Some people just don’t take correction well. The New York Times Magazine was rebuked two summers ago for the 1619 Project, an essay collection that proposed, as the Times itself announced, “to reframe American history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.” Now the magazine’s editor, Jake Silverstein, has doubled down on that in a new piece this week.
From the outset, the idea was not simply to broaden our understanding of America’s founding and history, but to replace it.
That was always wrong. America was not unique because of slavery, which predates recorded history and existed all around the world well after 1776. Greeks, Romans, Aztecs, Mayans, Egyptians, Chinese, Russians, Koreans, Turks, Arabs and many African societies had slaves. The word “slave” derives from “Slav.” In the century after Columbus, more Russian slaves were carried across the Black Sea to the Ottoman Empire than African slaves across the Atlantic.
The Trans-Atlantic slave trade was around half of the slave trade out of Africa, and at least 90 percent of that trade went to places outside the United States. The Spanish brought African slaves to Georgia and Florida nearly a century before 1619, and into the 1640s, there were more British slaves held in Africa than African slaves held in British colonies.
What made America unique was its democratic system of limited government and its ideals of individual rights — both of which started in Virginia in 1619 with the first elected legislature in the Western Hemisphere. From the beginning, America struggled with the fact that slavery did not conform with the ideals of the Bill of Rights, and ultimately fought a Civil War over it in which hundreds of thousands died to free 4 million black Americans.
The 1619 Project had more specific problems. Its organizer and lead essayist, Nikole Hannah-Jones, claimed without evidence 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.” She waved off warnings from the historian reviewing this claim before publication. Under a barrage of criticism from a Who’s Who of leading academic historians, the Times first wrote a lengthy defense and later grudgingly reworded this, but both Hannah-Jones and Silverstein refuse to call this a “correction.” They also quietly deleted the reference to “1619 as our true founding.”
Silverstein now frames the Times retreat under fire as a “clarification.” Hannah-Jones, who has not written a bylined piece in the Times in over a year, continues on Twitter to aggressively defend the claim and keeps trying to dig up historical support — an implicit admission of the homework she didn’t do the first time around. Meanwhile, other requests for corrections to the work of Hannah-Jones and other essays in the project, such as its shoddy economic history, have been ignored.
Why have they dug in so far on a two-year-old piece of magazine journalism? Partly for prestige: The 1619 Project won a Pulitzer in spite of its documented inaccuracies. Partly for institutional politics: Hannah-Jones appears to wield outsize influence in the employee-driven ideological infighting that gets people fired from the Times for crossing progressive dogmas and taboos.
But a big part of the answer is that the Times is deeply invested in pushing the 1619 Project into schools in order to win the future for Hannah-Jones’ particular race-focused ideology. Doing so, even after Virginia voters punished Democrats in a campaign that heavily contested the influence of Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project in schools, means never admitting error.
Painting the American Revolution as a fight for slavery, in the teeth of the factual record and the scholarly consensus, is not incidental to that ideology; it is central. As Silverstein notes with pride, “thousands of educators in all 50 states have made use of . . . educational materials” based on the 1619 Project. Hannah-Jones has a book version (“A New Origin Story“) and a 1619 Project children’s book coming out next week. It’s a profitable brand as well as propaganda.
Schools should prefer history written by professional historians who have their facts straight to agitprop churned out by newspapers who won’t admit when they’re wrong.
Dan McLaughlin is a senior writer at National Review.