background. This past summer, Hannah-Jones received a Pulitzer Prize for opinion writing for the project’s foundational essay.

It is the 1619-centered curriculum that most stuck in the craw of conservatives and energized them into action. As Wood makes clear at the start of 1620, “The larger aim of the 1619 Project is to change America’s understanding of itself,” and it is attempting to do that by misleading the nation’s most impressionable minds. The Pulitzer Center, which markets the curriculum, addresses itself to teachers, bypassing the elected legislators in the 50 states and the members of the school boards in the nation’s some 13,000 districts. Wood quotes the announcement by the Pulitzer Center, which is unaffiliated with the Pulitzer Prizes, as saying, “Teachers: Looking for ways to use this issue in your classroom? You can find curriculums, guides and activities for students developed by the Pulitzer Center… and it’s all free!” The lesson plans include Hannah-Jones’s essays and those of others.

With 1620, Wood attempts not to take us back to the days when the achievements and even the presence of African Americans, as well as the blight of slavery, were swept under the rug by history books. Indeed, 1620 is, to its great credit, forthright that a long era did exist when American history textbooks “combined neglect with bigotry in their treatment of slavery, racism, and African-American life.” Blacks were represented as generally indolent, slaves had to be whipped because they were lazy, plantation owners were benevolent, and after the Civil War and Reconstruction (an era that these history books presented as corrupt, filled with “carpetbaggers and scalawags”), the terror of the KKK was minimized.

Wood goes to some length to document what happened and quotes from books guilty of whitewashing the generational tragedy that was slavery. He also makes clear, however, that this situation existed “several generations ago.” Yes, he writes, “indignation is the proper response to these sorts of books. But that indignation should be tempered by the realization that such books are long gone from the American classroom.” The change in textbooks, as with so much in America, came during the 1960s, when activists began to push for textbooks that centralized slavery and the black experience.

Overcoming Racism

So with 1620, Wood seeks to take us not back to the ‘60s, nor to the decades that preceded it, but forward to a better place, one where we center our understanding of America on the ideals and customs that have allowed the country to overcome its challenges. “Surely there are ways to incorporate a forthright treatment of slavery, racism, and the black experience into the story of America’s rise as a free, self-governing, creative, and prosperous nation,” he writes. “The key to doing that is to put the pursuit of the ideals of liberty and justice at the center of the story, with ample of acknowledgement of how hard the struggle has been and how imperfect the results.”

Indeed, the very makeup of Wood’s book guides us gently to the things that matter. It is a short book, with easy-to-read prose. Each of the 14 chapters is named for a date in our history, except for the last one, on solutions, which is aptly titled “The Future.” Thus, there is a chapter on 1776, with a discussion of the Declaration, another about October 1621, relegated to the early years of the Plymouth colony and the events surrounding the first Thanksgiving. As for the book’s title, the professor makes a forthright case that, if we are to place the start of the American experiment on any year other than 1776, the honor should go to 1620, the year of the Mayflower Compact.

Signed aboard the Mayflower by 41 of the 101 passengers as the ship anchored outside Cape Cod on November 11, 1620, the Mayflower Compact was the future country’s first attempt to come up with rules by which men would govern themselves. Though Wood does not put it in terms of natural law—and the establishment of the Plymouth colony of course predates the Enlightenment—the compact can be understood as men in a state of nature agreeing to surrender some natural rights in order to live in an orderly settlement, where other rights would be better protected.

…from the start of the project, historians from across the political spectrum launched a campaign to point out its many inaccuracies, omissions, and overall shoddy scholarship. It included Sean Wilentz and Gordon Wood, eminent historians respectively at Princeton and Brown, who are not conservative, and who joined three other renowned historians in firing off a letter to the New York Times requesting that it correct its many factual errors, starting with the falsehood that the colonists had waged war to protect slavery from Britain.

“The two-hundred-word document wasn’t drafted with posterity in mind,” writes Wood. The compact was “far less gripping than the Declaration of Independence” that followed 156 years later. But “if you take it slowly and read it over a few times, it reveals a depth of feeling and a sturdy practicality,” Wood writes. The 1620 document calls on the signers to “covenant and combine ourselves together in a civil body politic; for our better ordering and preservation.” Quoting Rebecca Fraser, Wood notes that the Compact carries “a whisper of the contractual government” that the Founders created on July 4, 1776.

Endless Conflict

Wood makes a compelling case that this date and this act informs what America has become. They inspire our better angels much more than the 1619 Project, which as Wood aptly writes, is “a bucket lowered into the poisoned well of identity politics.” The Mayflower Compact put the country on its way to an American “us”; it began the process of etching out a new belief-driven identity. About a year after it was signed, the Pilgrims held their first Thanksgiving to thank the Almighty for the good harvest. “A key ingredient in this emerging identity was the colony’s gratitude,” he writes.

And here Wood pivots to lower the boom on the opposite of the 1620 vision of contractual ordered liberty, and gratitude for God’s bounty: Hannah-Jones’s ugly view of the nation’s soul. “The opposites of gratitude are envy and resentment. The 1619 Project presents such feelings as righteous, justified, and to be savored as though they were delicious. Valorizing a sense of perpetual victimization can serve, like gratitude, as a social charter of sorts, but it is a charter for endless conflict and bottomless demands for reparations.”

The 1619 Project is more, however, than a national charter of grievances and despair. It is also mendacious. In fact, from the start of the project, historians from across the political spectrum launched a campaign to point out its many inaccuracies, omissions, and overall shoddy scholarship. It included Sean Wilentz and Gordon Wood, eminent historians respectively at Princeton and Brown, who are not conservative, and who joined three other renowned historians in firing off a letter to the New York Times requesting that it correct its many factual errors, starting with the falsehood that the colonists had waged war to protect slavery from Britain. They made their case not as conservatives concerned about the corruption of civics education and the patriotism of the nation’s children, but on the ground that they were going to be taught bad history. Jake Silverstein, editor in chief of the New York Times Magazine, as Peter Wood tells it, “replied at some length but evaded the subject of the historians’ letter.” Even the World Socialist Website, of all things, has weighed in against the project.

All to no avail, at least as far as the New York Times is concerned. From Hannah-Jones, to Silverstein, to the paper’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, all have closed ranks and defended the project while trivializing or outright insulting their critics. Hannah-Jones has perfected provocation into something of an art form (as I can attest myself, having sparred with her on Twitter). She reacted to the venerable Woodson and the other black intellectuals by tweeting a picture of herself pointing “at her bottom row of gold teeth with her pinky, a dismissive and deeply unserious hip-hop gesture,” Wood quotes Mark Hemingway as writing.

Finally, on March 11 this year, just as the nation was unsuspectingly heading into months of COVID forced retreat, the Times itself retreated, though not by much. It issued “a clarification to a passage”—not a correction, which would have been the journalistic thing to do—in Hannah-Jones’s award-winning essay. Whereas it had originally affirmed 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,” the passage would be changed to “some of the colonists.”

Then, in September this year, Hannah-Jones and her newspaper (for the New York Times is now, for all intents and purposes, her paper) retreated in other ways. Gone from the digital copy of the project were all claims that the country’s “true founding,” was 1619, and Hannah-Jones began to assert that she had never claimed her work was history. All of this is false, of course.

The Woke and the Rest

“My guess is that she’s doing a victory lap,” Wood says of Hannah-Jones’s retreats. At this point the 1619 Project is so well established that she no longer needs to claim historical accuracy.” This is one of the few areas in 1620 where I differ with Wood. Hannah-Jones, Silverstein, and the others had expected adulation—and they certainly have been lionized in woke circles—but had not anticipated pushback from some of America’s most renowned historians, never mind from the World Socialist Website (whose opposition to 1619 owes a lot to a growing divide between cultural and economic Marxists). Their tarnished record could threaten future ventures—especially a deal currently being worked out for multiple platforms between Hannah-Jones and Oprah Winfrey.

Wood’s book is a great contribution to the campaign to expose the inaccuracies in the 1619 Project, and raise an alarm about its danger to America. The Project “aligns with the views of those on the progressive left who hate America and would like to transform it radically,” he writes. But those people exist in our midst, so, he continues, “Little is to be gained, however, by progressives and conservatives lobbing boulder-sized principles back and forth.” Instead, Wood’s own project “explores the 1619 Project as a cultural phenomenon: a testimony to the beliefs and ambitions of one faction.”

It does more than that, as I have explained, but even that narrow job—shedding light on what a sizeable portion of the country, the woke part, wants and believes—is a laudable contribution.