CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WNCN) – One of the biggest critics of the 1619 Project detailed his issues with it just as Nikole Hannah-Jones decided to teach at Howard University over UNC-Chapel Hill.
“Both historians and journalists have a basic duty to be honest with their readers, to be factually correct with their readers. And that’s one of the problems with the 1619 Project,” said Princeton University American History professor Sean Wilentz.
Wilentz was among the first historians to speak out against the publication of the 1619 Project.
“When I first read the lead essay, in particular, I sort of hit the roof, metaphorically, you know? There was just so much in there that was incorrect, wrong — basic facts about American history that don’t help the cause of enlightenment, only undermine it,” Wilentz said.
Joined by other historians, Wilentz wrote to The New York Times saying that raising unsettling questions about slavery is “praiseworthy and an urgent public service.” But, he takes issue with Nikole Hannah-Jones’ version of why the founding fathers wanted to break with England.
“The basic mission of the United States at the beginning of its existence was to protect slavery. This is wrong. This just gives a misconception of both the history of slavery and the history of anti-slavery and then the history of the United States,” Wilentz said. “All of them are undone by that simple statement.
“The fact that there was anti-slavery in the nation’s founding has been obscured. Not just people like John Adams, who are well known, but less known people like Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense. He was anti-slavery, as well. He wrote about getting rid of slavery. So there was a struggle from the very beginning — that’s what’s missing.”
The history of anti-slavery sentiments, Wilentz argued, is what is absent from the 1619 Project.
“In the distance of 1619 and 1776, which is the beginning in the rise of the very first anti-slavery opinion, the very first anti-slavery politics, they’re happening in the North American colonies. In 1775, the first anti-slavery society is founded in Philadelphia. Massachusetts gets rid of slavery in 1783 for the first time in millennia,” he noted.
“Slavery had a history going all the way back to classical times. In the course of settling the Atlantic world, there is an anti-slavery reaction that bubbles up, but it’s very late in the game. It’s very close to the American founding, and the American founding, I think, is as much a part of the anti-slavery impetus, which is very new, as much as it is the continuation of the institution of slavery, which is also there, as well.”
Another error pointed out in the letter to the Times included President Abraham Lincoln’s views on racial equality by ignoring Lincoln’s belief that the Declaration of Independence “proclaimed universal equality.”
The letter was also signed by history professors Victoria Bynam with Texas State University, James McPherson with Princeton University, James Oakes with The City University of New York, and Gordon Wood with Brown University.
Wilentz believes there’s a basic principle to follow if honest conversations about race and moving forward in this country are going to be productive.
“I’m not saying there’s only one way to look at it, but to give a version that’s so filled with inaccuracies, that’s not a place to begin any kind of discussion or conversation. You have to get the facts right before you can get started,” he said. “It becomes so much a part of political propaganda on both sides, polarization on both sides, that to stand simply for the writing of accurate history is drowned out, and that’s unfortunate.
“We are in a fraught time as far as race relations are concerned. The murder of George Floyd was a terrible, searing event for this country. We are in a very difficult time, which makes it all the more imperative not only that we understand our history, but that we get it right.”