Four hundred years ago this month, the first ship carrying African slaves came to the shores of the New World. This ship would be the first of many, and it would help establish one of the worst institutions of American economic history. It was an institution that would officially last for 250 years, more than half of our country’s lifespan, and it would taint many of the institutions that would come during and after American slavery.
None of this is new to you, and none of it is new to the vast majority of American citizens. That isn’t stopping New York Times Magazine from launching an interactive website that declares its mission to revise American history as we know it and tell it from a viewpoint that can only lead its readers to assume that America is terrible, has always been terrible, and, without some sort of political revolution, will continue to be terrible.
The site’s mission statement reads as follows:
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 the story we tell ourselves about who we are.
There in the opening, you see the purpose. It is not merely an insight into another side of American history, but rather a “reframing” of the entire history. It declares that 1619 is the true founding of our nation (an absurd notion given that imperial British culture and beliefs were a central pillar in the structure and governance of the colonies until the mid-1700s) and that everything since is tainted by the lingering effects of the racism inherent in the system.
There should, in fact, be no argument that racism is still very prevalent today, and that slavery was an abhorrent institution within the United States. It also cannot logically be argued that America hasn’t come a long, long way since slavery was introduced into the American colonies, nor can it be argued that America has gone far enough in washing the stink of the institution from our society.
But even if you were to assume the worst of America’s history of racial inequality and treatment, it requires still an even further and more impossible leap to take you from there to calling the founding principles of America an outright lie, given all of the evidence we have of the Founders and their beliefs in liberty.
However, that is exactly what the leading essay on the website declares.
The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, approved on July 4, 1776, proclaims that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country.
If this is the sort of revisionist perspective the Times is willing to employ in its opening attempts to “reframe” the narrative of the founding and trajectory of the country, then the entire enterprise is tainted and its credibility utterly shattered.
The man most responsible for America’s Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, frequently worked on legislation in Virginia that would abolish slavery. George Washington benefitted from slavery, but also saw it as being at odds with America’s founding – upon his death, he freed his slaves. George Mason (one of the more underappreciated of the founders) objected to the Constitution not only on the grounds that it did not contain a Bill of Rights but also that it did not call for the end of the slave trade, a vital step in eliminating slavery in the United States.
Alexander Hamilton is cited by several biographers as hating slavery and being an abolitionist (though his personal letters and other documents say little on the subject, much of this assumption comes from second-hand sources). John Adams is one of the few notable founders to have never owned slaves, though he opposed radical (immediate) abolition during his presidency, telling abolitionists he would be open to an incremental plan (likely to minimize the economic effect on the southern states).
It is not only inaccurate to say that the founders tried to hold on to slavery, but it is far from the truth. The delegates to the constitutional convention who favored slavery were those in the southern states, where slavery was most prevalent. And while each of the men stated above had their flaws – Washington and Jefferson owned slaves, and Jefferson, in particular, was vocal about how inferior he felt the black man was (he favored “freedom” through expulsion) – the idea that they broke away from Britain solely to maintain slavery in the states is deeply rooted in revisionist fantasy and not fact.
The author is not doing anything new with this essay. For decades, many liberal historians and activists have worked over and around not just the personal documents of the Founders but much of the outwardly expressed public sentiment of revolutionary Americans, all in an effort to declare that the founding of America was a business proposition, a special interest project of slave owners and businessmen meant to benefit them at the expense of black slaves and poor farmers. What the Times does is take the old idea and adorn it with a pretty website and grandiose language.
What the essay, and indeed the entire tone of the “1619 Project”, declares then is that the Constitution itself is illegitimate because it is based on a lie. This is the same New York Times that openly laments every single Constitutional violation and delegitimization orchestrated by President Donald Trump’s administration.
In other words, they’d like you to believe Trump is delegitimizing an illegitimate document.
America is imperfect and will continue to be imperfect. That does not make what the country stands for illegitimate. Rather, the Constitution is both a founding document and a goal. This is what the country is supposed to look like, and it is our job as active and engaged citizens to strive for that. Yes, we have many different ideas as to how to achieve it, but the end goal is the same for a great many of us: We want to see it work.
Projects like this do not work toward that goal. They undermine it. At a time when our national press complains about being called “the enemy,” many of its most established members are openly advocating the undermining of the country – and are essentially calling for a political and cultural revolution to change it.