The 1619 Project: An Autopsy

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. 

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But for one metaphor to be more fruitful than another requires that it provide a better explanation for the subject in question. And the 1619 metaphor failed this test not because it got the dates wrong, but because its effort to frame the question in (literally) black and white terms essentially required ignoring large swaths of American history. America is not, and never has been, a simple dichotomy of black versus white, any more than it falls into the tidy dichotomy of exploiter and exploited, oppressor and oppressed. Instead, its conceiving principle—that each individual is of infinite value and has a right to pursue his or her own happiness in peace—has manifested itself in far more complicated ways, resulting in far more interesting human stories of triumph, treachery, loss, and victory, than is dreamt of in any effort to portray American history as “us” versus “them.”

Take California, for example. The nation’s most productive state, it accounts today for 13 percent of the United States’ entire agricultural output; 5 percent of its mineral production; and 11 percent of its manufacturing. If the enslavement of Africans and their descendants accounts for American prosperity, as the project’s authors claimed, it should be most evident here. Yet black slavery was never a major factor in California, which was always a free state. Instead, it was the cruel experience of Chinese “coolie” labor that shaped California’s early years. About 40,000 Chinese immigrants arrived in the 1850s to mine for gold, and in the decade that followed, thousands more came to work on railroads. The Chinese and Japanese populations (few whites bothered to differentiate between the two) farmed, fished, mined, and worked as domestic labor throughout the century even while enduring brutal mistreatment and discrimination by Americans and European immigrants. “In many districts of the vast Pacific coast, so strong is the wild, free love of justice in the hearts of the people,” wrote Mark Twain in a bitter 1870 article, “that whenever any secret and mysterious crime is committed, they say, ‘Let justice be done, though the heavens fall,’ and go straightway and [hang] a Chinaman.”

Chinese laborers—who were basically purchased wholesale from labor companies in China—were assigned the most perilous tasks in building the transcontinental railroad, and nobody knows exactly how many died, because nobody bothered to write it down. “On average,” writes Iris Chang in The Chinese in America: A Narrative History, “three laborers perished for every two miles of track laid. … Twenty thousand pounds of their bones [were] shipped [back] to China.” 

In 1878, the state held a constitutional convention for the express purpose of throwing the Chinese and Japanese out of the state, and the decades that followed witnessed scores of race riots, in which Chinatowns and Japantowns were incinerated and Asians lynched. In 1906, when San Francisco was leveled by earthquake and fire, many locals saw it as an opportunity to evict the Chinese, and they looted the city’s wrecked Chinatown. The federal government did its best to prevent rebuilding, and only the personal intercession of China’s empress ensured that it was restored. 

Soon afterward, the federal government turned Angel Island in San Francisco Bay into a holding pen—a reverse Ellis Island—where 175,000 Asian immigrants were detained, sometimes for years, before being considered for admission. Those allowed in faced various kinds of bigotry, not the least of which was internment in prison camps and the confiscation of their property during World War II. Not until 1952 did it become legal for Asian immigrants to own land in California. Even today, the state discriminates against Asian Americans by illegally practicing racial preferences in college admissions so as to exclude them from public universities.

The Asian American story is distinctive but not unique. Many other minority groups have faced mistreatment, including the indigenous population, who, centuries before the Chinese arrived, were enslaved by the conquistadores or employed in ways tantamount to enslavement. But none of this was mentioned in the 1619 Project articles, and when pressed on the question, Hannah-Jones responded in a (now-deleted) tweet that “most Asian Americans arrived in this country after the end of legal segregation and discrimination, thanks to the Black resistance struggle”—which apparently means their history can be ignored. 

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The fashionable term for this is “erasing,” and it’s easy to see why she did it: The “reframing” that the 1619 Project attempted is rooted in an ideology that views America’s political-economic foundation—that is, capitalism—as not just tainted by racism, but actually designed to immiserate minorities and enrich those on top. According to this worldview, racism is not a bug, but a feature of American institutions. But that binary narrative collapses in light of the struggles, and especially the successes, of countless Americans of all races who have found this country to be a refuge and a land of opportunity. The Times’ proposed metaphor of a 1619 founding omitted not only the Chinese who built the railroads and the Native Americans who built the missions, but the Irish of Boston, the Italians of New York, the Cubans of Florida, the Germans of Wisconsin, the Cherokee of Georgia, the Mexicans of Texas, and the Hawaiians of, well, Hawaii, many of whom have taken advantage of liberty to realize the nation’s founding promise.

More generally, it ignored the fact that the racial conflicts that have plagued American history are far from unique to the United States; on the contrary, every square inch of the planet, from Rwanda to Nanking, from Poland to Colombia, has known such bigotry. Slavery, too, is ubiquitous in mankind’s past; it may, in fact, be the oldest human institution after the family. What was unique about America was that its founding marked the very first time that a nation was expressly founded on principles incompatible with slavery. Little wonder that the world’s first anti-slavery society was established in Philadelphia in 1775. And little wonder that—for all its awful shortfalls—America has served as a refuge for the oppressed, from the Huguenots to the Hmong. 

Had the Times set out to tell that story—to celebrate the struggles of Americans whose ancestors were once excluded and exploited, and whose victories are still too little known—things might have turned out differently. And there was some hope at first that it might. As Times columnist Bret Stephens observed in an October 9 column, Hannah-Jones expressed in her opening essay the “unabashedly patriotic thought” that black Americans have more than earned the right to celebrate their Americanness. But that idea clashed with project’s larger thesis that capitalism is inherently exploitative, and that “anti-black racism” is the real nucleus of American nationhood. 

This implicit conflict of visions plagued the project from the outset. Although Jake Silverstein now claims that the point of the project was “to think of the 244 years of effort to live up to our founding ideals as part of a larger freedom story,” that effort only makes sense if those “founding ideals” are, indeed, our founding ideals—which is just what the 1619 Project articles denied. Hannah-Jones, for example, declared in the opening essay 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,” and that the “white men” who wrote “all men are created equal” really “did not believe [those words] to be true.” But if the nation’s founding principles really are racism and oppression, then it’s senseless to celebrate any effort to realize such ideals.

Rather than resolve this contradiction, the project’s authors, especially Hannah-Jones, took refuge in it, alternately affirming and denying the Declaration’s self-evident truths to suit the convenience of the moment. In progressive circles, they claimed that America is a fundamentally racist nation, and then, when criticized as anti-American, they insisted that the project was merely a patriotic testament to the way black Americans have vindicated the nation’s noblest ideals.

In a 2017 interview, Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg tried in vain to pin Hannah-Jones down on this question. “Is at the bottom what we’re talking about a lack of understanding on the part of white America about the actual lived lives of African-Americans?” he asked. “I would say we’re not grappling [with] what this country is about,” she replied. “You’re not one of these people who says, ‘[racism] is not who we are’[?]” Goldberg persisted. “No,” she answered, “this is clearly who we are…. [Racism] is embedded in the DNA of this country.” But if that’s true, it makes no sense to celebrate, as Hannah-Jones did in a later interview, the way that “black people have been willing to put their bodies on the line … to make our founding ideals true.” If the 1619 metaphor were truly compelling, it would not be necessary to dodge back and forth between lionizing and disparaging the nation’s soul.

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Even more lamentable was the way the project omitted entire stages of history that are crucial to understanding how that soul developed. A reader could easily come away from the 1619 essays, for example, with the impression that American attitudes toward slavery smoothly transitioned from the (allegedly) pro-slavery views of the country’s founders to the days of the Civil War. (In fact, the essays did not so much as mention secession or its causes, and skipped from the 1857 Dred Scott decision to Lincoln’s attempt five years later to persuade black Americans to emigrate.) But the reality is that attitudes toward slavery shifted significantly after 1800, as a reactionary movement against the principles of the American Revolution gained traction. Southern politicians began describing slavery as a “positive good” and overtly denouncing the Declaration as either legally insignificant or an outright lie

This movement appalled many of those who remained steadfast in their American faith—people such as John Quincy Adams, William Jay, Joshua Giddings, Charles Sumner, Frederick Douglass, and Salmon Chase. Their efforts to resist the pro-slavery perversions of the Constitution went unmentioned in the 1619 essays. So did the origin of the 14th Amendment, adopted in 1868, whose proponents viewed it as a re-founding; as a rededication to the principles of American nationhood. To use the Christian metaphor natural to the era, they set forth a New Covenant for the American people, which was meant not to abolish, but to fulfill the law.

All of this matters beyond history classrooms, thousands of which are now teaching curricula based on the 1619 Project, because the metaphors we find persuasive about the nation’s identity say something not just about the nation’s past, but about ourselves. As Arendt was keen to emphasize, the “binding and promising, combining and covenanting” that marks a nation’s founding is reenacted with every new generation. That’s why we teach history to kids and require new citizens to take classes about civic institutions. To adopt the 1619 metaphor instead of 1776 or 1868 means to accept a particular understanding of the nature of Americanness—one profoundly contrary to that expressed in both the nation’s founding and re-founding documents. 

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For some, in fact, it means a commitment to the proposition that commitments are meaningless in any event. Such nihilism has become distressingly trendy in recent years, thanks to intellectuals who contend that the American character is not only infected with, but actually constructed out of, racism. Foremost among these is Ta-Nehisi Coates, who claims that “America is literally unimaginable without plundered labor shackled to plundered land, without the organizing principle of whiteness as citizenship,” and that racism “remains, as it has since 1776, at the heart of this country’s political life.” 

Coates’s cynicism is so extreme that, toward the end of his award-winning book Between the World and Me, he relates how unmoved he was by the September 11 attacks and the outpouring of national grief that followed—which he calls “ridiculous” and “overwrought.” The bravery of firemen and police officers (many of them black) who rushed to rescue the innocent as the Twin Towers collapsed, only to be chopped to pieces by razor-sharp fragments of burning steel, he regards with detachment, if not disgust. “Hell upon [them],” he writes. “They were not human to me.” Such nihilism is the logical consequence of a certain conception of what America stands for—one that regards the nation as pledged to oppression, not liberation. And the real-world consequences of that nihilism were starkly revealed when Hannah-Jones celebrated the riots that broke out across the nation this summer, in a (deleted) tweet saying she would be “honor[ed]” if the violence, arson, vandalism, and destruction of monuments that marked recent months came to be known as the “1619 Riots.”

Whatever else America might be, it is a land of idealism. Ideals, in fact, are not just a part of our tradition, but the source of the country’s legal existence. The Declaration of Independence, after all, announced not only that the nation was independent, but that it “of right ought to be,” meaning that the country’s institutional legitimacy is premised on the validity of the “self-evident truths” to which the founders pledged their “sacred honor.” The Constitution continued in this vein, proclaiming that among its purposes was the preservation of liberty (an abstract principle) for “our posterity.” This was why Lincoln warned in 1859 that the Declaration’s truths are “the definitions and axioms” of American nationhood, and that anyone who sneers at them or denies their validity is “supplanting the principles of free government.” The country can only survive, he said—and will only deserve to survive—if such detractors are “repulse[d].”

To the extent that the 1619 Project caused Americans to learn more about black history, and to view the civil rights struggles of past generations in light of the American covenants of liberty, it has served an honorable purpose. But it accomplished this only to the degree that readers “repulsed” the metaphor that the project offered. Everything, in fact, that makes America great originates in the fact that Americans do not take the sale of human property in August 1619 as the source of their nationhood—that, on the contrary, they are disgusted by what doing so would say about their nation. In seeking to debunk American principles, the 1619 authors were led to ignore history, to disregard some of its most moving and revealing aspects, and, most importantly, to distort the metaphors whereby we became, and continue to become, “one people.” 

Timothy Sandefur holds the Duncan chair in constitutional government at the Goldwater Institute and is the author of Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man (2018).

Photograph by the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism/Wikimedia Commons.

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