About four weeks ago, Jake Silverstein of the New York Times, who oversaw the original 1619 Project two years ago and subsequently defended it against an opening round of criticism from accomplished historians, wrote another long piece to commemorate the publication of an expanded version as a book. He coupled a renewed defense of its main arguments--including the completely discredited claim that substantial numbers of Americans joined the American revolution to defend slavery against the British--while trying to put the project and the reaction to it in a broader historical and academic context. Although Silverstein himself is only 46, he stated the bare facts of what has happened to history over the last 55 years or so pretty accurately, but from a very particular standpoint. For reasons that I hope to make clear, I regard these developments as a catastrophe. He regards them as a triumph.
Silverstein begins this part of his long essay with a threadbare survey of American historians from the 19th century to the 1960s. Only two are mentioned by name. Silverstein describes the 10-volume history of George Bancroft as "generally seen as the first comprehensive history of the country," having an "incalculable influence. He could not have actually looked at those ten volumes: they tell only the history of the country from the first European landings in North America to the adoption of the Constitution, Bancroft did, as he says, regard the new country as an expression of the most advanced ideas of the age--and Bancroft was right. His work was however anything but a simple hagiography. He used extensive multi-archival research to write as good a history of the diplomacy surrounding the American Revolution as has ever been written. From there Silverstein jumps about half a century to the progressive historian Charles A. Beard, who argued early in the 20th century that the Constitution might simply have reflected "a group of economic interests which must have expected beneficial results from its adoption." I happen to admire Beard myself for many reasons, but Silverstein states falsely that he fell out of favor because his views "could not provide the necessary inspiration for the America that envisioned itself a defender of global freedom and democracy" during the Cold War. This is an oversimplification in at least two ways. First, although Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution created a sensation when it was published in 1913, his greatest influence came later with his textbook, The Rise of American Civilization--co-authored with his wife--which sold hundreds of thousands of copies beginning in 1927 and undoubtedly helped many Americans warm to FDR's New Deal. Secondly, the turn against Beard's interpretation of the Constitution came after critics showed very clearly that he had oversimplified the economic interests that helped shape the Constitution and had read issues from his own time back into the Constitutional period--not coincidentally, exactly what so many historians are doing today. Silverstein's historical views lack the subtlety to understand any of this. He is simply inviting his readers--as many professional historians do as well--to ignore anything written before 1968 or so.
Silverstein then makes the argument, very familiar to historians, that new generations, starting in the 1960s, transformed history by paying more attention to the common people and less to elites. “From the perspective supplied by the new history," he quotes a 1975 article, "it has become clear that the experience of women, children, servants, slaves and other neglected groups are quite as integral to a comprehensive understanding of the past as that of lawyers, lords and ministers of state.” He then precedes to argue, in effect, that historians before the 1960s had only paid attention to slavery in order to whitewash it. There was in fact a prominent historical school in the early 20th century led by Ulrich Bonnell Phillips that tried to do just that, but it was never the only game in town, and the slavery issue was the subject of much of the best American history written in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was at the heart of what remains perhaps the greatest single work of American history ever written, Allen Nevins's The Ordeal of the Union, on the immediate origins of the Civil War. Only the emergence of black historians, he argues, allowed a more enlightened view to emerge--a view which would come as a great surprise to white historians such as Eugene Genovese, whose Roll, Jordan Roll remains the single best work on American slavery.
It is here that we come to the heart of the matter: the idea that we have improved American history because, and only because, it is now written by many people who do not happen to be straight white males, and who therefore see truths that make white males uncomfortable. In fact, good and bad historians come in all shapes, sizes and colors, and the emphasis on identity as a source of truth is behind the central flaw of the 1619 project and a great deal more of recent writing about American history. Typically, Silverstein implies that the black historian Annette Gordon-Reid was the first to confirm that Thomas Jefferson fathered children by Sally Hemmings. In fact, a white woman, Fawn Brodie, had argued this at length about thirty years earlier. A broader, critical example of this way of thinking is a key point of the project, the "centrality" of slavery in American history. To be sure, to two groups of Americans before 1861--slaves and slaveholders--slavery was the central fact of their lives and inevitably shaped their political outlook. To the much larger number of Americans who fell into neither of those categories, it was not. And not only was slavery not the central fact of life within the early American republic, it was not the unique fact about it either. Slavery in 1789 existed in much of the western hemisphere. What was unique about the United States was its experiment in republican, elected government based on a universal idea of human nature--even if that idea was not originally applied in practice to anyone but white males. Thus, the traditional focus on political conflict in histories of the United States was entirely appropriate--all the more so since the country's political principles were bound to conflict with slavery, and eventually, to bring it down after a bloody war. Silverstein, on the other hand, claims that the United States was never really a democracy until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and that slavery and racism, in many forms, are still the basis for the organization of our society. That is how today's historians, trained to focus on people who "looked like them," think, but many Americans of all races justifiably reject those claims. To accept them simply writes off decades of extraordinary political and economic progress for all Americans, black as well as white, in order to make today's activists feel like the most important actors in American history.
The changes in the historical profession Silverstein discusses came out of the general rejection of our parents' world by so many vocal members of my generation in the mid-1960s--largely, but not entirely, because of the Vietnam War. At the height of that conflict in the late 1960s radical activists proclaimed, in essence, that everything our parents and teachers had ever told us was a lie, and that their vaunted democracy oppressed almost everyone. Thanks to the gradual dissemination of those ideas over subsequent decades--largely through higher education--many younger people, like Silverstein, now seem to accept the idea that American society and American history before 1968 or so were simply a vast conspiracy of oppression by rich white males of everyone else, and that things have only begun to improve since. The opposite is true. The years 1940-1980, statistics show, were the years of most rapid economic progress for black Americans. That is because they were the years of the most rapid economic progress, and the greatest economic equality, for all Americans. It is since 1980 that the favorable mid-century trends have been reversed, and the Boom generation did less than nothing to stop that. What I am suggesting is that their view of history--which the younger people who have written the 1619 project share--has been no better for the country than the economic policies of the three Boomer presidents, Clinton, Bush II, and Trump, and the other Boomers who have dominated finance and industry over that time.
Near the conclusion of his article, Silverstein actually concludes, first, that history has some obligation to provide sustaining myths to the nation as a whole, and secondly, that it can only do so by falsifying the past. "Democracy, we are often told," he writes, "requires a free press, one that will hold power to account. Does it also require a robust historical profession, free to ramify in a hundred directions at once, not all of them inspiring? Or in this regard do journalism and history differ, with journalism providing democracy its greatest service when most unshackled and critical, while history operates best with the sense of decorum and tradition that foments civic pride?" "You could see the pitched battles over public memory that have occurred since then as a product of the new history’s corrosive effect on national unity," he says, "or you could conclude that a republic founded on an irresolvable contradiction — freedom and slavery — was always going to wind up in an irresolvable argument over how to tell its story, that this contentiousness is American democracy, that the loss of consensus means we’ve finally arrived." I see them the first way--while not ignoring the problems that the ahistorical right is creating, too--and I'm not ashamed to say so. Silverstein bluntly says at one point that history is inherently political. He evidently thinks that his own profession should be as well. That is why both history and journalism today are--to borrow another phrase from the late 1960s--part of the problem, not part of the solution.