J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, November 03, 2021

Misreading “The 1619 Project”

As I discussed in the past couple of days, Nikole Hannah-Jones’s essay in “The 1619 Project” repeated a couple of common errors about the American Revolution and implied too much about anti-slavery sentiment in 1770s Britain.

But the project’s most vituperative critics focused their attention on this sentence:
Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.
I see the critics as reading more into that sentence than its words require. In some cases people have obviously mischaracterized the claim, perhaps to justify their ire at the essay’s other evidence and overall argument.

If we say that one of the primary reasons the Americans decided to declare war on Great Britain in 1812 was that they hoped to annex Canada, are we saying there were no other reasons? Obviously not. The phrase “one of the primary reasons” acknowledges multiple significant motivations.

Does that same statement mean every American wanted northern expansion? I think the multiple “primary reasons” and the millions of people involved mean it’s unrealistic and uncharitable to read the sentence to mean all Americans felt the same way. There’s a clear statement that a significant number of Americans felt that motivation, but no claim to uniformity or unanimity.

I don’t recall anyone who insisted Hannah-Jones’s “the colonists” must mean “all colonists” also complaining that it misrepresented the Loyalists among those colonists, even though that would be a logical result of that interpretation.

Finally, the sentence in question addressed why “the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain,” a specific step in July 1776. That independence vote is not synonymous with the American Revolution as a whole. It came after years of protests, boycotts, and riots against Parliament’s new taxes and other Crown measures; “The Revolution was effected before the war commenced,” John Adams wrote in 1818. Perhaps wrongly, we also tend to treat the Revolution as continuing until the establishment of the new federal government in 1789.

Historians emphasize how that Americans didn’t want independence from Britain when they resisted those new laws from London. Patriots didn’t call for independence even as they went to war in April 1775.

The sentence in question therefore doesn’t make claims about what motivated colonists to engage in political resistance, to set up extralegal governments, or even to start shooting at the king’s troops. It focuses on how Americans “decided to declare their independence,” a process that happened between the fall of 1775 and the spring of 1776. I’ll look at that time period tomorrow.

Some people who read “The 1619 Project” in its original form clearly didn’t like its implications. What it actually said, however, apparently wasn’t enough to justify their responses because they ended up claiming it said something else. Most notably, in a conversation with the World Socialists website in November 2019, august historian Gordon Wood stated early on:
I read the first essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones, which alleges that the Revolution occurred primarily because of the Americans’ desire to save their slaves. She claims the British were on the warpath against the slave trade and slavery and that rebellion was the only hope for American slavery.
Hannah-Jones wrote that slavery was “one of the primary reasons,” and Wood interpreted her as saying slavery was “primarily” the reason. Hannah-Jones wrote about the decision to declare independence; Wood turned that into “the Revolution” as a whole. Hannah-Jones wrote about Britain being “deeply conflicted” about slavery, and Wood claimed she’d said “the British were on the warpath” against it. Wood objected to a straw figure of his own making.

Under pressure from Wood, some other historians, and a lot of right-wing pundits, the New York Times publicly edited the sentence quoted above. The text changed from saying “the colonists” to “some of the colonists.” That cemented an interpretation that I think was already present; it certainly didn’t add any useful information.

Were the people who complained that that sentence implied too much satisfied with the new language? Not as far as I could see. Which suggests the actual sentence wasn’t ever the real problem.

TOMORROW: Deciding on independence.

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