Books: The 1619 Project: A Critique

by | Apr 15, 2020 | History

The 1619 Project sacrifices scholarly standards in the service of the ideological agenda.

When I first weighed in upon the New York Times’ 1619 Project, I was struck by its conflicted messaging. Comprising an entire magazine feature and a sizable advertising budget, the newspaper’s initiative conveyed a serious attempt to engage the public in an intellectual exchange about the history of slavery in the United States and its lingering harms to our social fabric.

It also seemed to avoid the superficiality of many public history initiatives, which all too often reduce over 400 complex years of slavery’s history and legacy to sweeping generalizations. Instead, the Times promised detailed thematic explorations of topics ranging from the first slave ship’s arrival in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619 to the politics of race in the present day.

At the same time, however, certain 1619 Project essayists infused this worthy line of inquiry with a heavy stream of ideological advocacy. Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones announced this political intention openly, pairing progressive activism with the initiative’s stated educational purposes.

Signs of the blurred lines between scholarship and activism appeared in several, though not all, of its essays. A historical discussion about the Constitution’s notoriously strained handling of slavery quickly drifted into a list of partisan grievances against the tax and health care policy views of congressional Republicans in the twenty-first century.

Another potentially interesting inquiry into the history of how city planning historically intertwined with racial segregation ended with a harangue against suburban Atlanta voters for declining to fund an expensive and ineffectual light-rail transit project at the ballot box. Hannah-Jones’s own introductory essay presented a provocative conceptual reframing of American history around slavery, hence 1619 rather than 1776 as its titular origin date, albeit with an almost-singular mind toward advocating for a slavery-reparations program in the present.

Enlisting history for political editorializing is a time-honored habit of commentators across the political spectrum, so in a sense the 1619 Project’s indulgences in the same were unexceptional. The Times’ branding, however, exhibited a schizophrenia of purposes.

Hannah-Jones’s own public comments pivoted between touting her work as the culmination of rigorous historical scholarship and an exercise in advocacy journalism—seemingly as the occasion demanded. The 1619 Project, it seemed, could serve as both an enduring long-term curriculum for high school and college classrooms and an activist manual for the 2020 campaign season. Unfortunately the blending of these two competing aims usually results in the sacrifice of scholarly standards in the service of the ideological objective—not by design, but by necessary implication of needing to reconcile the irreducible complexities of the past to a more simplistic political narrative.

This tendency finds its most visible display in the 1619 Project contribution that first caught my attention, Matthew Desmond’s essay on the relationship between slavery and modern American capitalism. Having explored this topic extensively in my own scholarly work on economic and intellectual history, I was immediately struck by the shallow one-sidedness of Desmond’s argument.

Among economic historians, few subjects are more heavily scrutinized than the operations of the antebellum slave economy. The existent literature dates back half a century and encompasses hundreds of works from across the ideological spectrum, each employing empirical data to better understand the profitability, efficiency, and state sanction of the plantation system. Curiously, Desmond’s article evinced no awareness of the scholarly study of slavery beyond a narrow coterie of post-2010 historical works going by the moniker of the “New History of Capitalism” (NHC).

Although it has yielded modestly interesting archival insights about plantation operations, the NHC school of slavery scholarship also suffers from a notorious ideological and methodological insularity—the subject of a 2017 historiographical essay that I wrote for another book and that is adapted for the present volume. As that chapter documents, two defining characteristics of the NHC literature are (1) its recurring, and at times even inept, misuse of economic data to make unsupported empirical claims, and (2) its heavily anticapitalist political perspective.

While both attributes have earned the NHC severe criticism among historians and economic historians of slavery from outside its ranks, the group has thus far taken few steps to reconcile its shortcomings with a broader scholarly literature that often belies the main NHC contentions. It therefore came as a surprise to find that Desmond had relied almost exclusively on contested claims from the NHC literature to build his argument, albeit without any hint of the associated contestation.

To this end, he casually repeated an erroneous NHC claim about the cause of cotton productivity growth in the early nineteenth century and further misrepresented its historical evidence to suggest an unsupported origin story for modern business practices in the accounting books of nineteenth-century plantations. The resulting argument advanced a specious link between slavery in the nineteenth century and capitalism today. Lurking beneath it all was a long list of Desmond’s own modern progressive political causes—economic inequality, financial reforms after the 2007–8 financial crisis, and a general disdain for deregulation and free market thought. In short, Desmond was weaponizing the history of slavery to attack modern capitalism.

I entered the fray of the 1619 Project debate in its first week, with a series of articles scrutinizing Desmond’s narrative and contextualizing them within what Friedrich A. Hayek dubbed the “anti-capitalist” tradition in intellectual life. From there I joined a broader discussion involving dozens of historians, economists, and other scholars that began to scrutinize other historical claims in the project, particularly Hannah-Jones’s attempts to recast the American Revolution as being primarily motivated by the preservation of slavery.

Not all 1619 Project criticisms hit their mark though, and in the course of the ensuing months I broke from several of the other historian critics over the Times’ depiction of Abraham Lincoln. Hannah-Jones pointed out the sixteenth president’s recurring interest in colonizing freed slaves abroad after emancipating them, mainly to call attention to Lincoln’s complex and sometimes neglected beliefs about race in a post-slavery society. This earned her the animosity of a group of historian critics on both the political left and right, including accusations of unfairly disparaging Lincoln.

Having devoted a significant amount of my own scholarly work to Lincoln’s presidency, I weighed in on the arguments as presented, showing that the 1619 Project’s assessment was in closer line with historical evidence that these critics neglected to consider. The essays are presented herein, and they place me in the curious position of being one of the only 1619 Project critics to also come to its defense on one of the major points of contention.

In assembling these essays, I make no claim of resolving what continues to be a vibrant and ongoing discussion. Neither should my work be viewed as the final arbiter of historical accuracy, though I do evaluate a number of factual and interpretive claims made by the project’s authors. Rather, the aim is to provide an accessible resource for readers wishing to navigate the scholarly disputes, offering my own interpretive take on claims pertaining to areas of history in which I have worked.

Made available by the American Institute for Economic Research.

Now available on Amazon: The 1619 Project: A Critique

Phil Magness is a Senior Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He is the author of numerous works on economic history, taxation, economic inequality, the history of slavery, and education policy in the United States.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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