Highlighting the need for historical accuracy

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Thursday, August 20th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Myrna Brown.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Evaluating the 1619 Project. 

One year ago The New York Times released a special magazine issue and podcast series on the history of slavery in America. The project has gained awards and is even set to be taught in thousands of school classrooms this fall.

BROWN: But some scholars have sounded alarms about the accuracy of this telling of historical events. Princeton University Professor Allen Guelzo is one of them. WORLD Radio’s J.C. Derrick recently interviewed Guelzo about his concerns—and where to find better history resources.

J.C. DERRICK, REPORTER: The 1619 Project has received a lot of recent attention, including a Pulitzer Prize, but you’ve called it a “grand conspiracy theory.” Let’s unpack that.

ALLEN GUELZO, GUEST: The 1619 Project was a special 100-page issue of The New York Times Magazine in August of 2019. And its expressed aim was to “re-center” American history around the experience of slavery. And that was meant not just chronologically, it was meant comprehensively. Everything in American life is a product of the oppressive experience of slavery. Everything from the food we eat to the laws that we pass.

As a historian, one thing that I have learned to be very suspicious about are simple one-purpose answers. The 1619 Project is a quick answer, because the 1619 Project says, ah, I have a single answer for everything in American history, and here’s what it is: It’s all about anti-black racism based on slavery. And what I have always found is that single-purpose answers—one trait they all share together is they’re wrong. And at their worst what they degenerate into are conspiracy theories. 

DERRICK: Let’s talk about the specific errors in 1619.

GUELZO: Oh, the 1619 Project teems with historical howlers. The very first one, ironically, is in the title. That 1619 is the beginning of American history because 1619 is when African slaves were first brought to North America at Jamestown. Well, no, actually that’s not right. The first African slaves brought to North America were brought to Georgia by the Spanish in 1529.

But that’s comparatively minor, alright? What’s more important is it tries to build this story by squeezing everything in American history into this paradigm of anti-black racism based on slavery so that it argues that one of the primary reasons that the American Revolution took place was because the American colonists were getting very anxious that Britain was turning in anti-slavery directions. And so to protect slavery, they staged this revolution from British rule. That story has not a shred of historical evidence to support it. 

DERRICK: What case do they make?

GUELZO: The reasoning is supposed to be that in 1772 the British courts, in this case, the court of Lord High Chief Justice Mansfield hands down a ruling in the case of James Somerset, which declares that slavery cannot operate in the British Isles, ergo James Somerset is a free person. And the argument of the 1619 Project is that all the American slave owners looked at the Somerset case and said, ‘Oh, let’s freak out. Let’s have a revolution because the British are going to apply this to America.” Surveys that have been done of American opinion in the 1770s showed that hardly anyone in America noticed the Somerset decision, much less freaking out over it. 

What’s more, if the American Revolution had been staged to defend slavery, there were parts of the British colonial empire which had much, much, much deeper investments in slavery. Think, the British West Indies, Jamaica, Barbados. 

If anybody was inclined to stage a revolution to defend slavery, it would have been the sugar islands of the West Indies. And yet, when the American revolutionaries make overtures to these other British colonies to join them in revolution, the West Indian colonies routinely refuse. If what the Revolution was about was a revolution to protect slavery, the West Indie sugar islands should have joined with us right away. But they didn’t. They refused to.

DERRICK: And The New York Times can’t claim ignorance on that. 

GUELZO: Well, no, they can’t because one historian who was consulted by the 1619 Project—Lesley Harris of Northwestern University—advised the lead essay writer for the 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, advised her, no, you can’t say that. That’s not true. Hannah Jones went ahead anyway.

DERRICK: What do you think this happened? 

GUELZO: The historian in me is tempted to say, well, this is because it was written by a lot of journalists. These were not people who really had a lot of depth and experience in what they were writing about and it shows in place after place in the 1619 Project. 

And, yet, as you say, it helps to garner a Pulitzer Prize for Nikole Hannah-Jones. Curiously I have to put an exception in here, that Pulitzer was not awarded to the 1619 Project. There was, as I understand from some of the back chat that I’m privy to, there was some real hesitation on the part of the Pulitzer Prize board about what to do about this because The New York Times was pressing very hard for a Pulitzer. And their response was to do the Solomonic thing and that is they awarded a Pulitzer Prize to Nikole Hannah Jones, not to the 1619 Project, but to Nikole Hannah-Jones for editorial journalism, not for history. 

So, you look at that very carefully and you see that even with the Pulitzer board, there was a real sense of discomfort about what they were being pressed to give credibility to. 

DERRICK: Well, let’s talk about some better places to go for history. I’ve been listening to your book titled Fateful Lightning. It’s about the Civil War and all the events surrounding it. What do you hope readers will glean from a book like that?

GUELZO: I hope that they will read two things in Fateful Lightning. One, they will read the human stories, the complexities, the troubles, the pain, the suffering that took place in this time of Civil War. The other thing that I want people to read in the book is the what if. Not so much of what if this general had done that or that general had done the other. More the case of what if the United States, in fact, had fractured in the Civil War? What would have been the consequences for world history? And when you sit down and push it to its conclusion, it really makes the hair stand on end. We don’t even want to think about it. 

DERRICK: What other history resources do you recommend? 

GUELZO: I would like to point people to Wilford McClay’s Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, which was just published last year. It’s a wonderful book. I also like to encourage people to look at important moments in American history, to look at the Revolution, to look at the Constitutional Convention. The best history that I can recommend for people on the Constitutional Convention is the late Richard Beaman’s Plain, Honest Men.

BASHAM: That was Professor Allen Guelzo talking to WORLD Radio managing editor J.C. Derrick. You can read more of their conversation in the August 29th edition of WORLD Magazine.

(Illustration by Daniel Baxter) Allen C. Guelzo 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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