"an argument that goes all the way back to the founding itself."
January 30, 2020 9:16 AM   Subscribe

The Hidden Stakes of the 1619 Controversy, David Waldstreicher - "Seeking to discredit those who wish to explain the persistence of racism, critics of the New York Times’s 1619 Project [previously] insist the facts don’t support its proslavery reading of the American Revolution. But they obscure a longstanding debate within the field of U.S. history over that very issue—distorting the full case that can be made for it."

Nicholas Guyatt [twitter] [threadreader]:
I’m sorry to inform everyone that Sean Wilentz has written _that_ article again, the one about #1619Project being compromised by “serious inaccuracies.” (Thread)
...
To close, a reminder of what really shocked Gordon S. Wood and the other grandees who’ve joined with Wilentz in trying to cancel the Project — the New York Times ran a huge piece on American history and didn’t even call them.
The 1619 Project and the Work of the Historian, Joseph M. Adelman
Yesterday Princeton historian Sean Wilentz published his latest piece opposing the 1619 Project at The Atlantic. In it, Wilentz argues that he—along with the other historians who signed a letter to the editors of the New York Times Magazine questioning the Project’s conclusions—are taking issue as a “matter of facts” that were presented in the 1619 Project, in particular in the essay authored by Nikole Hannah-Jones, the lead editor for the magazine’s issue, and in the letter of response from the Magazine’s editor, Jack Silverstein.


I’d initially planned not to comment publicly on the 1619 Project, but Wilentz’s essay is flawed in the precise area of my expertise—Revolutionary-era newspapers—in ways that diminish the credence of his claims. Critiques of the 1619 Project have tended to obscure the practice of historical research and writing, but there is nonetheless an opportunity to illuminate how we locate, contextualize, and interrogate sources. In making that clear, we can understand better the debate about interpretations of the American Revolution.
From the Editor’s Desk: 1619 and All That The American Historical Review, rhaa041, https://doi.org/10.1093/ahr/rhaa041 Published: 23 January 2020
What is odd about the letter is that it implies that the singular problem with the 1619 Project is that journalists are practicing history without a license. Reading only the WSWS interviews and the subsequent historians’ letter, one might be surprised to learn that several well-respected historians actually contributed material directly to the Times project: Anne Bailey, Kevin Kruse, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Tiya Miles, and Mary Elliott (who curated a special supplementary Times “broadsheet” for the 1619 Project organized around objects in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture). So clearly it is not that the editors at the Times shut out the voices of historians; it seems that they consulted with the wrong historians. Given the qualifications of the scholars who did work on the project, that is a most unfortunate impression to convey.
Slavery Was Not a Secondary Part of Our History, Jamelle Bouie, New York Times Opinion
posted by the man of twists and turns (24 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
 
Basically, the 1619 Project was about making a lot of holy hamburgers out of historical sacred cows to set the record straight, and we're seeing the backlash to that. (See also: the socialist opposition to the project, which boils down to "if the 1619 Project is right, then we can't just push race under class, and that breaks our model.)
posted by NoxAeternum at 10:39 AM on January 30 [16 favorites]


And the ambitiously titled "Fact Checking the 1619 Project and Its Critics," in which economic historian Phillip W. Magness attempts to answer four questions:

Was the American Revolution fought in defense of slavery?
Was Abraham Lincoln a racial colonizationist or exaggerated egalitarian?
Did slavery drive America’s economic growth and the emergence of American Capitalism?
Did the 1619 Project seek adequate scholarly guidance in preparing its work?
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 10:42 AM on January 30 [1 favorite]


I've been trying to find a way to talk about that WSWS piece that the first essay links to (from the same site as NoxAeternum's link above). I mean, just listen to this: The essays featured in the magazine are organized around the central premise that all of American history is rooted in race hatred—specifically, the uncontrollable hatred of “black people” by “white people.” Hannah-Jones writes in the series’ introduction: “Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.” / This is a false and dangerous conception. DNA is a chemical molecule that contains the genetic code of living organisms and determines their physical characteristics and development.

That's some premium-grade Well Actually, and although the piece goes on to talk about how slavery couldn't be separated from economics, how there's historical contingency there and so DNA is the wrong metaphor, the underlying assumption is...what? That Nikole Hannah-Jones and her coauthors were unaware of the economics of slavery? That they maybe had missed hearing that classes exist? Even though Hannah-Jones does, in fact, talk about economics in her essay?

It's such a dumb view of things. We have so much more information on the formation of capitalism than we did back in the Marx's day, we know how intrinsic racism and slavery were to the foundation of it, so why would anyone try to argue that the 1619 project misses the point?
posted by mittens at 10:57 AM on January 30 [18 favorites]


Some of those "rebuttals" are impressive exercises in using complex, philosophical language to avoid ever having to say, "poor white people were just as oppressed as black people and sometimes they fought together for rights, so... something something America did not have racism baked into its founding principles."

Whoooole lot of talk about "poor people" and "lots of people were for or against slavery for reasons that had nothing to do with racism." (Like, they made or lost money because of it; plz ignore any hint of relevance to the actual people being enslaved - this is about economics and the institution of slavery; nobody's talking about actual slaves or which people were forced into the "institution.")

The socialist complaints are especially fascinating, in its claims that focusing on racism is a right-wing political technique and that true leftists understand that the Enlightenment, being all about LOGIC and REASON, of course had no racism, and that white people haven't benefited from any kind of structural oppression; only capitalist bosses have. Again, plz ignore the skin color of the wealthiest people in the US, both now and throughout history.
Nowhere in the Times revision of American history is there room for a discussion of the “Great Migration” of African-American workers to the north, the emergence of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the monumental class battles of the 1930s and 1940s....
This migration was, of course, entirely the result of economic pressures, none of which were based on race.

Riiiiight.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:06 AM on January 30 [16 favorites]


One of the key impetus for the formation of the CIO was...the AFL and associated unions refusing to admit black members. The collapse of American labor as a movement ties directly to the rise of the hardhats (socially conservative union members) and how they cut labor off from its natural allies to align with its foes.

You cannot understand class and the labor struggle in the US without understanding race as a separate dimension.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:48 AM on January 30 [32 favorites]


Some of the responses to the Project have made me so, so angry as an ex-history grad student. "Were the supporters of the American Revolution motivated by a desire to protect slavery? If so, which ones, and how important was it to them?" is a bog-standard sort of historical question to ask, and attempt to answer, and to disagree over. The professional norms for this in the US/UK are well-established. You write an article citing some contemporary observers' and participants' writings. I write an article citing other people's. We disagree over how influential these people were, and at what levels of society. We look at institutional responses to Revolutionary events and how those might have reflected or not reflected an interest in maintaining slavery. We look at recruitment tactics, such as we can know them, for the Revolutionary armies and try to figure out if they differed at all in slaveholding and nonslaveholding states. We examine the allegiances of the people who had the most invested financially in maintaining slavery. We look at institutional reinforcement of slavery after the war and try to see if it looks like a response to a serious threat to it. This is not an entirely new historiographical question and these are the kinds of approaches people bring to this inquiry.

Instead, we get a certain group of historians basically sobbing that if we answer this question with anything other than a flat No, we will Destroy America, and also how dare a mixed group of journalists, historians, and professionals in other and relevant academic fields attempt to address this question for a general audience, especially without including them??? Jesus. What an embarrassment.
posted by praemunire at 12:09 PM on January 30 [37 favorites]


Edward Morgan has a convincing argument that slavery led to the development of American racism - but that's an argument about the change in racial attitudes between c1600 and c1700. (Basically, we wish to enslave and torture these people, so we need to re-define them as "not people").

It's been a few years since I read it, but I believe he also sees slavery and racism as super-important to the revolution as well.

The Revolution was about a lot of things - taxation, toleration of Catholics in Quebec, Native American sovereignty and ownership of the lands west of the Appalachians - the revolutionaries were against all of these. I don't recall that slavery was a cause, but that would be because Britain wasn't against slavery and continued to support it (so there was no argument there). But certainly, it contributed to the self-conception of the leaders of the rebellion, many of whom (the majority? all?) were slave-owners. When they repeatedly use the rhetoric of not wanting to be "slaves" to Westminster, it's because they were (erroneously, even disgustingly) saying that they didn't want to be treated the way that they treated black people. (Not that they were, of course).
posted by jb at 12:34 PM on January 30 [9 favorites]


Should the daring and admirable historians of the 1619 Project ever conclude that the hot headwinds now filling their sails and impeding their progress weren't blowing quite hard enough, they could focus a little more on a not primarily economic motive of the founders for preserving slavery: unfettered sexual access to the enslaved — including the children.
posted by jamjam at 12:54 PM on January 30 [3 favorites]


I don't recall that slavery was a cause, but that would be because Britain wasn't against slavery and continued to support it (so there was no argument there)

Maybe you might want to read 1619's article touching on this point? This comment seems to be based on ignorance of Somerset v. Stewart and Dunmore's Proclamation. Whether a desire to maintain slavery was a contributor to the Revolution is actually a live historiographical issue.
posted by praemunire at 1:00 PM on January 30 [3 favorites]


Oh! I tried to get my hands on a copy of the print version when it came out, but couldn't find it. Is there a place I could order it from?
posted by rebent at 1:05 PM on January 30


The Fight Over the 1619 Project Is Not About the Facts, Adam Serwer - "A dispute between a small group of scholars and the authors of The New York Times Magazine’s issue on slavery represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society."
posted by the man of twists and turns at 1:11 PM on January 30 [3 favorites]


There's so much here (and previously) that I haven't been able to read all of it, but it seems to me that there's a lot of inaccurate conflation of different views from ALL sides.

Waldstreicher cites Gordon Wood, James Oakes, James McPherson, and Victoria Bynum as old-fashioned historians in the "We must defend the legacy of the Founders!" mold, and while they were interviewed by the WSWS, none of them were authors in the original article (although some were name-checked positively and all were signatories to the letter eventually sent to the NYT). He also mentions Woody Holton, Annette Gordon-Reed, Michael McDonnell, Gerald Horne, and himself as among the more progressive historians, and also claims that it was their work that formed (some of) the scholarly basis of the 1619 Project. But at least according to Magness, none of these authors were named by the NYT's Silverstein as sources for the Project (although they could have been used & not mentioned in the NYT response). Instead, apparently Silverstein has cited Mehrsa Baradaran, Matthew Desmond, Kevin Kruse, Tiya Miles, and Khalil G. Muhammed, only one of which is a historian of the Revolution-Civil War period. And the AHR editorial seems to be engaging in some very weird red-baiting by repeatedly calling the original WSWS authors "Trotskyists."

In any case, there does seem to be at least some significant differences in the arguments of the original WSWS article and some of the follow-up critiques. There are some problems with its rhetoric and approach, but I think it makes two important points that are not at all part of the reactionary opposition to the 1619 Project:

1) the danger of using biological/genetic metaphors to talk about race & racism, which threatens to reinforce the myth that race is a biological reality and not a social construction

2) the idealist methodology that explains "All of history ... from the existence of a supra-historical emotional impulse. ... the manifestation of white racism ... [that] is embedded... in the historical DNA of American “white people.” Thus, it must persist independently of any change in political or economic conditions."

This sort of language is problematic, because it reifies racial categories ontologically valid, and I think the WSWS authors are right to challenge it because of its potentially reactionary impulse.

On the other hand, the AHR editor rightly points out that "Three examples of disputable errors, or perhaps overstatements, in a single essay ...[is] not much on which to rest a dismissal of the entire project." And there's a good deal in the project that's perfectly historically sound. And the vehemence in the WSWS article -- particularly the conspiracy-theory minded assertion that this the project is an offshoot of some Democratic Party cabal is just bizarre. They seem to latch on to some moments of questionable rhetoric and use them as wedges to try to undermine the project as a whole, rather than strategically targeting the weak spots and attempting, instead, some sort of integration that acknowledges racism and slavery as part of the central narrative. And the WSWS's continued reliance on more old school historians, I think, undermines their own supposed revolutionary praxis.

Waldstreicher probably says it best: "We should view with a wary eye any accounts of the two U.S. revolutions that insist that only the emancipation, or only the hypocrisy, matters." To assert that racism/slavery is the only mover of US history is a vast oversimplification; however, racism and slavery must be recognized as inextricable and ongoing fundamental components of the country's founding and continuing existence. But race cannot be divided from class anymore than it can be divided from sex/gender; this is not to "put race under class" as someone above says, but at least from my perspective as a materialist, social identity arises from material conditions (which is "the economy," but also much more than that), not the other way around.
posted by Saxon Kane at 1:25 PM on January 30 [5 favorites]


social identity arises from material conditions (which is "the economy," but also much more than that), not the other way around.

I don't see how that's compatible with pro-slavery forces attempting to expand slavery within the new states of the USA. Surely this demonstrates that the social categories of slave/master existed in abstract before the material conditions that would make it practical.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:42 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


social identity arises from material conditions (which is "the economy," but also much more than that), not the other way around.

yes it is definitely a one way flow it is definitely not the case that social identity determines responses to material conditions
posted by PMdixon at 1:48 PM on January 30 [2 favorites]


I don't see how that's compatible with pro-slavery forces attempting to expand slavery within the new states of the USA.

Yeah, I don't know what you mean by that.

Surely this demonstrates that the social categories of slave/master existed in abstract before the material conditions that would make it practical.

And where did the categories of slave/master come from? Did they magically emerge from nowhere? Was the world an egalitarian utopian until someone said, "you know what, what if one person dominated another"? Or did these concepts, and the complex ideologies articulated justifying them, come into being as a way to justify and perpetuate existing and ongoing relations of domination?

yes it is definitely a one way flow it is definitely not the case that social identity determines responses to material conditions

Yeah, my wording was imprecise, but I didn't say that. There isn't room to go into a full-on discussion of the problematic of base-superstructure relations in Marxist thought, but it is obviously more complicated than "base determines superstructure," and I didn't say that social identity is not in itself active in shaping the material and social relations between humans.

My ultimate point, perhaps, is that attempting to define a simple causal relationship between racism and slavery is flawed. American slavery & American racism are unique -- which the original WSWS article fudges by sloppily equating American chattel slavery with slavery in African populations, the ancient world, etc. They emerged alongside one other: the articulation of the ideologies of American racism justified the institution, and the institution gave material "proof" to the ideology. Saying "white people were racist and thus they decided to enslave black people" is really simplistic and it relies on a similarly simplistic notion of the human subject that is fully cognizant of its own thinking and fully in control of its own, intentional actions. (To be clear, I'm not saying that is the actual argument of the 1619 Project, although the WSWS authors obviously suggest it is the argument of at least the Project's lead author.) It also assumes that "white people" is biologically/genetically defined category, rather than itself a social construction: whiteness was a way to unify formerly disparate, mostly European populations against various others and to align poor "whites" with the elite against black Africans and other populations -- "I may be poor, but at least I'm white." Rather, a more cogent argument, and one that looks not just at the slave trade in the colonies/US but at the pre-history of modern racial classifications, would hold that racism was the ideological support that developed simultaneously to justify the various technologies of oppression in the process of their enacting.
posted by Saxon Kane at 3:31 PM on January 30 [4 favorites]


Maybe you might want to read 1619's article touching on this point?

I'm happy to be corrected - I just don't recall it being an issue when I was last researching the American Revolution, and it did take Britain until 1807 to stop actively trading slaves, and until 1833/34 to finally abolish slavery in the colonies (including Canada). It was weird: there were several, sometimes contradictory legal rulings (including one in the 16th century about a Russian slave) about slavery in England itself, but support for slavery in the colonies kept up until the 19th century.

It's been 20 years since I read about the Demerara slave rebellion of 1823, so I don't remember if Westminster took a stance. The local British government and slave-owners did crush it pretty brutally.
posted by jb at 6:24 PM on January 30


Maybe the leaders of the American Revolution did fear Britain would ban slavery. But I think those fears were misplaced, or at least 30-50 years too early.
posted by jb at 6:32 PM on January 30


Britain was offering to free American slaves during the revolution, which was obviously for practical rather than idealistic reasons. However that absolutely drove more white southerners to embrace the rebellion. So you can't really say the fears were misplaced. Slavery was a foundational "right" for many of the patriots--Patrick Henry later would argue against the Constitution because he thought it posed a threat to slavery.

From what I've read I think this particular topic--unlike many others in the 1619 Project--is definitely open to debate and more than some represents an interpretation and not necessarily a consensus view. But it's not a fringe interpretation either.
posted by mark k at 8:12 PM on January 30 [2 favorites]


sorry - I think I wasn't clear. The revolutionaries were absolutely pro-slavery - and I could see that as a major stimulus to the revolution (along with wanting indigenous land). I just think that Britain was pretty pro-slavery, too, especially if it happened elsewhere and made them lots and lots of money. Things were changing - but slowly - and planters and "nabobs" from other colonies were very influential in Britain. That offer to free slaves was, as you've noted, more opportunistic than idealistic - and there was no action against slave trading for another 30 years, and that was piecemeal.

The Jamaican planters were also very sympathetic to the revolution, but didn't join for fear their slaves might take the opportunity to rebell - a credible threat, given that slaves were a much larger proportion of the population there. But if they had, the black revolutionaries would likely have been screwed over by the European powers, just as Haiti was a generation later.

I was just thinking there's a similar parallel for the Civil War: the rebelling party absolutely rebelled partly or (in the case of the Civil War) mostly to defend slavery. But the other side was wishy-washy (if that) in its opposition to slavery.
posted by jb at 8:49 PM on January 30


social identity arises from material conditions (which is "the economy," but also much more than that), not the other way around.

I'm not sure how you go about even assessing that given the notion of the "other" comes from material conditions in the sense of seeing someone who doesn't look like you as inherently different, which then informs all other actions around identity. The notion of self and group is relative in that sense, associating with those one sees as "like" and wary of or opposing those one sees as other. That seems to be as basic to human interaction as economics and a fundamental part of social identity that is "there" before any larger use factor could be instigated like economic interests.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:49 AM on January 31


racism was the ideological support that developed simultaneously to justify the various technologies of oppression in the process of their enacting.

I don't understand who you understand to have said anything in opposition to this. Also when you make dumb sweeping generalizations like "social identity arises from material conditions (which is "the economy," but also much more than that), not the other way around," it's really kind of obnoxious to object when you're taken at face value! And even more obnoxious that you assume I'm calling you out due to a lack of familiarity with the conceptual vocabulary you're working within rather than disagreement with its applicability.
posted by PMdixon at 5:25 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]


I also read the critical responses of Wilentz et al. with anger and embarrassment on behalf of the historical profession. The AHA and other organizations have spent decades trying to argue that undergraduate history courses (and the major) are useful, that history deserves more prominence in American public life, and that historians should do interdisciplinary work with others to promote historical understanding. Here comes a project that shows how important, interesting, and digitally innovative this type of public history can be and some prominent white historians are whining. I was glad to read Alex Lichtenstein's Letter from the Editor in the AHR pushing back against Wilentz's and others' critiques.
posted by catdapperling at 10:59 AM on January 31 [4 favorites]


gusottertrout:
given the notion of the "other" comes from material conditions in the sense of seeing someone who doesn't look like you as inherently different, which then informs all other actions around identity.

Which is not something I was challenging? In fact, I took that to be largely implicit in what I was saying? Although I would add:

1) the initial "sense of seeing someone ... different ...informs" but does not determine all other actions (and the way they are conceptualized) about identity

and 2) we cannot take for granted that the categories that seem now definitive in organizing difference (ie. skin color) have always been the initial, sole, or dominant markers of difference for all subjects. For example: European travelers noted down many differences (and similarities) between themselves and the new peoples they encountered in the 15th-18thc, and while skin color was almost always there, it was often not the most written about or significant -- differences of custom could be as much or more important in defining "us/them." (Which is perhaps what you meant in the rest of your comment? not sure)

PMdixon:
racism was the ideological support that developed simultaneously to justify the various technologies of oppression in the process of their enacting.

I don't understand who you understand to have said anything in opposition to this.


Well, I didn't think that you did, if that's what you're asking. I *do* think that aspects of the 1619 Project seem to ignore or overlook it by crafting a causal narrative in which contemporary forms of white supremacy appear as practically fully formed ideologies 400 years ago rather than one consequence of a far more confused interplay of material causes and cultural practices/fantasies. But in any case: prior to your comment, Joe in Australia said:

Surely this demonstrates that the social categories of slave/master existed in abstract before the material conditions that would make it practical.

I *did* object to that statement, although I didn't clarify my reasons for it. Alongside what I said above to gusottertrout:

1) I'm not arguing that the concepts of "slave/master" did not pre-exist the institution of American slavery.

2) I am arguing that the existence of such categories at any time in history is the result -- or perhaps better yet, the necessary corollary -- of pre-existing material conditions of domination. Which is to say, master/slave are names given to existing human relations and practices, not concepts imagined apart from any reality and then put into practice.

3) Also, the concepts of slave/master (or any roughly synonymous terms like lord/bondsman etc.) are not uniform or universal across history. Slavery in ancient Greece was different from slavery in 16thc Africa was different from 18thc American slavery, etc., in the ways that these systems were enacted, enforced, imagined, regulated, justified, disputed...

4) So ultimately, American slavery cannot simply be explained as the imposition of a preexisting system, whether economic or ideological, in as much as all the specific conditions combined to create a historically specific form of oppression based on and justified by a pseudo-scientific discourse of race (and in turn, serving as an empirical demonstration of that discourse). Race is the conceptual vehicle through which slavery advanced, and slavery was a material practice that reified race.

None of which seems to be contradictory to the existence of "pro-slavery forces attempting to expand slavery within the new states of the USA," which was Joe in Australia's objection.

Nor is it in direct conflict with the 1619 Project's goal of making race a fundamental and essential component of our understanding of US history, the reasons for and behind the American Revolution & Civil War, and so on. But I reject the binary assertion that the American Revolution was either a pure-minded noble experiment in search of human freedom or a cynical, racist plot for economic and political domination thinly veiled in a false rhetoric of freedom (which almost seems like a sort of opposite-day Straussian interpretation). Either lens (even in their less extreme articulations) assumes too much intentionality on the part of the supposed agents of these events, in the sense of a preconceived, conscious program just waiting to be put into action. Rather, we need to attend to the ways that American ideologies of freedom are themselves built upon ideologies of racial supremacy/inferiority: that on some subterranean level to be a Free American is to be a Slave-Master (that is, a master who owns slaves, in case the hyphenation is confusing). The (boomer?) dream of being a small-business owner is a kind of domesticated version.

Also, none of which seems to be directly contradictory to your position (to whatever extent I can apprehend it from your two comments, both of which have been objections to something I wrote).

I was trying to clarify my position that I was not saying that the material conditions solely determine social/psychological in a "one way flow" as you seemed to be accusing me of saying in your prior comment (which I took to be made in a tone of ironic mockery or dismissal?). My response was tainted also with sarcasm in response, but I also said "my wording was imprecise." I wasn't trying to say someone else was wrong, I was trying to explicate my attempted contribution to the discussion by saying that I am not in disagreement with you, or at least not to the extent your prior comment suggested.

Also: Was the adjective "dumb" necessary? You referred to my behavior twice as "obnoxious," but your only two comments in the thread have been aggressively directed at me. What exactly was obnoxious about responding to a snarky comment with further explanation? And where did I "assume [you have] a lack of familiarity with the conceptual vocabulary"? I don't think I said anything of the sort -- I acknowledged (a bit irritably) your objection ("it's more complicated than...") and then tried to work with and/or around it. I honestly do not know why you would think this is "assuming" anything about your familiarity with anything, or how I would have way of assessing one way or another based on what you (haven't) said thus far.
posted by Saxon Kane at 1:03 PM on February 1 [1 favorite]


One of the colonists' grievances was that Britain wasn't wasn't allowing the colonies to expand into hitherto-unconquered territory. The following article ties it all together for me: elite Americans were coasting on a wave of economic expansion. Some of them were directly invested in land speculation, but the hopes of many others rested on the economic boom that followed Native American genocide. This was at least partially tied to slavery, because plantations depended on cheap land and there would be no more plantations without fresh conquests. But even people engaged in trade or manufacturing could see that their position relied on colonial expansion. Without that expansion demand would fall off and their aspirations would be stymied. Slavery was an integral part of this economy, and a fight to preserve the economic boom was almost necessarily a fight to preserve and expand slavery.

Anyway, good article: Jeffrey Ostler in The Atlantic, The Shameful Final Grievance of the Declaration of Independence
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:05 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]


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