An ‘Epitaph’ for the 1619 Project

The New York Times building, March 15, 2020 (Jeenah Moon/Reuters)

Earlier this month in Politico, historian Leslie M. Harris wrote a bombshell piece that ultimately forced the New York Times to modify its vaunted 1619 Project. Harris claimed that Times fact-checkers reached out to her prior to the publication of the 1619 Project’s seminal essays to solicit her expertise on the relevant history involved. Harris wrote back to the fact-checkers, insisting that she “vigorously disputed” the factual basis of one of the project’s central claims. Specifically, Harris took issue with 1619 Project architect Nikole Hannah-Jones’s assertion that protecting slavery was among the “primary reasons” the colonists declared their independence from Britain. The Times published Jones’s remarks anyway, even after the professional historian with whom they consulted “vigorously disputed” the veracity of one of the central claims advanced by the project.

Last Wednesday, the Times modified Hannah-Jones’s piece to clarify that only “some of the colonists” were motivated by a desire to uphold the peculiar institution — a mild correction, one that still misleads readers about the effect of Dunmore’s Proclamation on the colonists’ appetite for revolution, but nevertheless a concession to the project’s critics.

Economic historian Phillip Magness at the American Institute for Economic Research has written — by his account — an “epitaph” for the Times‘ 1619 Project. He claims that the paper’s correction does not go far enough, and is hardly a correction at all:

It took less than a week for the Times to migrate from its previous steadfast defense of the claim to the concession noted at the outset of this essay. Even then, the concession remains understated.

The newspaper’s peculiar wording attempted to chalk the confusion up to interpretive ambiguities by its readers. In Silverstein’s words, the Times recognized “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.”

Contrast that with the original passage, which stated, “Conveniently left out of our Founding mythology is the fact 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.”

There is no issue where the passage “could be read to suggest” an erroneous historical claim. It made that claim outright in unambiguous language that Hannah-Jones subsequently doubled down upon and, until the correction, showed few signs of ever relaxing or qualifying.

Still, the concession revealed more than its guarded conciliatory language displayed. Although they are conspicuously unacknowledged in Silverstein’s correction note, the critics of the 1619 Project were on solid ground to question this claim and did so when it first appeared in print over six months earlier. The Times, in turn, behaved atrociously in deflecting and denying a substantive scholarly challenge to its content until its hand was forced.

Thus we’re left with “could be read to suggest.” That tepid backtracking, in effect, gave away the game. It’s a fitting epitaph to what could have been an important and provocative contribution to historical inquiry about the lasting harms of slavery in the United States, but instead veered down the path of an ideological project, consumed by maintaining its own 21st-century political narrative above the history it weaponized to that cause.

The piece, found here, is worth reading in its entirety for its portrait of a project that succumbed to ideological ambition and, in so doing, lost a bit in the way of historical accuracy.

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