WASHINGTON — Confidence in institutions declines when they imprudently enlarge their missions. Empty pews rebuke churches that subordinate pastoral to political concerns. Prestige flows away from universities that prefer indoctrination to instruction. And trust evaporates when journalistic entities embrace political projects. On Monday, however, The New York Times — technically, one of its writers — received a Pulitzer Prize for just such an embrace.
Last August, an entire Times Sunday magazine was devoted to the multi-author “1619 Project,” whose proposition — subsequently developed in many other articles and multimedia content, and turned into a curriculum for schools — is that the nation’s real founding was the arrival of 20 slaves in Virginia in 1619: The nation is about racism. Because the Times ignored today’s most eminent relevant scholars — e.g., Brown University’s Gordon Wood, Princeton’s James McPherson and Sean Wilentz and Allen Guelzo, City University of New York’s James Oakes, Columbia’s Barbara Fields — the Project’s hectoring tone and ideological ax-grinding are unsurprising. Herewith three examples of slovenliness, even meretriciousness, regarding facts:
To establish that the American Revolution was launched to protect slavery, the Project asserts that a November 1775 British offer of freedom to slaves fleeing to join the British army was decisive in the move to independence. But this offer was a response to the war that had been boiling since April’s battles at Lexington and Concord and simmering for a year before that, as detailed in Mary Beth Norton’s just-published “1774: The Long Year of Revolution.”
Misdescribing an 1862 White House meeting with African American leaders, the Project falsely says President Lincoln flatly “opposed black equality” and adamantly favored colonization of emancipated slaves. Actually, Lincoln had already decided on an Emancipation Proclamation with no imperative of colonization. In Lincoln’s last speech, his openness to black enfranchisement infuriated a member of his audience: John Wilkes Booth.
The Project asserts that in the long struggle for freedom and civil rights, “for the most part” blacks fought “alone.” This erases from history the important participation of whites, assiduously enlisted by, among others, Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr.
The Project’s purpose is to displace the nation’s actual 1776 Founding, thereby draining from America’s story the moral majesty of the first modern nation’s Enlightenment precepts proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and implemented by the Constitution. Although monomaniacally focused on slavery, the Project completely misses the most salient point:
The phenomenon of slavery was millennia old in 1776, but as Gordon Wood says, “It’s the American Revolution that makes [slavery] a problem for the world.” Princeton’s Sean Wilentz (see his 2018 book “No Property in Man”) correctly insists that what “originated in America” was “organized anti-slavery politics,” and it did so because of those Enlightenment precepts in the Declaration’s first two paragraphs.
The Constitution was written in 1787 for a nation conscious of its youth. It would grow under a federal government whose constituting document did not acknowledge “property in man,” and instead acknowledged slaves as persons. This gave slavery no national validation. It left slavery solely a creature of state laws and therefore susceptible to the process that in fact occurred — the process of being regionally confined and put on a path to ultimate extinction. Secession was the South’s desperate response when it recognized this impending outcome that the Constitution had facilitated.
The Constitution’s tolerance of the slave trade until 1808, the fugitive slave clause, and the counting slaves as three-fifths of a person for political representation, were three hard-fought accommodations of slave states, accommodations that were the price of nationhood. However, the Founders’ generation enacted the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, with its proscription of slavery in a vast swath of territory north of the Ohio River. This preceded the Constitution. And so widespread were anti-slavery convictions among the Founders and the Constitution’s Framers, that Lincoln in his February 1860 Cooper Union speech cited them to shred Chief Justice Roger Taney’s assertion, in the 1857 Dred Scott decision, that the Founding generation assumed that all blacks would be forever excluded from rights-bearing citizenship. Martin Luther King Jr., congruent with Frederick Douglass, built his movement on the premise, denied by “The 1619 Project,” that the Constitution is properly read as an instrument for enabling fulfillment of the Declaration’s egalitarian promise.
The ferocity of arguments among professors often is inversely proportional to the arguments’ stakes. Not, however, those about “The 1619 Project,” because, “Who controls the past controls the future: Who controls the present controls the past.” Has this, the slogan of the party governing Oceania in George Orwell’s “1984,” supplanted “All the news that’s fit to print” as the Times’s credo?