The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Bret Stephens wrote a column in the Times, titled The 1619 Chronicles. It may be his last. He carefully describes how the 1619 Project has been modified in a foundational way.
The 1619 Project contended that 1619, and not 1776, was the "true founding" or "moment [America] began." This position has been criticized by historians across the spectrum.
Last month, the 1619 Project was quietly edited. The passage originally read:
The 1619 project is a major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country's history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.
The passage now reads:
The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine that began in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.
The phrase "understanding 1619 as our true founding" was struck out. Without explanation.
Those concerns came to light last month when a longstanding critic of the project, Phillip W. Magness, noted in the online magazine Quillette that references to 1619 as the country's "true founding" or "moment [America] began" had disappeared from the digital display copy without explanation.
These were not minor points. The deleted assertions went to the core of the project's most controversial goal, "to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation's birth year."
Nikole Hannah-Jones, the creator of the 1619 Project, defended the change:
In a tweet, Hannah-Jones responded to Magness and other critics by insisting that "the text of the project" remained "unchanged," while maintaining that the case for making 1619 the country's "true" birth year was "always a metaphoric argument." I emailed her to ask if she could point to any instances before this controversy in which she had acknowledged that her claims about 1619 as "our true founding" had been merely metaphorical. Her answer was that the idea of treating the 1619 date metaphorically should have been so obvious that it went without saying.
She then challenged me to find any instance in which the project stated that "using 1776 as our country's birth date is wrong," that it "should not be taught to schoolchildren," and that the only one "that should be taught" was 1619. "Good luck unearthing any of us arguing that," she added.
Stephens has receipts:
Here is an excerpt from the introductory essay to the project by The New York Times Magazine's editor, Jake Silverstein, as it appeared in print in August 2019 (italics added):
"1619. It is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country's history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation's birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that this fact, which is taught in our schools and unanimously celebrated every Fourth of July, is wrong, and that the country's true birth date, the moment that its defining contradictions first came into the world, was in late August of 1619?"
Now compare it to the version of the same text as it now appears online:
"1619 is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country's history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation's birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that the moment that the country's defining contradictions first came into the world was in late August of 1619?"
Silverstein tries to defend his work:
In an email, Silverstein told me that the changes to the text were immaterial, in part because it still cited 1776 as our nation's official birth date, and because the project's stated aim remained to put 1619 and its consequences as the true starting point of the American story.
Readers can judge for themselves whether these unacknowledged changes violate the standard obligations of transparency for New York Times journalism. The question of journalistic practices, however, raises deeper doubts about the 1619 Project's core premises.
I suspect it will be Stephens, and not Silverstein, who is subjected to punishment.
Stephens also cites Sean Wilentz, who wrote a thorough book about slavery in the United States:
In a lengthier dissection, published in January in The Atlantic, the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz accused Hannah-Jones of making arguments "built on partial truths and misstatements of the facts." The goal of educating Americans on slavery and its consequences, he added, was so important that it "cannot be forwarded through falsehoods, distortions and significant omissions."
Wilentz's catalog of the project's mistakes is extensive. Hannah-Jones's essay claimed that by 1776 Britain was "deeply conflicted" over its role in slavery. But despite the landmark Somerset v. Stewart court ruling in 1772, which held that slavery was not supported by English common law, it remained deeply embedded in the practices of the British Empire. The essay claimed that, among Londoners, "there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade" by 1776. But the movement to abolish the British slave trade only began about a decade later — inspired, in part, Wilentz notes, by American antislavery agitation that had started in the 1760s and 1770s. The list goes on.
Read the rest of the column.
Randy Barnett and I are working on a book, tentatively titled Slavery and the Constitution: 1776 to 1896. We thought it appropriate to start with the Declaration, and finish with Plessy. Now, we are more confident with our starting date.
To get the Volokh Conspiracy Daily e-mail, please sign up here.