The United States may be the first country in history to tell a “noble lie” about its past that makes that past look worse, not better, than it actually was.
For certain, the premodern history of the United States included a great deal of barbaric, uncivilized behavior: the conquest of Native American tribes, the enslavement of captured Africans, and the oppression of women, just for starters. But popular left-wing models of historical education, in the “1619 Project” and Howard Zinn traditions, regularly make claims about further injustices and atrocities that are simply not based in reality: for example, that Americans fought the Revolutionary War to preserve slavery, or that African-Americans struggled largely “alone” for freedom.
Almost universally, these pedagogies also ignore both the context within which America’s undisputed sins took place—essentially all nations allowed slavery or serfdom until recent centuries—and the unique goods that America gave the world. I reject such educational models, along with their most propagandistic right-wing alternatives. A coherent education in history and civics must involve studying one’s society neither as blemish-free nor as virtually “all warts,” but rather comprehensively and honestly—warts and all.
No one denies the sins of the American past. African slavery obviously was one of the foundational facts of our national existence. More than 400,000 captured human beings were brought to our shores before the mid-1800s, and 40 million of their descendants—including me—live here today. Both black and white Americans dwell largely on lands that once belonged to Native inhabitants: the great majority of this country’s land was taken from Native tribes during wars of conquest that were shockingly bloody on both sides—featuring the mass rape of noncombatants, “red” as well as white men scalped while still alive (some U.S. counties paid a bounty for Indian scalps), living captives tied to wagon wheels and set ablaze, and much more. Until the past century or so, only men would have been able to discuss much of this publicly: women could not legally vote until 1920, and the majority of women outside the upper classes could not read and write until after that time. Even beyond these widely acknowledged facts, many more injustices existed: the Irish were also abused here, as were the Chinese, the first Italian immigrants, and Jews.
However, the existence of these all-too-legitimate horrors has not stopped activist scholars from exaggerating—or making up—other ones. Many primary claims of what might be termed the “1619” school of historical and civics education are simply not empirically accurate. My criticism here is not a matter of pointing out minor inaccuracies or misreading a few sentences here and there; rather, I find fault with the core arguments of a new “woke” worldview because they lack factual basis.
Perhaps the most notable example of this is the claim, made in the best-known 1619 Project essay, that the American Revolutionary War was fought to preserve human bondage. In her movement-launching essay, 1619 founder Nikole Hannah-Jones argues that preserving “the institution of slavery” was the “primary” reason the Founding Fathers launched the Revolutionary War against England. Not so. For one thing, England did not free the slaves in her overseas colonies until 1833—some 57 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed. Every American schoolkid has heard, or used to hear, the true reasons for the war—taxation without representation, the Intolerable Acts, the Boston Massacre, disputes over French and Indian War debt, among others—and the general consensus among scholars is that this listing is reasonably accurate. Revolutionary War historians like Gordon Wood almost immediately condemned the 1619 Project, and the New York Times eventually issued a lukewarm correction/clarification to at least this section of it.
Another dubious claim, this one more sweeping, is that pre-1865 chattel slavery was a primary source of American wealth. In the same essay, Hannah-Jones claims that slavery is what built “vast fortunes for white people North and South” and specifically “made New York City the financial capital of the world.” Again, this is dubious or plain false. No one denies that slavery made slave-masters rich, as well as providing the start-up capital for such notable enterprises as Yale University. But medieval-style plantation agriculture built upon the backs of abused people who cannot read is not a very effective way to utilize land and make money.
In fact, economists such as Thomas Sowell have long argued that slavery actually retarded the economic development of the South. The entire region boasted only 9-10% of the U.S.’s capital and skilled workforce when the Civil War began in 1861, and this limitation was a major reason for the eventual defeat of the Confederacy. And consider the costs of the Civil War, which killed 620,000 Americans. It would be hard to argue that the United States turned a profit on a practice that led to the eventual death of 360,000 Union soldiers—one man in blue for every nine slaves freed.
A third common, and incorrect, claim is that black people fought “for the most part . . . alone” to obtain their civil rights. It surely must sometimes have seemed that way to black Americans! But, the plain fact is that slaves and sharecroppers, almost by definition, rarely have the wherewithal to free themselves from bondage en masse. The Western world has seen just one successful slave revolt—and it produced Haiti. Even Spartacus wound up crucified along the Appian Way. The simple reality is that black slaves were freed in the United States because of the efforts of a 91 percent white army commanded by a white president. Whatever Lincoln’s imperfections and hypocrisies, he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, praised the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and gave the orders that broke the Confederacy—as carried out by Generals Sherman and Grant. And as Frederick Douglass always insisted, Lincoln genuinely “loathed slavery.”
A century later, when the Civil Rights Act passed the Senate by a convincing 73-27 margin, 98 percent of the senators sitting for that vote were of European Caucasian descent (the two outliers were Asian-American). The brilliant speeches of orators like Martin Luther King and John Lewis helped build a mass movement, but without the support of many white allies in highly placed political, military, and business positions, African-American civil rights would very likely never have come to be. In 1865 and in 1965, American citizens of all colors pitched in to make the country better.
A fourth faulty claim of woke scholarship is the virtual denial that any positive change has occurred in America. A key argument of 1619 partisans and of high-profile academics like Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo is that America is a “systemically racist” nation: that racism “went underground” rather than disappearing or declining following the 1960s social revolution, and that systems ranging from merit testing for collegiate admissions to criminal justice are shot through with “subtle bigotry,” “institutional prejudice,” “white privilege,” and so forth. The core argument here is that disparities in performance equal discrimination—period. Kendi contends, for example, that only two possible explanations exist for a performance gap between racial groups: 1) that something is deeply and perhaps genetically wrong with the under-performing group, or 2) that the metric being used to test performance is inherently if subtly biased.
But Kendi omits a third explanation for such gaps: that some changeable cultural or situational factor varies between the groups, and that changing it would help close the gaps. As far back as 1995, U.S. government economist June O’Neill and conservative researcher Dinesh D’Souza noted that virtually the entire discrepancy in earned income between black and white men vanishes when methodological adjustments are made for basic variables like median age, whether or not individuals live in the South, and standardized test scores. (And one might even suspect that American test-score gaps themselves would close, with both blacks and whites catching up to the Asian-Americans who currently dominate among SAT high-scorers, if we “adjusted” for the “variable” of time spent actually studying for the test.)
Not only do these theories get a whole host of things wrong; they also tend to ignore context and counterpoints. For example, slavery was not invented in the United States or indeed in the modern Western world, though a surprising number of American high schoolers now believe that it was. Slavery was a regular feature of life in ancient Greece and Rome, with even such thinkers as Aristotle discussing the “appropriate” treatment of humans held as chattel. And people of color held slaves, too. The Barbary Slave Trade involved the sale of more than 2 million captured European mariners to Muslim and black slave masters in North Africa and the Middle East—and actually inspired the “shores of Tripoli” line in the Marine Corps Hymn, as the U.S. once declared war on the Barbary Sultanates to stop powerful pirates from raiding our shipping and press-ganging Americans.
Any discussion of slavery that does not mention such episodes, or the Arabic/Muslim slave trade and the Zanj Wars, or Russian chattel serfdom, or for that matter how African captives got to those awful slave markets in the first place, is at best partial, if not dishonest. More specifically, pointing out that 12 million human beings were abducted from Africa and sold as slaves—as several 1619 essays do—borders on the misleading if it is not also noted that only 400,000 of these people ever came to the United States. (To her credit, Hannah-Jones does note these two facts—but not in the same place.) The other 11.6 million were sold to non-American masters in New Spain, Brazil, and the Caribbean, many of whom we would call “people of color” today. It’s hard to see how America is solely implicated in this diverse demonstration of the human propensity for evil.
As important and problematic as woke theorists’ dislike of context is their tendency to ignore the many remarkable accomplishments of American society.
Reading through a Howard Zinn textbook or the 1619 grade school curriculum, one might think that the defining historical features of America were slaveholding and conquest of North American indigenous tribes. Not quite! As we have seen, slavery was a virtually universal human practice until Western societies began the slow process of banning it globally in the early 18th century. Slavery lingers today in some isolated parts of the world. Conquest via battle was, if anything, more common: it was not banned by law until the Revised Geneva Conventions of 1954, and it was widely engaged in by populations of both white and Native American descent at the time of the Indian Wars.
Rather than these tawdry but commonplace failings, what actually makes the United States unique is our unparalleled string of glorious accomplishments. We did free the slaves here, and we eventually helped to liberate oppressed people globally. Barely 80 years after the bloody Civil War, Americans tipped the spear in the fight against Nazism, and nearly a half century later, our power and example helped bring down the Iron Curtain in Europe, liberating millions more. We broke the surly bonds of gravity and placed men on another celestial body in 1969, a feat that no society has matched since. The cure for polio and the Green Revolution technology that now feeds one-third or more of the world were developed here, among many other feats.
Impressionable young students hear little of this today, however. I suspect that far more high school students today could correctly identify the Black Panthers than the Wright Brothers, and this fact is no accident. Traditionally, propaganda has come from within a society and has been designed to portray that society as above reproach; a classic symbol of pro-U.S. propaganda from an earlier time would be, say, the Captain America comic. Times have changed. Now we face a new kind of propaganda—not unrealistically positive but rather excessively and misleadingly negative. It is funded by forces opposed to core principles of traditional American governance. It teaches that we are far worse than we really are, or in fact have ever been.
When the 1619 Project says, “Out of slavery grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system,” the problem is not that this statement is “edgy and challenging” or “frightening to traditionalists” or even “immoral”—the problem is that it is wildly false. Is Silicon Valley somehow a relic of historical slavery? Is mass, merit-based legal immigration? Is country music? The GDP of the United States increased 11,796 percent ($15 billion to $18.638 trillion) between 1865 and early 2020. How do long-ago racial abuses explain these advances?
The goal of a scholar or a teacher should be neither to present a blemish-free, false vision of a subject nor a virtually all-warts critical presentation. Rather, it should and must be to examine the realities of history accurately and honestly—“warts and all.” The goal should be, in other words, to tell the truth. Let us get back on the path of doing so.
Editor’s note: This essay is part of RealClearPublicAffairs’s 1776 Series, which explains the major themes that define the American mind.