‘Historians Roast the 1619 Project’


I wrote today about the eminent historians who have taken on the 1619 project in an extraordinary letter to the New York Times asking for corrections of the blatant error and distortions. The signatories don’t exactly have to worry about making tenure, but we should still be grateful that they are speaking out.

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. Dismissal of objections on racial grounds — that they are the objections of only “white historians” — has affirmed that displacement.

On the American Revolution, pivotal to any account of our history, the project asserts that the founders declared the colonies’ independence of Britain “in order to ensure slavery would continue.” This is not true. If supportable, the allegation would be astounding — yet every statement offered by the project to validate it is false. Some of the other material in the project is distorted, including the claim that “for the most part,” black Americans have fought their freedom struggles “alone.”

To try to save the preposterous claim that Revolution was partly motivated by the defense of slavery, the editor of the New York Times Magazine invokes the Dunmore proclamation by the royal governor of Virginia in late 1775 offering freedom to slaves who joined with British forces.

The World Socialist Website, which has amazingly enough done more to discredit the 1619 project than any other publication, effectively rebuts this:

Let us now investigate the Dunmore Proclamation. It is not a newly discovered issue: the Dunmore Proclamation has long drawn the attention of historians. Much has been written on it, with Benjamin Quarles’ 1958 article in the William and Mary Quarterly, “Lord Dunmore as Liberator,” among the most cited. Only recently have racial-nationalist historians attempted to endow Dunmore’s act with a progressive character. This falsification of history has far-reaching consequences. The conclusion thatmust follow from the Times glorification of the Dunmore Proclamation is that the defeat of the colonists by the British would have been the preferable outcome of the war; for the British were waging a war of social liberation against the efforts of the colonists to perpetuate slavery.

The Dunmore Proclamation was issued in November 1775 by John Murray, Fourth Earl of Dunmore (1730-1809), who was appointed governor of New York and then of Virginia by King George III.

The presentation of the Dunmore Proclamation as the critical trigger event of the revolution ignores the chronology of the American rebellion. The Dunmore Proclamation was issued a decade after the Stamp Act (passed by the British Parliament on March 22, 1765), nearly five years after the Boston Massacre (March 5, 1770), two years after the Boston Tea Party (December 16, 1773), over a year after the convening of the First Continental Congress (September 5, 1774), seven months after military hostilities began with the battle of Lexington and Concord and the initiation of the Siege of Boston (April 19, 1775), six months after the Battle of Fort Ticonderoga (May 10, 1775) and five months after the Battle of Bunker Hill (June 17, 1775). Even in the southern states, the revolutionary movement was already far advanced by the time Dunmore issued his order.

None of this is persuading the New York Times to re-examine its premises, but one hopes it will give school systems pause before incorporating the 1619 project into their curricula.

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