A Pulitzer for twisting history

The New York Times’ 1619 Project has been hammered so effectively by scholars that to keep attacking it may seem like piling on. However, the Times has just been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its drive-by attack on America. Thus, I think another wave of criticism is justified.

In this post, I took on the Project’s ludicrous claim, ultimately abandoned, that the American Revolution was, in significant part, the result of a desire to preserve slavery in America. I cited two important historians of the period for the view that Great Britain, far from causing Americans to fear in the pre-revolutionary period that it would attack slavery in the colonies, had been an obstacle to limiting slavery in America — something many Americans, including leaders of the revolutionary movement, wanted to do and did, to some degree, once independence was declared.

In this post, I want to call attention to three additional recent strong attacks on the 1619 Project. The first is by Dan McLaughlin of National Review. McLaughlin relies on some of the historical record of the Revolution discussed in my post, but goes deeper into that history and extends his analysis past the revolutionary period.

He concludes:

[N]othing full of as many shoddy errors and untruths, and subject to such withering scholarly rebuttal, as the 1619 Project would be awarded an accolade such as a Pulitzer if its politics were of the right rather than of the left. Nor, for that matter, would the Times devote such effort to defending an assertion as outlandish as Hannah-Jones’s view of the American Revolution unless it had strong ideological and institutional reasons to be wedded to the argument. Maybe this deserves a prize, but not one for honest history.

The second article is by George Will. In the paper edition of the Washington Post, it’s called “A Pulitzer for twisting history.”

Will shreds several of the Project’s fake history claims — not just about the reasons why colonists rebelled, but also about Abraham Lincoln’s views on civil rights and the role of whites in the civil rights movement.

Will correctly states that “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.” But, as Will points out, there was nothing distinctive about the U.S. permitting slavery. Slavery was a worldwide institution.

What distinguished the U.S. from the rest of the world was its experiment in self-government. And what distinguished it even more was a founding document that began with a proclamation that could only be understood, and was in fact understood, as irreconcilable with slavery.

C. Adam Seagrave picks up this theme in an article for RealClear PublicAffairs — the third piece I want to highlight. If anything, Seagrave gives too much credence to claims of the 1619 Project, it seems to me.

But Seagrave stresses a crucial point raised by Lincoln. In a speech about the Dred Scott decision, Lincoln said, “The assertion that ‘all men are created equal’ was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain.”

The point is key because, as Seagrave explains:

This idea of equality in natural human rights did not, in other words, even support the general interests of the American colonists in their argument for independence at the time. While the related ideas of government by consent and the right of revolution did clearly support the cause of American political independence, these could have been derived from narrower, more conservative, starting points than human equality.

There was, for example, the long-standing “rights of Englishmen” argument that had been widely used by the American colonists throughout the 1760s and early 1770s. But this was not the argument that the colonists used in 1776. Just as the argument of 1776 could not conceivably support the interests of slaveholders, so it was not well tailored to the material interests of the American colonists in their conflict with Great Britain.

If the ideas of 1776 were neither a mere feature of the historical moment, nor supportive of the concrete, material interests of those who held them, why were they “held to be self-evident” at all? The shocking answer is that they were held simply because they were believed to be “truths.” And this distinguishes them in a crucial way from most of the other “traditions” that were held at the time, such as white supremacy, patriarchy, xenophobia, or class distinctions. . . .

The ideas of 1776, by contrast, were justified by the force of a logic that defied the needs of the immediate moment and the concrete interests of those who enunciated them. As much as any human ideas could, they leaped off their page in history.

(Emphasis added)

Therefore:

The men of 1776 should be considered “founders” not because of any personal greatness that they may have exhibited but because they embraced ideas worthy of serving as a foundation for political society. . .The United States of America was indeed started in slavery, but it was founded in freedom.

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