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Twelve Scholars Critique the 1619 Project and the New York Times Magazine Editor Responds

Historians/History
tags: slavery, New York Times, history wars, 1619 Project



Editor's note: Twelve Civil War historians and political scientists who research the Civil War composed a letter to The New Times Magazine concerning 'The 1619 Project.' The NYTM editor, Jake Silverstein, responded but the NYTM declined to publish the letter and his response. The scholars created a reply and Silverstein had no objection to publishing the exchange in another venue. It is published below.

 

To the Editor of The New York Times Magazine  12/30/2019

Re: The 1619 Project

 

We are writing to you today, in tandem with numerous others, to express our deep concern about the New York Times’ promotion of The 1619 Project, which first appeared in the pages of the New York Times Magazine on August 14th in the form of ten essays, poems and fiction by a variety of authors. The Project’s avowed purpose is to restore the history of slavery to a central place in American memory and history, and in conjunction with the New York Times, the Project now plans to create and distribute school curriculums which will feature this re-centering of the American experience.

 

It is not our purpose to question the significance of slavery in the American past. None of us have any disagreement with the need for Americans, as they consider their history, to understand that the past is populated by sinners as well as saints, by horrors as well as honors, and that is particularly true of the scarred legacy of slavery. 

 

As historians and students of the Founding and the Civil War era, our concern is that The 1619 Project offers a historically-limited view of slavery, especially since slavery was not just (or even exclusively) an American malady, and grew up in a larger context of forced labor and race. Moreover, the breadth of 400 years and 300 million people cannot be compressed into single-size interpretations; yet, The 1619 Project asserts that every aspect of American life has only one lens for viewing, that of slavery and its fall-out. “America Wasn’t a Democracy Until Black Americans Made It One,” insists the lead essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones; “American Capitalism Is Brutal. You Can Trace That to the Plantation,” asserts another by Matthew Desmond. In some cases, history is reduced to metaphor: “How Segregation Caused Your Traffic Jam.”

 

We are also dismayed by the problematic treatment of major issues and personalities of the Founding and Civil War eras. For instance: The 1619 Project construes slavery as a capitalist venture, yet it fails to note how Southern slaveholders scorned capitalism as “a conglomeration of greasy mechanics, petty operators, small-fisted farmers, and moon-struck theorists.”[1] Although the Project asserts that “New Orleans boasted a denser concentration of banking capital than New York City,” the phrase “banking capital” elides the reality that on the eve of the Civil War, New York possessed more banks (294) than the entire future Confederacy (208), and that Southern “banking capital” in 1858 amounted to less than 80% of that held by New York banks alone.[2]

 

Again: we are presented with an image of Abraham Lincoln in 1862, informing a delegation of “five esteemed free black men” at the White House that, because black Americans were a “troublesome presence,” his solution was colonization -- “to ship black people, once freed, to another country.” No mention, however, is made that the “troublesome presence” comment is Lincoln’s description in 1852 of the views of Henry Clay,[3] or that colonization would be “sloughed off” by him (in John Hay’s diary) as a “barbarous humbug,”[4] or that Lincoln would eventually be murdered by a white supremacist in 1865 after calling for black voting rights, or that this was the man whom Frederick Douglass described as “emphatically the black man’s president.”[5]

 

We do not believe that the authors of The 1619 Project have considered these larger contexts with sufficient seriousness, or invited a candid review of its assertions by the larger community of historians. We are also troubled that these materials are now to become the basis of school curriculums, with the imprimatur of the New York Times. The remedy for past historical oversights is not their replacement by modern oversights. We therefore respectfully ask the New York Times to withhold any steps to publish and distribute The 1619 Project until these concerns can be addressed in a thorough and open fashion.

 

William B. Allen, Emeritus Dean and Professor, Michigan State University

Michael A. Burlingame, Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies, University of Illinois, Springfield

Joseph R. Fornieri, Professor of Political Science, Rochester Institute of Technology

Allen C. Guelzo, Senior Research Scholar, Princeton University

Peter Kolchin, Henry Clay Reed Professor Emeritus of History, University of Delaware

Glenn W. LaFantasie, Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History and Director of the Institute for Civil War Studies, Western Kentucky University

Lucas E. Morel, Professor of Politics, Washington & Lee University

George C. Rable, Professor Emeritus, University of Alabama

Diana J. Schaub, Professor of Political Science, Loyola University

Colleen A. Sheehan, Professor of Political Science and Director, The Matthew J. Ryan Center, Villanova University

Steven B. Smith, Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science, Yale University.

Michael P. Zuckert, N. Reeves Dreux Professor of Political Science, University of Notre Dame

 

 

From Jake Silverstein, Editor, The New York Times Magazine 1/10/2020 


Dr. Guelzo,

Thank you again for your letter regarding The 1619 Project. We welcome feedback of all kinds, and we take seriously the job of reviewing objections to anything we publish. As you know, the project has been the topic of considerable discussion in recent weeks. I’m sure you saw the letter from Sean Wilentz and others, along with my response, both of which were published in our Dec 29 issue. I believe that this earlier letter, together with my response, addresses many of the same objections raised in your letter.

 

I asked our research desk, which reviews all requests for corrections, to read this letter and examine the questions it raises. They did so, and concluded that no corrections are warranted. Your letter raises many interesting points, which is no surprise considering the distinguished group of signatories, but they are not points that prompt correction. For instance, you write that “The 1619 Project offers a historically-limited view of slavery, especially since slavery was not just (or even exclusively) an American malady.” This is a critique of the project, not a request for correction. I believe you made a similar point in your essay for City Journal. Similarly, your letter notes critically that “The 1619 Project asserts that every aspect of American life has only one lens for viewing, that of slavery and its fallout.” Those are your words, not ours, but again, the complaint goes to a difference of interpretation and intention, not fact. 

 

I do allow that some of the queries in your letter are of a more factual nature. Below is our research desk’s responses to those matters.

Sincerely,
Jake Silverstein
---
Notes from our research desk:

1. The letter states that the 1619 Project construes slavery as a capitalist venture and fails to note how Southern slaveholders scorned capitalism as ‘a conglomeration of greasy mechanics, petty operators, small-fisted farmers, and moon-struck theorists.’


This quote appears in James L. Huston's The British Gentry, the Southern Planter, and the Northern Family Farmer: Agriculture and Sectional Antagonism in North America (2016). In full it reads, "Free Society, we sicken at the name, what is it but a conglomeration of greasy mechanics, petty operators, small-fisted farmers, and moon-struck theorists.’ All the Northern, and especially the New England states, are devoid of society fitted for a gentleman." Huston attributes this quote to "a Georgia editor in a foul humor." It does not have to do with capitalism but with aristocratic plantation owners scoffing at small-scale family farms of the north. In Hurston’s words, this is about the “aristocratic distain” of the slavers. 

 

2. The letter states that although the 1619 Project asserts that “New Orleans boasted a denser concentration of banking capital than New York City,” the phrase “banking capital” elides the reality that on the eve of the Civil War, New York possessed more banks (294) than the entire future Confederacy (208), and that Southern “banking capital” in 1858 amounted to less than 80% of that held by New York banks alone.


The sentence in Matthew Desmond’s essay has to do with New Orleans and New York City. The citation has to do with entire states—and not with the concentration of banking capital but with banks. Several works—Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman, eds., Slavery’s Capitalism (2016); Seth Rockman, “The Unfree Origins of American Capitalism” in The Economy of Early America (2006); Calvin Schermerhorn, The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860—deal with the importance of finance and banking in the American South—in particular, with the rise of state chartered banks.

 

3. The letter asserts that Nikole Hannah-Jones does not provide enough context in her essay for Lincoln’s "troublesome presence" quote and that this was only Lincoln's description of the views of Henry Clay. 

 

Hannah-Jones does not state, as the letter implies, that Lincoln recited these words to the visiting delegation of free black men. Second, while the occasion for Lincoln’s words was indeed a eulogy for Clay, the full context makes it clear that Lincoln was endorsing Clay’s position: “He considered it no demerit in the society, that it tended to relieve slave-holders from the troublesome presence of the free negroes; but this was far from being its whole merit in his estimation... [Clay’s] suggestion of the possible ultimate redemption of the African race and African continent, was made twenty-five years ago. Every succeeding year has added strength to the hope of its realization. May it indeed be realized!” Hay’s diary entries about Lincoln’s eventual abandonment of the colonization scheme, two years after he met with the delegation, do not alter the fact that we correctly describe Lincoln’s views at the time of the meeting in 1862. The letter’s other concerns about how Hannah-Jones’s essay characterizes Lincoln are fundamentally requests for the inclusion of additional information--about Frederick Douglass’s estimation of Lincoln, or the conditions under which Lincoln was assassinated--rather than errors in need of correction. 

_____________________________________________________________________
 

From Allen C. Guelzo, Princeton University 1/11/2020
 

Dear Mr. Silverstein:

Thank you for your reply. That our letter addresses both matters of overall interpretation and specific fact was, we thought, self-evident. That the disagreement concerning overall interpretation, and on a subject of such consequence, can be simply dismissed out-of-hand is dismaying, but so are the dismissals by your "reference desk" of the specific examples we offered. 

 

It is evasive to claim that the Georgia quotation is only about aristocracy and therefore not germane; the whole point, not only of Huston’s book but our letter, is that the Southern slave economy was aristocratic, not capitalistic, in spirit and practice. Citations to works of contemporaneous authors, North and South, foreign and domestic, to the same effect could be easily multiplied, the most notorious being the words of the pro-slavery apologist George Fitzhugh. 

 

It is similarly evasive to claim that the statement about banks and banking capital only applies to two cities; the point of our objection was that the slaveholding South possessed minuscule amounts of such capital when compared to the North, and merely vaguely invoking the work of Beckert, Rockman and Schermerhorn (and without a specific citation) fails to speak to the hard data of 1859. And had your “reference desk” paid attention to the material cited in our letter, it would have seen that New York alone outdistanced the entire future Confederacy in terms of both banks and banking capital as well. 

 

Finally, your response does nothing to correct the mistaken attribution to Lincoln of views which Lincoln specifically attributed to Clay. Lincoln was, at best, ambivalent about colonization – something evidenced by his comments on the subject in 1854 – and it is unhelpful to attempt to distance Lincoln’s August 1862 meeting with the black delegation from Hay’s 1864 diary entry, where it is clear that Hay is articulating Lincoln’s views. Your response also takes no notice of the fact that Lincoln’s appeal in 1862 was for voluntary emigration; that he called off the only temporary experiment in such emigration which the federal government sponsored in 1863; and that Lincoln was at the same time advocating the recruitment of black soldiers whom, in 1864, he has already begun declaring must be granted equal voting rights. That The 1619 Project failed to speak to these matters is an error of omission, but a colossal omission, and still an error.

It is my assumption, given your response, that the New York Times Magazine has no intention of publishing our letter. I hope, in that case, that you will have no objection to our publishing it in an alternative venue.

 

(Dr) Allen C. Guelzo

Senior Research Scholar, The Council of the Humanities

Director, Initiative in Politics and Statesmanship, James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions

Princeton University

 

[1]James L. Huston, The British Gentry, the Southern Planter and the Northern Family Farmer: Agriculture and Sectional Antagonism in North America(Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2015), 168-169.

[2]The American Almanac and Repository of Useful Knowledge for the Year 1859(Boston: Crosby, Nichols, and Co., 1859), 218.

[3]“Eulogy on Henry Clay” (July 6, 1852), in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. R.P. Basler et al(New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 2:132. 

[4]John Hay, diary entry for July 1, 1864, in Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, eds. M. Burlingame & J.R.T. Ettlinger (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1997), 217.

[5]“Oration of Fred. Douglass,” New York Daily Herald(June 2, 1865).


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