1619 and 1776
How Will We Understand Our History?
I read the 1619 Project cover-to-cover when it first appeared in the New York Times Magazine in August of 2019. I could not put it down. In a hundred pages that include ten essays, a photo essay, and a collection of poems and fiction by an additional 16 writers, the 1619 Project filled in a multitude of gaps in my understanding of American history.1 Where it did not fill a gap it offered me a new perspective on much of what I was taught in school and absorbed from a life lived in mostly white culture.
The title “1619” was chosen to mark the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the English colony of Virginia on land that, a hundred and seventy years later, would become part of the newly formed United States. The date of first publication of the Project in August of 2019 was chosen to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the enslaved.
While I found reading the 1619 Project fascinating, others apparently found it deeply and existentially threatening to their understanding of the world. The 1619 Project shines light in the dark corners of American history where racialized slavery and the doctrine of white supremacy have festered, hidden away under a sanitized founding narrative. The backlash against the 1619 Project’s story might have passed without much general notice, except that one of those who felt their worldview was threatened by the 1619 Project was none other than Donald Trump.
In September 2020, partly in reaction to the danger he perceived in the 1619 Project, Mr. Trump established the 1776 Commission, meant to support what he called “patriotic education.” The Commission was composed of conservative activists, politicians and intellectuals (none with the credentials of an historian). The White House’s announcement of the publication of the 1776 Commission Report (archived—not on the current White House website), well-characterizes the intent of the publication: “1776 Commission Takes Historic and Scholarly Step to Restore Understanding of the Greatness of the American Founding.” You can read (or skim) the 45 page Report here. The blatant, unsupported, Republican propaganda of the Report is eye-popping.2
It seems clear that elements on the right fear that the previously dominant educational narrative (inevitably including elements of the doctrine of white supremacy) is under threat and getting away from them, hence, the words “Restore Understanding” in the Trump White House announcement. Woe betide a country, in their way of thinking, that is capable of introspection and self-examination of its complicated history rather than clinging to a white-washed, mythologized story of national greatness.
Elevating the 1776 Commission Report and denigrating the 1619 Project is a cause célèbre for right wing media and institutions. Having lost the bully pulpit of the Trump presidency two days after the 1776 Report was trumpeted on the White House website on January 18, 2021, copies of the Report are now prominently advertised for sale in the Hillsdale College monthly circular “Imprimis”, the same forum that hosts such lecture transcripts of the like of Scott Atlas, M.D. and Christopher Rufo. The 1776 Commission isn’t done, either. Recently, a new announcement, “Trump’s 1776 Commission to Reassemble, Tackle Critical Race Theory in History Education” appeared simultaneously on conservative media (e.g. The Epoch Times, where I saw it) breathlessly touted as “breaking news.”
The 1619 Project is not perfect. Legitimate historians have found fault with some of its assertions. Unfortunately for those who do not read the 1619 Project, a few repeated criticisms risk over-shadowing the importance of the work. Historian Leslie M. Harris, herself a critic of a few points made in the Project, captured this danger succinctly, writing that the 1619 Project is "a much-needed corrective to the blindly celebratory histories."
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. The basis of conservatives’ attack on the 1619 Project is discussed in an article in The Atlantic ironically entitled “Why Conservatives Want to Cancel the 1619 Project.” This quote expresses the central theme:
The prevailing conservative view is that America’s racial and economic inequalities are driven by differences in effort and ability. The work of Hannah-Jones and others suggests instead that present-day inequalities have been shaped by deliberate political and policy choices.
P.P.S. Another excellent article along the same lines as the 1619 Project is also found in the June 2021 issue of The Atlantic. It is entitled “Black America’s Neglected Origin Stories”. This quote from the article rings true (the bold is mine):
The two origin stories that American children are most often taught are those of Jamestown, Virginia, an English colony founded in 1607 as a moneymaking venture, and Plymouth, Massachusetts, where people escaped religious persecution in 1620. The latter narrative is more inspirational and more in keeping with America’s sense of moral exceptionalism than the former, which is perhaps why it has tended to loom larger in the American mind. Both origin stories emphasize the triumph of amity over enmity between Indigenous people and English settlers, something very different from what actually happened.
The way I recall being taught American history there was a huge gap between 1620, the Mayflower and the slightly earlier Jamestown Colony, and 1763, French and Indian War. All of what happened between those years set the stage for 1776 and yet those years were mostly left blank in my early education. It is as though everything between the Pilgrim’s supposed friendship with Squanto and George Washington chopping down the cherry tree was all hunky-dory and not worthy of mention.
One small example: The authors dismiss the entirety of Progressivism with a gross lie: “They rejected the self-evident truth of the Declaration that all men are created equal and are endowed equally, either by nature or by God, with unchanging rights.”