The University of North Carolina’s decision on June 30 to offer tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones came about through a torrent of threats (often tweeted), profanities, doxxings, and assaults—tactics that have become increasingly commonplace among professional activists and racial grievance-mongers.
Hannah-Jones, of course, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning opinion writer and architect of the New York Times’ notorious “1619 Project,” which claims that America’s true founding was not in 1776 but rather in 1619, when 20 or so African slaves arrived in Virginia. Hannah-Jones contends, moreover, that the American War of Independence was fought solely to preserve slavery.
More than two-dozen credible historians, many of them political liberals and leftists, have debunked Hannah-Jones’ claims. Though, as we’ll see, some are less firm in their convictions than others. What’s clear, however, is that peer review is passé in the era of “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” Forget a stellar record of scholarly accomplishment—that’s a relic of “Eurocentrism.” Far more important these days is a candidate’s enthusiasm for social justice. It was Hannah-Jones’ celebrity activism and her “journalism,” not her scholarship, that formed the basis for the university’s initial offer of tenure earlier in the spring.
And so after a rancorous three-hour discussion on June 30, the university’s board of trustees voted 9-4 to give Hannah-Jones what she wanted. Later that day, she appeared to celebrate the vote on Twitter with a glass of whiskey.
But after all the drama, which attracted national headlines, Hannah-Jones decided instead to decamp for Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she will launch a center on race and journalism with Ta-Nehesi Coates. With a straight face, she told CNN, “I don’t want to force myself into an institution that doesn’t seem to appreciate what I bring.” A statement from the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media blamed the reversal of fortune on “racism and reactionary politics.” What’s certain is that Hannah-Jones had done a masterful job of smearing an institution that dared question her qualifications.
Hannah-Jones had long campaigned for the UNC job on Twitter, arguing that the issue was much greater than just her employment. She alleged systemic discrimination, asserting that out of 622 tenured professors at UNC, only “eight were Black women.” She deftly employed the new standard of truth—namely, that the race of the person from which claims emanate determines their veracity. Any hint of “whiteness” is immediately suspect. For example, when J. D. Vance referred to “conservative Americans,” Hannah-Jones knew he was “really saying: White Americans.” Of Walter Hussman, Jr., the benefactor of the Chapel Hill campus’s journalism school who opposed the tenure offer, he “is a 74-year-old white man” while Hannah-Jones is a 45-year-old black woman. Obviously, his concerns as a longtime media executive and publisher about her journalistic ethics must be considered secondary in light of her accomplishments on social media and in the pages of the Times.
Sourcing Her Sources
Nikole Hannah-Jones’ go-to move is to accuse her detractors of racism. But she also tries to demonstrate the depth of her learning by posting pictures on Twitter of book pages with underlined passages and articles written by like-minded historians.
In her campaign against state bills that would forbid the use of 1619 Project materials, along with critical race theory (CRT), in government schools, she tweeted: “Teaching that racism was embedded in the American legal system is not a ‘divisive’ concept, just historical fact.” Her source? Gloria Browne-Marshall’s Race, Law, and American Society: 1607-Present. “It is 496 pages long,” Hannah-Jones solemnly added.
Browne-Marshall’s book presents the premises and precepts of CRT as unerring. Unlike the Bible, CRT allows no room for various interpretations of the history it attempts to frame. In her very first chapter, an “Overview of Race and the Law in America,” Browne-Marshall asserts, among other things, that Africans were considered (by whom? Early Americans? Europeans? All whites? It’s unclear.) to be “nonhuman.” The “commercialized” character of slavery had not existed on the African continent, and the Africans captured in battle by other Africans were merely “servants.” (Such claims are false, as I demonstrate in my forthcoming book, Debunking The 1619 Project.)
Hannah-Jones appears to be ignorant of much of this. Yet she now has $20 million in donations—$5 million each from the left-leaning Ford, MacArthur, and Knight Foundations, with the remaining $5 million coming from an anonymous donor—to establish a major center in race-based journalism at one of the most important historically black colleges in the United States. So goes the “long march through the institutions.”
Hannah-Jones’s comrades point to her accomplishments (which they have bestowed on her): a Pulitzer Prize for the 1619 Project (as commentary); induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; entrée into Oprah Winfrey’s media empire; sundry honorary degrees; speaking engagements on campuses and educators’ and librarians’ events; lucrative commentator gigs on MSNBC and CNN; a Peabody Award; a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant”; recognition in 2019 as a UNC-Chapel Hill distinguished alumna and induction into the North Carolina Media and Journalism Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, the historians who hoist her up are themselves activists or are willing to compromise their own scholarship in order to maintain their standing on the Left.
Hannah-Jones likes to brag that she has the support of numerous professors—which is indisputably true. Most notable are the UNC academics who signed the letter of support for her tenure bid. Another letter of “solidarity” was signed by star athletes, Hollywood stars, and academics, including Donna Brazile, Black Panther-turned-Communist politician-turned-UC Santa Cruz professor Angela Davis, and black power advocate Hasan Kwame Jeffries. The “solidarity” letter was penned by race polemicist Ta-Nehisi Coates and retired Yale University professor Glenda Gilmore. Gilmore, who as I described in the first installment of this series, had poetically lauded the death of the “First Black Communist,” Lovett Fort-Whiteman, in a Soviet gulag.
Another signer of that letter was Leslie M. Harris, a Northwestern University historian who was, ironically, one of the more compelling critics of the 1619 Project. Harris revealed in Politico that her advice as a consulting historian had been ignored by the New York Times. Yet, ultimately, she supported Hannah-Jones in her tenure bid at UNC.
So did Sean Wilentz, another major critic of the 1619 Project. Wilentz did not sign the “solidarity” letter, but ultimately he came down on the side of giving Hannah-Jones tenure. Harris and Wilentz, both reputable historians, have allowed themselves to be compromised by their solidarity and sympathy with their political tribes.
To review, Wilentz along with four of his colleagues—Victoria Bynum, James M. McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon S. Wood—sent a letter to the editor of the New York Times Magazine (published on December 29, 2019), which pointed out some errors in the 1619 Project, which read in part:
On the American Revolution, pivotal to any account of our history, the project asserts that the founders declared the colonies’ independence of Britain ‘in order to ensure slavery would continue.’ This is not true. If supportable, the allegation would be astounding—yet every statement offered by the project to validate it is false.
Other distortions included claims about Abraham Lincoln and the suggestion that “‘for the most part,’ black Americans have fought their freedom struggles ‘alone.’” (Princeton historian Allen Guelzo, among a dozen specialists on Civil War history, similarly had written to the Times, pointing out errors, such as in attributing to Lincoln the stated belief that blacks were a “troublesome presence,” when he was actually referring to a statement by Henry Clay. That January 26, 2020, letter, however, perhaps because the signers were not on the Left, was not published in the Times.)
The five Wilentz-led historians asked that the Times “issue prominent corrections of all the errors and distortions presented in The 1619 Project,” remove “these mistakes from any materials destined for use in schools, as well as in all further publications, including books bearing the name of the New York Times,” and “reveal fully the process through which the historical materials were and continue to be assembled, checked and authenticated.”
Editor Jake Silverstein replied dismissively:
[T]he project was intended to address the marginalization of African-American history in the telling of our national story and examine the legacy of slavery in contemporary American life. We are not ourselves historians, it is true. We are journalists, trained to look at current events and situations and ask the question: Why is this the way it is? In the case of the persistent racism and inequality that plague this country, the answer to that question led us inexorably into the past.
“Though we may not be historians,” he continued, “we take seriously the responsibility of accurately presenting history to readers. . . .” In response to the letter writers’ concerns about a “closed process” and an opaque “panel of historians,” he outlined “the steps we took,” which included:
[C]onsult[ing] with numerous scholars of African-American history and related fields, in a group meeting at the Times as well as in a series of individual conversations. (Five of those who initially consulted with us—Mehrsa Baradaran of the University of California, Irvine; Matthew Desmond [a sociologist] and Kevin M. Kruse, both of Princeton University; and Tiya Miles and Khalil G. Muhammad, both of Harvard University—went on to publish articles in the issue.) After those consultations, writers conducted their own research, reading widely, examining primary documents and artifacts and interviewing historians. Finally, during the fact-checking process, our researchers carefully reviewed all the articles in the issue with subject-area experts. This is no different from what we do on any article.
Kruse, Miles, and Muhammad signed the letter of solidarity with Hannah-Jones.
In January 2020, Wilentz published a lengthy rebuttal to Silverstein and the Times, titled “A Matter of Facts,” The Atlantic.
Silverstein’s assertion that “researchers carefully reviewed all the articles . . . with subject-area experts” was exposed as false on March 6, 2020, when Harris published her Politico essay on the deep and abiding flaws of the 1619 Project. She revealed that on August 19 (the day after the 1619 Project was published in the New York Times Magazine) she had “listened in stunned silence as Nikole Hannah-Jones . . . repeated an idea that I had vigorously argued against with her fact-checker: that the patriots fought the American Revolution in large part to preserve slavery in North America.” Furthermore, the editor had ignored the answers she gave to “several questions probing the nature of slavery in the Colonial era” and published Hannah-Jones’ mischaracterization of “slavery in early America” as the kind more applicable to the antebellum era.
Sneaky edits on the Times’ web page on March 11 changed two vital words in Hannah-Jones’ claim about the protection of slavery being the reason for America declaring independence. She had written, “Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” Silverstein, without notice, added “some of” as in “some of the colonists,” which, technically, could mean two of them. But it was not a correction, only a “clarification,” Silverstein said, because “we stand behind the basic point.” Four decades of “early American historiography,” he claimed, “have scrutinized the role of slavery and the agency of enslaved people in driving events of the Revolutionary period.” Silverstein also let readers know that a bevy of historians had assisted in adding the two words.
Harris had already indicated in her Politico article where her ultimate loyalties lay, as she veered from “vigorous” argument over substantive errors, to alarm “that critics would use the overstated claim to discredit the entire undertaking.” She had found, “So far, that’s exactly what has happened.” In the very same article that exploded the 1619 Project’s premise, she touted it as a “much-needed corrective to the blindly celebratory histories that once dominated our understanding of the past.”
The “blindly celebratory histories” may have been pushed in textbooks of the 1940s and 1950s by the Daughters of the Confederacy. But as I learned from examining major textbooks currently in use in high school history classes, undue attention is already given to slavery and the presumed villainy of Thomas Jefferson and, essentially, all white people.
Harris acknowledges that the historians in their letter to the New York Times Magazine editor stated, “We applaud all efforts to address the enduring centrality of slavery and racism to our history” (“as The 1619 Project does”).
Harris, however, bypassed the concern about errors of fact and “the closed process” that the historians next indicated. Instead, she accusingly pointed to the early scholarship of Wood and Wilentz. Early in their careers—even as “academic historians had begun, finally, to acknowledge African American history and slavery as a critical theme in American history”—they committed sins of omission. Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic (1969), Harris complains, contained “only one index listing for “‘Negroes,’ and none for slavery,” while his The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1991), neglected to present “the facts of slave-owning” as “central to that time” (even as he acknowledged “the new nation’s failure to end slavery, and even the brutality of some Founding Fathers who held people as property”).
Wood also failed to include the inability of the founders to “eliminate slavery” or to “discuss how or why the Northern states did so” even as he investigated “the Founders’ ability to eliminate other forms of hierarchy.” She charged, “black people as historical actors shaping the ideas and lives of the Founders have no place in [Wood’s] work.” But black people did not shape “the ideas and lives of the Founders.” This fact may be unfortunate, but it is true. Since time immemorial leaders have not given a thought to what their slaves, servants, serfs, indentures, or wait staff thought. But these founders, admittedly elite white men, did put in process the ideas about property and natural rights, from which blacks, as slave-owning free blacks, and then manumitted slaves, would benefit.
The Historians’ Civil War
Harris strays beyond her worthy task of writing about a neglected aspect of history to artificially thrusting blacks into the center of power and decision-making. She faults Wilentz’s Chants Democratic (1984) for “largely ignor[ing] issues of race and black workers, even though New York had the largest population of enslaved black people in the Colonial North, while focusing on New York’s antebellum-era working class’s efforts to claim citizenship.” She quotes her own statement from In the Shadow of Slavery about Wilentz creating “‘a white hegemony more powerful than that which existed’ during the era he was studying.”
Wilentz, she claims, “has struggled publicly over how to understand the centrality of slavery to the nation’s founding era.” She cites a 2015 op-ed and his 2018 book No Property in Man, where Wilentz “argues that the Constitutional Convention specifically kept support for slavery defined as ‘property in man’ out of the Constitution, a key distinction that the Founders believed would eventually allow for ending slavery in the nation.” According to Harris, this argument “obscures the degree to which many Founding Fathers returned to a support of Southern slavery as the revolutionary fervor waned; by the early 19th century, as only one example, Thomas Jefferson established the University of Virginia in part as a pro-slavery bulwark against Northern anti-slavery ideologies.”
In her quest to make enslaved and free blacks “central,” Harris has overreached and erred. As Andrew O’Shaughnessy, vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and professor of history at the University of Virginia, explained to me, describing the central point of his forthcoming book, The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind: Thomas Jefferson’s Idea of a University, “Jefferson hoped that the university would train an elite who would tackle the issues that had defied his generation, including slavery. He never wavered from the view that the issue was urgent and would otherwise end in bloodshed.” Harris simply repeated the claims from the press, which come almost verbatim from the President’s Commission Report on Slavery at UVA that erroneously drew on Jefferson’s letters during the Missouri Crisis—a time when much of the university had already been built.
Harris, in her Politico article, then pointed favorably to Gary Nash, Ira Berlin, Alfred Young, and Edmund Morgan, whose “histories of the Colonial and Revolutionary eras” included “African Americans, slavery and race.” These historians were at the forefront of a new wave in undertaking the study of slavery and black history, specifically, and built on the work of black scholars such as Carter G. Woodson, Benjamin Quarles, and John Hope Franklin. Such studies are needed to understand American history fully. But the highly revisionist claim that slavery was “central” to the founding buttresses the more outrageous ones made by Hannah-Jones.
Harris points to legal scholar Annette Gordon-Reed, who as I discovered, poisons the well when using white sources, implying that they are motivated by bias and racism as she makes the unproven claim that Thomas Jefferson fathered six of slave Sally Hemings’ children. Harris names three black historians as exemplars who uncovered how black people “challenged the patriots to live up to their own ideals of freedom for all . . . as the 1619 Project rightly points out.” But Harris betrays her own political motivations claiming that these ideals “only fully began to be realized at the close of the Civil War . . . and have still not been fulfilled.”
How have they “not been fulfilled”? One wonders.
Another exaggeration comes in Harris’ conclusion that “it is much harder to correct a worldview that consistently ignores and distorts the role of African Americans and race in our history in order to present white people as all powerful and solely in possession to the keys of equality, freedom and democracy.”
As she shifts the terms, Harris herself presents a false “worldview”—in which “white people” are “all-powerful” and “solely in possession to the keys of equality, freedom and democracy” (emphases added). For her, “the 1619 Project is moving, if imperfectly” toward a “corrective” view of this history. But Harris’ own enviable position, and the position of thousands of scholars pursuing black history, gives the lie to her claim about a needed corrective, especially one as flawed as the 1619 Project.
Harris repeated these points in a May 14, 2020 “roundtable” on “Morning Joe” with Hannah-Jones, columnist Clarence Page, and Eddie Glaude, Jr.. Glaude is a Ph.D. in religion who teaches in Princeton’s African American Studies department, and is described on his faculty page as an “intellectual who speaks on the complex dynamics of the American experience.” He is also the author of Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul.
The real purpose of the discussion was revealed by Joe Scarborough: to emphasize the importance of constitutional protections “checking” President Trump’s abominable personal behavior; and secondarily to allow Harris an opportunity to show support for Hannah-Jones.
Harris literally put her hands together to applaud Hannah-Jones’s Pulitzer as her accomplishments were read and repeated her concern about critiques that focused “on small errors.” This was after Hannah-Jones made the charge about these “small errors” and whined about the “personal” nature of the criticism directed at her. To Page’s mild criticism of the Project’s ignoring of white people in the fight against slavery and segregation, Hannah-Jones shot back, “Did Mr. Page read my essay?” (It’s her standard challenge on Twitter. I have read her essay multiple times, and Page is correct.)
Glaude chimed in to affirm the need to “tell a different story” about our history. Hannah-Jones took the cue from Scarborough, as he called for balance in our assessment of Abraham Lincoln. She claimed that she had presented a “complicated narrative” and a view of Lincoln and others as neither wholly good nor bad—as she told her daughter when she was asked about her “heroes.” She claimed that she acknowledged that Lincoln had changed from the beginning to the end of the Civil War. (She did no such thing.)
Harris did not correct Hannah-Jones on this point and also contradicted her own initial claim about the willful disregard of historical corrections, errors that were far from “small.”
When President Trump announced his 1776 Commission on September 17, 2020, Harris penned with Karin Wulf, “What Trump Is Missing About American History” in Politico. “Conservative politicians,” Harris and Wulf charged, “have used The 1619 Project to open another front in the culture war that has long fixated on history.” This is a common tactic: claim that any criticisms coming from the Right are political in order to discount the claims, denying the notion a critic could have valid intellectual reasons.
Harris’ reverse course was put in the form of questions:
Both of us teach early American history and we still get asked who got it right and who got it wrong: ‘Was the New York Times right or wrong to write that the Revolutionary War was motivated in part by a desire to protect slavery?’ Other questions are ‘Did slavery have a ‘foundational’ role in the establishment of our nation? Did the Times’ eventual revision of its language about slavery and the Revolutionary War indicate that its work is fatally flawed?’
Some people just have an oversimplified view of history as “static and certain,” they charged. “The 1619 Project’s focus on slavery and racism, including its assertion and then revision about slavery and the Revolution, highlights how history is always in the process of revision through new information and new perspectives.” What they describe is the process of traditional scholarship—not what happened with the 1619 Project, when two words were added (with the help of Harris and Wulf) in the dead of the digital night. Harris and Wulf charge that criticisms of the project arise from a “basic misapprehension about how we know what we know about the past.” But this is as insulting as it is false.
Yet it has become standard procedure. This tactic was used in 2013 to attack Purdue University President Mitch Daniels, when new reports revealed he had sought to get Howard Zinn’s Marxist history out of publicly funded schools while he was governor of Indiana. Zinn’s critics, such as Michael Kazin, turned the tables and charged Daniels with not “understand[ing] . . . how history is now written and has always been written.” A letter by 90 Purdue professors charged Daniels with ignorantly adhering to the “consensus school” of history.
Ironically, Sean Wilentz, who was accused of omitting the “centrality of slavery” by Harris in 2020, was charged also with the same crime of “consensus history” by William Hogeland in his January 2021 New Republic article, “Against the Consensus Approach to History.” Hannah-Jones smugly told her followers, “This is long, but quite satisfying, and for the casual but informed reader of history who wondered how the #1619Project could possibly push back against the ‘factual’ critiques of eminent Princeton historians such as @seanwilentz, here’s your answer.” She seems to have engaged in yet another twist, for in the thread she wrote, “It’s also just a good explanation of how historiography works and that objectivity, in historiography, in journalism, is rarely—maybe never—a real thing.” (On other days of the week she insists on the factual nature of her project.)
I did follow Hannah-Jones’s directive in the next thread, “Please read the article before drawing conclusions from this tweet that are bereft of context. Thank you.”
I don’t know if my analysis would meet her standards for reading comprehension, but it seems to me that Hogeland was using the 1619 Project and Wilentz’s criticisms to score in a fight against “consensus historians,” or against a respected critic of Hannah-Jones. Curiously, Hogeland’s criticism goes back to Edmund Morgan, a prime practitioner of “consensus history,” but also a historian that Harris had praised.
Hogeland takes issue with Wilentz’s criticism of Hannah-Jones’s statement, “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because (sic) they wanted to protect the institution of slavery” (subsequently amended to “some of the colonists,” as discussed). She had buttressed this claim with the fictional one that “by 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution. . . .” (Actually, England ruled the slave trade, and pushed it on the colonists, who sought to abolish it or at least stop the importation of slaves from Africa—facts that black historians were writing about 100 years ago.) Hannah-Jones does not mention the 1772 British Somerset decision (which determined that slaves once in England were free), nor has she ever indicated any knowledge of it. It was used by Silverstein in his response to the five historians.
Hogeland does not have an academic position but has written several histories. In his New Republic article he tracks changes in the earlier “consensus” historian, Edmund S. Morgan. Hogeland observed that Wilentz’s Atlantic essay, “A Matter of Facts,” seemed to indicate that “objections to the 1619 Project were made not on the basis of a competing framework but on the basis of plain fact revealed by deep expertise”—a prime example of “how consensus history works.” Hogeland set out to first demonstrate Morgan’s factual sleight-of-hand, the model for Wilentz and other historians of that school (including Daniel Boorstin, Forrest McDonald, Bernard Bailyn, and Gordon Wood).
Consensus History for the Left
Hogeland pulled out the first brick Morgan had laid in 1948 to “the dominant postwar narrative of the American founding” in the first of the essays that culminated in The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution (1953). He then proceeded to demonstrate how these claims were changed to fit the patriotic, unified thesis of the book. Allegedly, Morgan conducted a “hidden war” with Charles Beard, who had claimed that the country was founded to preserve the economic interests of the founders, and with “British-friendly scholarship.” The misrepresentation of “objective fact,” Hogeland claims, served the “cultural and political imperatives” of the 1940s and 1950s, “to delegitimize any idea that was out of keeping with the notion of American principles of right as innate.” Morgan established “a new master narrative” in his “enduringly popular book, The Birth of the Republic 1763-1789.”
Interestingly, Hogeland, after painstakingly presenting the “facts” he has unearthed, writes, “The consensus model has produced a vast and important body of history, based on a claim to superior objectivity that was never anything but attitude.” For him, Wilentz’s Atlantic article was a “classic of the early-Morgan genre: Wilentz places his criticism in the loftiest possible context. Fending off recent assaults on objective fact by President Trump and others, he takes up a mission to wield expertise and objectivity in defense of truth, liberalism, and democracy.”
Hogeland recounts the 1619 Project’s original claim that “preserving racial slavery was a prime motivation for declaring American independence,” erroneously stating, “The 1619 Project claims that Somerset planted a fear in American slaveholders that the British government would abolish the institution in the colonies.” (It was Silverstein who referred to Somerset, as Wilentz made clear.) Wilentz’s response was to three major parts: “the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the long history of resistance to racism [by whites].” He corrected Hannah-Jones’s claim about Britain being “conflicted” over its role in slavery, the calls in London to allegedly abolish the slave trade, and Silverstein’s offering of the Somerset case—specifically Silverstein’s claim that Somerset caused a “sensation” as evidenced by coverage in newspapers. Wilentz’s counterclaim about the scantiness of newspaper coverage was what Hogeland set out to demolish as part of his assault on “consensus history.”
Drawing on a blog and a book by Framingham State University professor of history Joseph M. Adelman, Hogeland insists that Wilentz misinterprets the number of newspapers, their formatting, and the role they played in informing colonists about foreign events. Adelman’s “blog post based on deep research” has, in Hogeland’s opinion, “demolished not only Wilentz on Somerset but also, more importantly, an entire approach to so-called fact.” Presenting his facts, Hogeland condemns “bravura degrees of distortion” needed when the past is “invoked to stiffen the sinews of an epoch’s moods, bear out political imperatives, dominate the narratives of national heritage, and hold the center of middlebrow culture. . . .”
One can almost hear applause from Hannah-Jones, as Hogeland concludes, “That’s what the 1619 Project wants, too: to own American exceptionalism, define a foundational national character, build a platform for determining public understanding of our history for generations to come—to develop, ultimately, a new consensus regarding what the project sees as the highest imperatives of learning history. Times have changed. The Morgan framing was launched at universities. The 1619 Project was launched at a legacy media brand. . . .” Hogeland points out the difference: “The project admits to being a framing, and to having politics.” (On some days.)
The 1619 Project is not vindicated, as Hannah-Jones imagines. Hogeland’s call for a “usable history,” while casting himself as a belated peer reviewer of Morgan’s work, is self-contradictory. A lengthy paragraph blasts Morgan’s legacy as the “U.S. advanced its cause at home and abroad.” But instead of calling for a scholarly correction of the record, he cynically argues for giving a “turn at practicing the same tricks, for the same rewards” to “members of groups not overwhelmingly white and male.” They will have to be “warier than we were, and maybe more playful, too.”
Hogeland is as slippery as Hannah-Jones as he switches from fact to framing and back. He contradicts his own 2010 book, Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, whose Amazon page declares, “As late as [May 1776] the Continental Congress had no plans to break away from England” even though fighting had been going on ‘for nearly a year.’” The book promises to reveal how “Samuel Adams of Massachusetts . . . assisted by his nervous cousin John—plotted to bring about American independence.” There is no mention of Somerset. Slavery is mentioned in reference to Thomas Paine and Benjamin Rush, an abolitionist who prompted Paine to write his pamphlet!
As Hogeland pointed out then, it was the anti-slavery Massachusetts Adamses who agitated for independence. Jefferson was recruited, as Dumas Malone noted, in part because his colony, Virginia, which had the largest number of slaves at the time, was on the fence.
Hogeland’s own book refutes the thesis of the 1619 Project, which he supported in his article.
In spite of being charged with marginalizing blacks and writing (gasp!) “consensus history,” Wilentz, in a Chronicle of Higher Education article co-written with Princeton politics professor Keith Whittington, opposed the denial of tenure by the board of trustees. He and Whittington warned of the growing danger of “political tampering” in “the governance of modern American universities” and portended a return to the days before the “long fight for academic freedom” when boards of trustees were put in their proper ceremonial places.
Politicized History Comes From a Politicized Academy
What gets ignored, of course, is the politicization of the academy, as demonstrated by historians like Harris and Kazin who contradict themselves in order to preclude the possibility that anyone outside of the political Left—no matter the soundness of their scholarship—would have a seat at the table. Political litmus tests are required before the admission into tenured (or even adjunct) positions and in debates about public policy.
Wilentz and Whittington admit that concerns remain regarding “scholarship and qualifications” and Hannah-Jones’ “choice to sometimes dismiss and demean her critics instead of engaging with their arguments on the merit.” (Wilentz reiterated his insistence that the 1619 Project was factually flawed as recently as July 6.) They cite the American Association of University Professors’ “Declaration of Principles” that the “ability of university professors to perform their primary duty ‘to the wider public’—disseminating and advancing human knowledge—requires an ‘independence of thought and utterance’ that is incompatible with dependence on the approval of university trustees.”
(Funny. A blog post at the AAUP, titled “Debunking Mary Grabar,” fails to engage with any of my arguments.)
“The sharp polarization of our politics threatens the foundations of teaching and scholarship, especially in areas of civics and American history,” Wilentz and Whittington warn. Amazingly, they state that though they remained critical of the 1619 Project, they saw a greater danger in the “political intervention [of boards] in matters of faculty hiring”—a far cry from the demand put to Silverstein to remove “mistakes from any materials destined for use in schools.” Now Wilentz would rather have journalistic techniques used to write falsified history taught to college students than to allow a board of trustees, acting on the expert opinion of numerous historians, to intervene.
Wilentz closed by stating that his correction of errors was intended to advance the “stated goal to educate widely on slavery and its long-term consequences,” thus echoing Harris. To let the errors stand makes “it easier for critics hostile to the overarching mission to malign it for their own ideological and partisan purposes, as some have already begun to do . . . ” He then continued, amazingly, to praise the New York Times for taking “a lead in combating the degradation of truth and assault on a free press propagated by Donald Trump’s White House, aided and abetted by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and spun by the far right on social media.”
In a final pandering move, Wilentz referred to “historian” W. E. B. Du Bois, who he claimed best expressed the point about “factual historical accuracy” in Black Reconstruction, where he refuted the Dunning School and marshaled “the facts.” But as David Levering Lewis admits in his biography, W.E.B. Du Bois, 1919-1963: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, Black Reconstruction, Du Bois’ “rationale” is “preeminently one of aggressive reinterpretation rather than of original research.” Lewis admiringly calls it “Analytical yet intuitive, densely researched but impressionistic, judicious and sweeping,” but he also acknowledges that “Black Reconstruction pushed the figurative beyond the bounds of the historically permissible in its determination to integrate black labor into a Marxian schematic of proletarian overcoming.”
And regarding “The Propaganda of History,” the last chapter (which Hannah-Jones praised on Twitter), Lewis writes, “Du Bois’s last chapter soared beyond an appeal to honest history into a realm where moral philosophy fused with the symbolism of the Creation. But if it was special pleading as biased in its own way as any white supremacist’s, he saw it as partisanship in the cause of justice and democracy . . . ”
Du Bois had been forced out of the NAACP, which he had helped found, for embracing racial separatism in the 1930s. Late in life, after devoting many years to promoting Communist causes, he was admitted to the Communist Party USA, won the Lenin Peace Prize, and gave up his American citizenship to move to Ghana as a pampered guest of Communist dictator Kwame Nkrumah.
David Levering Lewis is sympathetic to Du Bois and is a man of the Left. But he is able to distinguish between history and polemic. Being able to distinguish between history and polemic is the least we should be able to expect from historians discussing the 1619 Project.
In the next installment, the double standards of two historians, Nell Irvin Painter and Manisha Sinha, signers of the letter of solidarity, will be exposed.