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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · March 17, 2020

The New York Times 1619 Project and the Omohundro Institute

#VastEarlyAmerica 12 min read

By Karin Wulf

The 1619 Project continues to attract a lot of readers and responses.  On March 6 the editor of the New York Times Magazine, Jake Silverstein, and the principal author of the New York Times 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, convened scholars at the Times Center for a conversation centered on one of the issues that has been most provocative:  slavery and American Revolution.  I moderated this session, which included as discussants the historians Annette Gordon-Reed, Eliga Gould, Gerald Horne, and Alan Taylor.  One of my aims was to convey how historical understanding unfolds through new scholarship—to share the process of research, analysis, and review that creates new knowledge.  These are practices and values that have been central to the OI’s mission for more than 75 years.  You can watch the event, which was live-streamed, here.  The Times also covered the event in a story published March 12.

Pictured left to right: Karin Wulf, Gerald Horne, Alan Taylor, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Eliga Gould. Photo provided courtesy of the New York Times.

The Times launched the 1619 Project in mid-August last year with a series of essays in the magazine, including an introductory piece by Hannah-Jones, and a broadsheet pullout curated by Mary Elliott, curator of slavery at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  The project aims to be “an ongoing initiative ….to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”  The Project also includes an education partnership with the Pulitzer Center and a podcast.

The 1619 Project was one of a number of commemorations and publications coinciding with the 400th anniversary of 1619 and the arrival of the first Africans in the English colonies in North America, including Virginia’s year-long “American Evolution” events and the OI’s publication of Virginia 1619:  Slavery and Freedom in the Making of English America edited by Paul Musselwhite, Peter C. Mancall, and James Horn.  At Historic Jamestowne, the Angela Site is a partnership between the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation and the National Park Service to do archaeological excavations with the express purpose of illuminating the “physical and cultural landscape” of Angela, a woman who was one of those first Africans.  National press coverage of the Angela project included the work of the archaeologists and live interpreters.  A USA Today reporter noted that “Maybe now the country is finally ready to acknowledge Angela’s importance – as the first African woman in Jamestown for whom there is a name and a story.”  Whether explicitly public-facing or explicitly scholarly, all of these –and more–1619 works drew on and brought attention to what we know from the rich scholarship about African American history and the history of slavery.  

The Times 1619 event last week focused on slavery and the American Revolution, the subject of some debate since August.  Hannah-Jones had referred to protecting slavery in America as a “primary” motivation for patriots seeking independence from Britain.  In letters to the editor, op-eds, and a volume of social media exchanges, historians and others debated this point.  In an update posted online earlier this week, Silverstein wrote that “We recognize that our original language could be read to suggest that protecting slavery was a primary motivation for all of the colonists. The passage has been changed to make clear that this was a primary motivation for some of the colonists. A note has been appended to the story as well.”  The update has produced another round of letters, op-eds, and social media.

Objections to the original text in Hannah-Jones’s essay focused on whether and how to describe the role of slavery in the American Revolution, but also on the civic implications of rooting the nation’s origins in a defense of slavery rather than a defense of liberty.  While we may each respond differently to those implications, as historians we can recognize that the role of slavery in the Revolution is the subject of a robust scholarly literature—and that this literature offers different and evolving perspectives.  The OI has played a key role in that literature, having published among many other examples Benjamin Quarles’s landmark 1961 book, The Negro in the American Revolution as well as Woody Holton’s Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia in 1999, Christopher Leslie Brown, Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism in 2006, and a forum on the role of economics in the Revolution, including slavery, kicked off with an essay by Staughton Lynd and David Waldstreicher in the William and Mary Quarterly in 2011.

The 1619 Project has brought enormous public attention to some of the early American histories that early Americanists have been researching and writing about.  It has also offered an opportunity to engage both the journalists heading the project, and the public whose attention they have captured, in the intensive scholarly processes that have been at the center of the OI’s work.  Too often history seems like a sealed and knowable past, that historians can offer up a history that is fully “true.”  But as we know all too well, it is simply much, much more complicated than that.  Historians do deep research, and then make nuanced arguments about complex subjects.  In the process of publishing that research and those arguments we meet in conferences and around seminar tables to discuss the work, and through peer review reports, we debate the persuasiveness of our arguments and the evidence on which we base them.  We contextualize that work in terms of the historiography, drawing on and making reference to the work that has come before, some of which we build on, some of which we may disagree with.  

That scholarly process is too unclear to the reading public—and often to other professionals, including journalists.  It is a process that is refined in graduate school, but as we work to make the early American history that we know is vitally important more available to a wider public, making our process clear is vital, too.  A reading public should understand that no one book can cover a subject, and that all works of history can be measured by the quality of the relationship of the argument or narrative offered to the evidence on which it rests.  For me, that’s been one of the real pleasures of the reading group we run here at the OI for local folks in Williamsburg—digging into footnotes and scholarly references and making it clear that while at one level this is specialist literature, it is also accessible to all serious readers.  

That was also one of my goals for the 1619 event, which I began with an introduction about how historical understanding unfolds through scholarship.  We are not always on a linear course to ever greater clarity of course, nor are we likely to come to consensus.  But what we can do is make clear the new sources, new methods, and new perspectives that lead to breakthrough scholarship.  Borrowing a line from the Civil War historian Ed Ayers, we all appreciate revisionist medicine.  History is revisionist by the same process.  We locate new material, we find new ways of exploring existing sources, we come to see things differently and define our subjects differently, and we come to new conclusions.

In conjunction with the 1619 event the OI has made available open links to a selection of WMQ essays and book chapters that illustrate the range of approaches to the history of slavery and the American Revolution.  You can find that list of readings here.

As ever, the OI’s commitment to scholars, scholarship, and serving the public good remains steadfast.  We will continue to work with partners who share these values.  I hope you’ll be in touch with me directly if you have questions or thoughts to share.

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