The 1619 Project, a multimedia package on the history of slavery in America which appeared in The New York Times in August of last year, has been haunted by controversy ever since its first appearance. The project received massive acclaim and got a Pulitzer for commentary for the lead essay by Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, but it has also been the target of intense criticism by historians, eventually prompting a semi-correction last March. More recently, questions have been raised about stealth changes of the text on the Times website. And now, in an explosive development, the newspaper published a long, nearly full-page critique of the project by one of its opinion columnists, Bret Stephens, this weekend.
Is the newspaper backing away from The 1619 Project? In a message posted on Twitter, publisher A.G. Sulzberger has reiterated that he regards the project as a "journalistic triumph" and stands by Hannah-Jones, who has been the target of especially harsh criticism, and that the publication of Stephens’s column represents a commitment to freedom of opinion.
And yet, given the prominence of the column both in print and on the Times website and the fact that Stephens has been given the freedom to criticize both the project and some of his colleagues in harsh terms, one may still wonder whether this could be a turning point in this episode of America’s culture wars.
The 1619 Project has received praise as effort to grapple with slavery’s terrible legacy. There is no question that far too often, our cultural narratives have downplayed both the pernicious impact of white supremacy and Black Americans’ struggle for liberation from the founding onward. To the extent that The 1619 Project seeks to correct that record, it deserves the praise.
But the problem is with the project’s core concept: that slavery and racism are not just a part of America’s story but the story itself. Hence the claim (which, as Stephens documents, the paper later tried to fudge on its website) that 1619, the year the first enslaved Africans were brought to America, was this nation’s "true" founding.
Particularly contentious has been the claim in Hannah-Jones’ essay that protecting the institution of slavery was one of the American Revolution’s goals. Critics including politically liberal scholars such as Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz argued that despite a narrowly tailored anti-slavery ruling by England’s high court in 1772, there was nothing to suggest the British crown might move against slavery. Northwestern historian Leslie Harris, who generally supports the project, wrote in Politico in March that she had "vigorously argued" this point with the Times fact-checker. A Times clarification grudgingly conceded that only "some" pro-independence colonists [who?] were motivated by slavery preservation.
The project’s defenders say that this is just a single line. But that line is crucial. It asserts that slavery wasn’t a colonial legacy the revolution and the founding tragically failed to discard, but a purpose of the revolution and the founding. Several other essays in the project argue, highly tendentiously, that every distinct feature of American history and culture comes from slavery — an analysis that offers some interesting insights but is ultimately simplistic and blinkered. While The 1619 Project rightly credits and spotlights the struggle of Black Americans, it erases the history of abolitionism as a multiracial alliance.
As the recent clashes over Confederate monuments demonstrate, America’s reckoning with its history has not been complete. But replacing traditional sanitized narratives with a counternarrative that demonizes our past — and distorts the fact — is not a viable option. Stephens’ column moves us closer to a sane "third way."
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.