The 1619 Project, the Founders-Industrial Complex, and History Pedagogy

History is a lot of things, but perhaps nothing so much as the practice of organized forgetting. No matter what methods historians use to research, narrate, and interpret the past, their selection of topics and phenomena is always a judgment (implicity or explicitly made) about what is worthy of being so recorded—and what isn’t. That’s what the archives show us, in essence: who and what we remember. The very act of producing “History” thus unfolds according to the producer’s worldview, their “theory” of “how things work.”

Yet, as the French historian and theorist Michel de Certeau pointed out, by adapting the veneer of neutrality and objectivity, the writing of history seeks to tell us that “all theory is excluded.” Or, in the words of Sergeant Joe Friday, it’s “just the facts, ma’am.” However, as de Certeau goes on to say, “the operation in question is rather sly: the discourse [that is, scholarly “history”] gives itself credibility in the name of the reality it is supposed to represent [“what really happened” in the past], but this authorized appearance of the ‘real’ serves precisely to camouflage the practice which in fact determines it.” [1] So: there are facts, and then there are historical facts; the key question is what criteria is used to elevate the former to the latter. As Edward Carr wrote in his classic text On History, lots of people crossed the Rubicon, but Julius Caesar is the only one we care about. But what if we want to know something about the other people—the enslaved people or the mule caravans or the farm wives doing the laundry—who forded that Italian river?

For those of us who teach history, this is an essential question. Textbooks which center Great White Men as the movers and shapers of history, where people of color only show up as slaves or within special “call-out boxes” (as if to say, here is one black or brown person that’s actually worth knowing about), are merely the most obvious expression of how history takes anything but a neutral stance towards who we should know crossed the Rubicon, who it remembers and who is forgotten. Yet amidst the forgetting there can be resistance. There are overlooked, erased, de-institutionalized voices and records which lie dormant, so to speak, until another historian “remembers” them and brings them into the full light of History. For this reason, history is always political, because at the root of the historian’s practice are the questions whose stories get to be told? and who gets to tell them? Historians have never agreed on their answers to these questions.

That lack of consensus has been on full display in recent weeks in the scholarly kerfuffle over the New York Times’s 1619 Project, which among other things has given us the deliciously bizarre spectacle of the Wall Street Journal and the Trotskyite World Socialist Website working hand in glove with one another. To briefly recap, the 1619 project, under the editorship of Nikole Hannah-Jones, was published in August 2019 by the New York Times Magazine with a boldly and explicitly-stated aim: “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 initial reaction was almost all positive, certainly within the community of K-16 scholar/teacher/practitioners. But rumors began to swirl that some senior scholars were unhappy with the project, particularly what they saw as its explicitly political edge, and were circulating a letter critiquing the project which they hoped to publish in the Times as a public rebuke to Hannah-Jones and her co-authors. Tellingly, despite a wide-ranging campaign to enlist “big name” historians, only five scholars ended up as signatories to the letter, published by the Times on December 20, and accompanied by a lengthy rebuttal from Jake Silverstein, the magazine’s editor-in-chief. The five critics behind the letter, all of them prominent and award-winning scholars of US history, and all of them tenured and white representatives of what we might call the Founders-Industrial Complex, charged the project as a whole, but Hannah-Jones’s overview essay in particular, with serious “errors” of “verifiable facts.” Furthermore, these scholars charged, those errors “suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.” Then, in a breathtakingly audacious rhetorical move, they claim that “dismissal of objections on racial grounds — that they are the objections of only “white historians” — has affirmed that displacement.” SEE? YOU’RE THE REAL RACISTS.

Let’s hear from the critics

In the weeks since, the World Socialist Website folks have doubled down on their critique, posting further and more extensive interviews with the some of scholars behind the letter to the Times: James Oakes, Victoria Bynum, and Gordon Wood. The New York Post and Wall Street Journal have published op-eds from reliably conservative “intellectuals” gleefully recounting how “historians” are “eviscerating” the 1619 Project. [2] And Sean Wilentz, who’s emerged as the face of this opposition group, recently used the pages of The Atlantic to rail against Hannah-Jones, the 1619 Project, and, apparently, the last few decades of historiography to boot. Despite the pretensions of these doyens to speak for the profession, however, other scholars have pushed back. Alex Lichtenstein, the editor of the American Historical Review, used his regular editorial column to respond to the original letter of critique, dismantling its accusations of errors and malfeasance, and make the following salient point:

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…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.

Responding to the more recent Atlantic piece, Joseph Adelman pointed out Wilentz’s disingenuous (at best) use of 18th century newspapers to dispute the 1619 Project’s assertion that American Revolutionaries were at least in part motivated to rebel from a desire to protect chattel slavery from a nascent British abolitionist movement. And David Waldstreicher, in a trenchant response to Wilentz, et al., also takes issue with these critics’ claims to be merely representing “facts,” as if their particular and not-uncontested interpretation of, say, the American Revolution is the gospel truth. At the very least, Waldstreicher shows, there is just as much “factual” basis for Hannah-Jones’s assertions as for those of Wood, Wilentz, and their gang. Indeed, there has been a vibrant and important scholarly debate over the degree to which the American Revolution and enslavement were intertwined, yet Wilentz, Waldstreicher points out, tries to perform a magician’s act and render invisible the very existence of that debate, much as he ignores the scholarship when he is not mischaracterizing its substance.” 

Waldstreicher’s observation gets to the heart of what I think is an essential, but under-appreciated, aspect of this entire debate: what it says about and means for pedagogy. A particularly interesting aspect of this whole spectacle, in fact, is that we have a rich, intellectually diverse, and compelling piece of public scholarship that has been published on a high-profile platform, moved the needle on several important conversations about this country’s history and future, and become an actual “thing” in the larger popular culture—and five eminent, high-profile scholars have decided they want to burn the whole thing down. We can’t go a week without seeing some anguished thinkpiece telling us the humanities are dying because we haven’t communicated their interest or value effectively to the larger public. The number of students majoring in History is at its lowest point in decades, and all signs point to this dismal trend continuing. The academic job market for the humanities in general and history in particular is a smoldering crater. The legacies of enslavement and racism have never been more apparent or widely-discussed than they seem to be at this particular historical moment. Yet when confronted with perhaps the most prominent public scholarly effort to bring historical understanding to these conversations, and a unique opportunity to fight back against the marginalization of historians’ work, Sean Wilentz and his buddies would rather you agree with them, that the whole project is shitty.  

Despite Wilentz’s monomaniacal insistence he is simply relying on “facts” (a classic case of “he doth protest too much” if there ever was one),[3] he and his fellows’ critiques of the 1619 Project boil down to:

  • we disagree with the framing and conclusions of the project.
  • why didn’t you consult US?

And if the differences are fundamentally matters of interpretation and ego, why is the rhetoric so apocalyptic? Why the insinuations that the Times has failed in its moral responsibility to provide a factual record in these dark, Trumpian times?  

The answer, I think, lies in seeing the 1619 Project as a pedagogical intervention.  It’s telling that some of the most overwrought language in the critiques of the project have centered around the fact that numerous teachers have declared they’ll be using it in their classrooms, and that the Times has made curricular aids available to facilitate that process. The critics, Wilentz in particular, clutch their pearls hardest when they contemplate this facet of Hannah-Jones’s work. What will happen if this project purportedly aimed at “social justice” also aims “to dispense with a respect for basic facts?” Indeed, as Wilentz finally summits Mt. Sanctimony, he proclaims to the masses “in the long and continuing battle against oppression of every kind, an insistence on plain and accurate facts has been a powerful tool against propaganda that is widely accepted as truth. That tool is far too important to cede now.” This is why the Critical Five insisted on a formal retraction, to “keep those errors from appearing in any future materials published with the Times’ imprimatur, including the school curricula the newspaper announced it was developing in conjunction with the project.” THINK OF THE CHILDREN. 

Wilentz has been rightly taken to task for using terms like “the basic facts” to describe what are very much matters of interpretation. Yet his dogmatic stubbornness in this regard says quite a bit. To him and the klatsch of critics, their interpretations are the “basic facts.” All else is propaganda. It has to be thus, if one has committed their entire scholarly career to trying to prove the circle of American democracy and freedoms has been steadily expanding, and Founding Fathers and other Great Men have been the agents of that expansion. In this “rise of American Democracy,” or this “empire of liberty,” or a country which realized its vision of “freedom national,” any effort to critique this teleology is an existential threat.

This Founders-Industrial complex is more than just an opportunity to cash in by writing Father’s Day books for the Barnes and Noble set; it’s an article of faith, the epistemological foundation for any “factual” or “objective” telling of US history. Great men—flawed, to be sure, but only because they were “men of their time”—were the motor that has driven this republican experiment. In this telling, enslavement and racism exist as unfortunate aberrations from the real path of republicanism-become-democratic expansion. The Constitution could never be in favor of “property in man,” because how then could the Framers have set the great democratic machine in motion? These “founding brothers” paved the way for the “age of the common man,” as seen in both the “workingmen’s democracy” and the economic leveling of the “market revolution.” Then, as the aberration of slavery once again raised its head in the late 1840s, a new, hardy breed of risingly-democratic Americans, led by a son of the Illinois prairie, made good on the promise of freedom for everyone in the “second American Revolution.” Slaves were freed, homesteaders got their wide open spaces, the railroad re-knit the country back together. And, as Wilentz is at pains to tell us, we should remember that when Black people struggled to achieve the full promise of that freedom, “some white people were always an integral part of the fight for racial equality.” (#NotAllWhitePeople) Indeed, this is a telling that centers the white, mostly male, politico-cultural experience. This is “the purpose of the past,” the very “idea of America,” for the Founders-Industrial Complex. And it’s packaged (as it has been for so much of US history) as the master narrative, the objective truth, just. the. facts. 

The 1619 Project calls that narrative what it really is, though, and does so in such a powerful and effective way that the historiographical debate Wilentz wants to pretend doesn’t exist has been dropped right on the doorstep of social studies and history classrooms everywhere. It says, in effect, you can talk about ‘the rise of American democracy’ all you want, but now you’re going to have to do it alongside folks like Woody Holton, Gerald Horne, Annette Gordon-Reed, Khalil Muhammad, and David Waldstreicher. 1619 exposes the Founders-Industrial Complex for what it really is: an ideological project that desperately wants you to believe its increasingly anxious claims to ‘objectivity’. 

As Althusser reminded us, though, ideology never says it’s ideological. But the 1619 Project did, and in doing so, opened a range of possible ways in which the teaching of history can be reinvigorated. How many of our students were presented with a conception of US history embodying this ‘circle of democracy is always widening’ trope, and then went outside to a world marked by historically-unprecedented wealth inequalities, a resurgent violent white nationalism, deportation squads, and the exclusion of more and more people from the circle of democratic political participation? How many students learn US history as the story of people like them becoming “free,” even having their basic humanity acknowledged, only by the agency of others? How many of our students are told that Founders like Madison and Jefferson, and not people like David Walker or Tecumseh, are the true prophets of American freedom and democracy? How many of our students wonder why enslavers like George Washington and Indian-killers like Andrew Jackson get to be “men of their time,” entitled to the benefit of the doubt, but no one seems to notice that Martin Delany or Thaddeus Stevens were also men of that time? The 1619 Project is for those students, as much as for anyone else.

The critics know that, and it scares them. This is a pedagogy (in other words, not just a telling, but a teaching) of history purposefully centering non-elite experiences. It stakes a claim for nonwhite people within the very foundational narrative the critics have invested so much effort in curating. It assembles a diverse array of scholarly talent, as or more credentialed and accomplished as the critics, and thus teaches students and the public that one can be a knowledge-creator in the field, a scholar of History, even if they look different than a certain demographic. That the critics are all older white scholars and the primary target of their vitriolic and dismissive attacks is a younger Black woman matters greatly (if your first instinct here is to protest, perhaps take a breath and ask why that’s so). The 1619 Project has a far different answer to the questions whose stories get told, and who gets to tell the stories, and rather than listen to those answers, some are willing to double down on precisely the type of credential-shaming, bad-faith attacks, and gatekeeping that have plagued this profession since its professional inception over a century ago. 

The Dunning School didn’t give up without a fight, and neither will the Founders-Industrial Complex, because they see this as a zero-sum game.  One History to rule them all, one Story to bind them. However, it is possible to have intertwined narratives, for enslavement and liberty to be caught up in one another, for there to be founding narratives in the plural instead of merely singular. But when privilege is the routine, equality feels like oppression. History is complicated, because as “organized forgetting,” it matters greatly who does that organizing. When the forgotten organize, and the historiographical murmurs become shouts, the curators for the orthodoxy get nervous—especially when that discourse spills over disciplinary boundaries and plants itself in the public sphere.

That’s perhaps the 1619 Project’s greatest gift: it reminds us of what History is, and shows us how the organization by which dominant voices have arranged it is insufficient. It turns out that there have been more stories to tell, and that there are more people who will tell them. That should not be feared, nor should it be forgotten.

  1. [1] Michel de Certeau, Heterologies: Discourses on the Other (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 203.
  2. [2]It’s worth noting that a group of economic historians primarily associated with a libertarian “think tank” at George Mason University has also taken issue with the 1619 Project, driven mainly by their opposition to the arguments of the so-called “new history of capitalism” which run through several of the the project’s essays. Since their arguments have been riddled with bad-faith attacks, mischaracterizations of what the 1619 authors actually wrote, and non-sequiturs in the service of grinding particular historiographical axes, I’m not going to dive into it here.
  3. [3] To add insult to insult, Wilentz—with equal parts condescension and smarminess—concludes his Atlantic piece with a riff on W.E.B. DuBois and the use of historical “facts.” In the process, however, the only thing he definitively demonstrates is his complete lack of understanding of DuBois’s argument and tone in Black Reconstruction. Stuart Schrader had an excellent discussion of this on a recent Twitter thread.