AMAC Exclusive – By Shane Harris
As another school year comes to a close, education – and particularly how American history is taught in the classroom – continues to be a critical battleground in the Culture Wars. Since its publication more than two years ago in the New York Times, the 1619 Project, organized, edited, and partially written by Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, has remained at the center of this controversy, serving as a flagship for the left’s wholesale effort to indoctrinate students into believing that the United States and its greatest heroes are irredeemably evil and racist. While conservatives have gone on offense against this narrative, making Critical Race Theory a household term, often lost in the debate over the “politicization” of education is the fact that not only is the 1619 Project and its view of history socially destructive, but its central claims about American history are also demonstrably false.
When the 1619 Project first began making its case in a series of essays, it was met with high praise from mainstream media pundits and left-wing politicians, but skepticism and outright condemnation from actual historians, who immediately objected to glaring inaccuracies and falsehoods littered throughout the project. In a letter to the New York Times, several prominent historians from top American universities slammed the 1619 Project as a “displacement of historical understanding by ideology,” writing that they were “dismayed at some of the factual errors in the project and the closed process behind it.”
As one example among many, the scholars point to the project’s assertion that the American Revolution was fought primarily to “ensure slavery would continue.” This is the crux of Jones’ argument – that everything in American history and contemporary society revolves around preserving slavery and a racist system which disadvantages women and people of color. “Yet,” the letter reads, “every statement offered by the project to validate [this claim] is false.” The Declaration of Independence, far from a document intended to preserve the system of slavery, “proclaimed universal equality, for blacks as well as whites,” something which, as the historians’ letter also notes, Frederick Douglass recognized in calling the Declaration of Independence a “GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.”
In a 2019 interview about the 1619 Project, Gordon Wood, one of the world’s most celebrated historians of the American Revolution and a signatory of the New York Times letter, expounded on his criticisms of Jones’ claim that the Revolution – and thus the establishment of the United States itself – was an effort to defend the institution of slavery. In fact, Wood argues, the opposite is true. “It’s the American Revolution that makes [slavery] a problem for the world,” Wood says. “And the first real anti-slave movement takes place in North America…The Revolution unleashed antislavery sentiments that led to the first abolition movements in the history of the world.”
Although Wood is widely recognized as one of the leading experts on the American Revolution, he was never asked to consult on the project. In 2020, another prominent expert of the American Revolution, Professor Leslie M. Harris, also revealed that she had been consulted, and had warned the Times that Hannah-Jones’ account of the Revolution was filled with factual errors.
James McPherson, another leading scholar of American history who, like Woods, was not consulted by Hannah-Jones or the New York Times, also blasted the 1619 Project for its assertion that “black Americans have fought back alone” to end racial discrimination and segregation in the United States.
“From the Quakers in the 18th century, on through the abolitionists in the antebellum, to the radical Republicans in the Civil War and Reconstruction, to the NAACP which was an interracial organization founded in 1909, down through the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, there have been a lot of whites who have fought against slavery and racial discrimination,” McPherson said.
McPherson also noted that Hannah-Jones makes barely a mention of the Civil War in her work, dismissing the conflict which saw more than 600,000 American dead as not doing much to improve the condition of black Americans. But, McPherson argues back, while Jim Crow and segregation were far from fulfilling the promise of America, “at least children couldn’t be sold apart from their parents, wives couldn’t be sold apart from their husbands, and marriage was now a legal institution for freed-people.” In ignoring this basic and obvious truth about how the condition of black Americans improved as a result of the Civil War, Hannah-Jones both undermines her own credibility and diminishes the incredible sacrifice of generations of abolitionists, black and white, who fought to eradicate slavery in the U.S.—not to mention the countless soldiers who gave their lives for that cause in the Civil War.
Phillip W. Magness, a leading economic historian, has also thoroughly discredited the 1619 Project’s “explicit anti-capitalist political message,” which he contends is “rooted in a fundamental misreading of economic history.” While the project argues that modern American capitalism is based on financial practices developed in the slaveholding south, Magness writes that most of these practices “predate plantation slavery by several centuries.” Furthermore, the claims made in the project plainly do not match up with the stated sources, to the point where the “thesis falls apart for want of evidence.”
Following this criticism, the New York Times stood by Hannah-Jones and stubbornly refused to correct historical inaccuracies in the project. Hannah-Jones herself dismissed the dissenters as “old, white male historians,” as if the age and race of those calling her out invalidated their critiques. In a letter of his own responding to the aforementioned historians’ letter, Times editor Jake Silverstein writes that he does not believe “that the request for corrections tothe 1619 Project is warranted.” Silverstein then goes a step further, doubling down on the claim that equality for black Americans has never been achieved – “not in 1776, not in 1865, not in 1964, not in 2008 and not today.”
Despite all this, schools throughout the country have continued to teach the 1619 Project, notjust as one interpretation of American history, but as an authoritative source and factual retelling of the country’s origin story. According to the Pulitzer Center, more than 3,500 classrooms are using the 1619 Project in their history curriculum. Though President Trump promised to penalize schools that taught the 1619 Project as part of their curriculum, the Biden Department of Education has explicitly endorsed the project as a resource educators should draw upon to “create inclusive, supportive, and identity-safe learning environments.”
To reverse this dangerous trend, conservatives – and indeed anyone who cares about the elevation of truth over falsehood – should not only highlight how the project promotes hate and division, but continue to emphasize that the 1619 Project, and Critical Race Theory more broadly, are wrong on matters of basic historical fact. The reason to oppose teaching these concepts in the classroom is not just that we do not like “focusing exclusively on America’s flaws,” as some conservatives like to say—it’s that the narrative the left is pushing is an abject lie. American history is the greatest story of progress and triumph over evil in the history of the world – a truth so obvious that it cannot be denied, despite the immense cultural and political power that has been directed at doing exactly that.
Shane Harris is a writer and political consultant from Southwest Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter @Shane_Harris_