When the New York Times’s 1619 Project was unveiled last year, it began with an audacious claim: “the moment [America] began,” it said, was on an August day four centuries before, when about 20 enslaved Africans were brought ashore in Virginia and sold. This incident, the Times writers said, “is the country’s very origin.” Although the nation’s “official birthdate” came long after, it is really “out of slavery—and the anti-black racism it required” that “nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional” grew.
These opening sentences—and more recent statements by the project’s organizer, Nikole Hannah-Jones—have recently generated a new round of controversy, due to revelations that Times editors altered the online version of the project’s text after being criticized for calling 1619 the nation’s “true founding.” Scholars such as economic historian Phil Magness have, with justice, viewed these unacknowledged edits as violations of journalistic standards, but the project’s editors have responded by saying the changes were immaterial, because the idea that 1619 was the “true founding” was never meant to be taken literally. “We know this nation marks its founding at 1776,” wrote Hannah-Jones in a since-deleted tweet. (She recently expunged all her old tweets.) The “true founding” phrase was “always a metaphoric argument.” New York Times Magazine editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein repeated this defense in an article days ago: The year 1619 was always meant as “a metaphor,” he wrote. Whatever errors the editors may have committed, the project’s “‘core premises’ remain unshaken.”
But this defense misses the point entirely. Obviously the “true founding” claim was always a metaphor, because all foundings are metaphors. Like a corporation, an athletic team, or a social club, a nation is a theoretical or imaginative institution—which means its origin is necessarily spoken of in metaphor, ritual, and symbolism. Hannah Arendt—whose book On Revolution is almost entirely devoted to this question—wrote that foundings are fundamentally about “binding and promising, combining and covenanting,” because “the human faculty of making and keeping promises” is the essential “world-building capacity of man”—indeed, it is “the highest human faculty.” We typically speak of promises in metaphorical terms for the same reason we use poetic terms to speak of love: because they are made of words, and only the language of reverence can give those words any power to compel.
Thus to speak of America’s “founding” at all is necessarily to speak of what makes Americans a “people.” When Abraham Lincoln said that the nation was “conceived in liberty” four score and seven years before the dedication of Gettysburg Cemetery—that is, in 1776—and when, a century later, Martin Luther King referred to the Declaration as America’s “promissory note,” they were speaking in metaphor. And when the Times writers insisted to the contrary that America was conceived not in liberty but in slavery, they, too, were obviously speaking in metaphor. For Hannah-Jones and Silverstein to accuse their critics of being overly literal is therefore to set up a straw man. Their metaphor was always the source of the dispute. The question the 1619 Project posed was whether the American nation should be viewed as having its genesis not in the Declaration of Independence, with its covenants of equality and liberty, but in a commercial transaction for human flesh.