No One Year Can Unlock the Meaning of America

Shackles used to bind slaves on display at the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, La., in 2015. (Edmund Fountain/Reuters)

The New York Times’s 1619 Project and some of its critics fall prey to the same error in seeking to explain our nation’s history.

When did America begin? Well, the United States became a county in 1776 and drafted a constitution in 1787. Seems simple enough, right?

Yet many Americans remain unsatisfied with such an obvious answer. Last year, the New York Times gained wide attention with its claim that any account of America’s origins must begin in August 1619, when a Flemish privateer stopped near Point Comfort and sold “twenty and odd Negroes” to the colonists of Virginia. The Times’ 1619 Project went on to document the pervasiveness and cruelty of African slavery in the English colonies that became the United States, and its essays argued that the study of the American past should begin with the event that most fully explains the racism of the American present. Hence, it deemed 1619 America’s true “birth year.”

The 1619 Project encountered fierce pushback, both from conservative pundits and from renowned historians of various political stripes. In a letter to the Times, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon S. Wood rejected the claim of Nikole Hannah-Jones — author of the project’s lead essay — 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.” “Far from preserving slavery,” Wood wrote, “the North saw the Revolution as an opportunity to abolish the institution.” The Times recently “adjusted” Hannah-Jones’s essay to “make clear that this was a primary motivation for some [but not all] of the colonists.” Times editors, however, still maintain that the defense of slavery remained a significant motivation for the independence movement, and critics of the project remain unsatisfied with this minor tweak.

Some of the critics have gone so far as to propose alternative “birth years.” Last fall, the National Association of Scholars launched a 1620 project, a series of videos and essays rebutting the Times project. Why 1620? It was “the year in which the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower Compact was signed,” explains the organization’s president, Peter Wood. Similarly, The Federalist has solicited essays celebrating the “anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival at Plymouth Rock.” This year is, after all, the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival on our shores. To those who place religious and political liberty at the heart of the American experiment, that event makes an attractive starting point.

The 1620 proposals are a throwback to 19th-century views of American origins. On the 200th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing, Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster rhapsodized that they had arrived with “intelligence,” “the inspirations of liberty,” and “the truth of divine religion.” Politicians and historians pointed to the Mayflower Compact, a makeshift political agreement forged before the Pilgrims stepped ashore. Once Americans associated the Pilgrims with an annual Thanksgiving feast, their pride of place in the story of the nation’s origins became assured.

Even as Webster lionized them, though, many historians knew that the Pilgrims could not bear the weight of the historical significance placed on them. To begin with, they weren’t first: The less pious and more contentious colonists in Jamestown had arrived in 1607. Even more to the point, the Pilgrims were fewer and more inconsequential than their subsequent place in history would suggest. Plymouth Colony never really thrived. Its settlers eked out a living on land of dubious fertility, and other colonies came to dwarf it in terms of population, economic clout, and military power. Ready to tell new stories about the American past, academic historians eventually kicked the Pilgrims to the scholarly curb.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons to pay attention not just to the Mayflower, the rock, and the feast, but to the chain of events that preceded and followed 1620. Before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth, an epidemic brought by European fishermen and traders had wiped out a previously thriving Wampanoag community there. Like English colonists elsewhere, the Pilgrims and their descendants then stripped Native populations of their land through dubious property transactions and episodic wars. Many Americans have spoken of slavery as the nation’s “original sin,” but conquest and displacement of Natives are just as original to the early history of English colonization — and Plymouth is one of many starting points for these grave sins.

It is also essential to recognize that Europeans did not bring static, fully formed principles to Virginia, Plymouth, or any other colony. Take religious liberty, so important to the Pilgrims. The majority of the Mayflower passengers were separatists, men and women who had rejected the Church of England. Pilgrim separatists cherished what they termed their “liberty of the gospel,” by which they meant worship and government according to their understanding of the Bible. At the same time, Pilgrim leaders opposed religious toleration. They refused to allow religious alternatives, and they punished dissenters. Later generations of Americans did not get their ideas about religious liberty from the Pilgrims. In fact, Americans today still disagree about the meaning and scope of religious freedom.

So if 1619 and 1620 do not suffice, what about the more obvious 1776 and 1787? 1776 is the nation’s actual “birth year,” but it is far from satisfactory as a starting point for explaining American principles. The only thing that really united the members of the Continental Congress was that they rejected the authority of the British Parliament and monarchy to tax and rule them without their consent. Four score and seven years later, Abraham Lincoln insisted that the nation had been “conceived in liberty” and “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” It is one of the greatest lines in American history, but it presents an aspirational rather than realistic view of our origins. Author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, made plain, through his actions and his other writings, his belief in African inferiority.

What about the drafting of a new constitution in 1787? The delegates to the Constitutional Convention crafted an enduring framework of government. Although they forged the Constitution through a series of compromises on representation, slavery, and executive power, they enshrined the principles of republican government, checks and balances, and the separation of powers. The first U.S. Congress then passed the amendments that became the Bill of Rights. The decisions of these years shaped the future American political order. The Constitution remains “the supreme law of the land.”

And yet. The decisions of the American Founding were made by a small subset of the American population, even though the principles they enshrined appealed to many others. Understanding what became the modern United States is utterly impossible without close attention to a host of later developments: the abolition of slavery through the carnage of the Civil War, the New Deal (like it or loathe it), the Civil Rights Movement, and the Immigration Act of 1965.

Whether the subject is slavery or liberty, American history is a story of contested principles. A single birth year cannot unlock the very meaning of the nation, not least because how historians and others explain the past hinges on how they understand the present. An overemphasis on 1619, 1620, or any other year, makes our history far too simple.

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