By DAN MCLAUGHLIN for the National Review
Feb 15, 2023
The 1619 Project miniseries keeps getting its timelines backward.
Readers who have followed the 1619 Project from its inception in 2019 as a New York Times Magazine special edition through its metamorphoses into a classroom curriculum in 2020, a book released in November 2021, an ongoing campus and library-lecture tour by 1619 Project impresario Nikole Hannah-Jones, and now a slickly photographed miniseries on Hulu narrated by Hannah-Jones, should by now not be surprised at four things.
First, while the project contains some useful perspective on the history of slavery, segregation, and racism in America, it is wrapped in a highly tendentious ideological framework that ranges from rank Democratic partisanship to Marxist economic and political theory. Second, it gets important facts glaringly wrong. Third, it advances arguments without the slightest shame or self-reflection after being called out publicly on getting the supporting facts for those arguments glaringly wrong in the past.
And fourth, it remains a lucrative brand entirely without regard to whether it gets its facts straight or peddles partisan or ideological agitprop. That’s why Hannah-Jones has been showered with the highest awards the American intelligentsia can bestow, including a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur “genius grant,” an endowed chair in “Race and Journalism” at Howard University, and an entire Center for Journalism and Democracy at said school, which will fund her in producing a next generation of imitators of her approach to historical truth. These accolades are based entirely on the 1619 Project. Hannah-Jones, who was scarcely known before the publication of the project, has done little else since.
The first episode of the miniseries, on “Democracy,” shows that Hannah-Jones is still at it. The core of what made the original 1619 Project so controversial was the insistence by Hannah-Jones on treating the preservation of slavery as a major cause — perhaps the major cause — of the Americans’ rebellion against Britain in 1775 and their declaration of independence in 1776. This stance led a historian who reviewed an advance copy of Hannah-Jones’s lead essay to warn against publishing it as written. It triggered a fusillade of criticism for the project from eminent liberal historians of the Revolutionary and Civil War periods. It finally compelled the Times to issue a reluctant “clarification” through gritted teeth — a correction Hannah-Jones has clearly never accepted.
To defenders who contend that the 1619 Project is something other than radical, fringe history with serious credibility problems, the controversy over the American Revolution is a minor quibble that should not detract from the broader message of the project about the legacy of slavery. But Hannah-Jones evidently does not agree with her own apologists. Not only has she reacted with belligerence, scorn, and sometimes racial invective aimed at anyone who takes issue with her framing of the Revolution, she has continued to ignore the First Rule of Holes (if you’re in one, stop digging) by searching for any fig leaf to retroactively justify her argument, then trot it out in each successive iteration of the project.
Why does she do this? I can’t read her mind. Perhaps she cannot admit that she is wrong. Perhaps she cannot let go of the conspiratorial mindset that is unable to separate the aims of the Revolution from the contemporaneous reality of slavery — even when the key colonies that triggered the Revolution also outlawed slavery and/or the slave trade during or immediately after the war. But the explanation that best explains her behavior is that letting go of her theory of the Revolution would undermine the central narrative goal of the 1619 Project, which is to rewrite the history of the American Founding so as to make it not a flawed thing but an affirmatively bad thing. If your ideological project demands that the Founding be bad from the outset, you can never admit that it was driven by anything but the worst possible motive. Certainly, Hannah-Jones has acted for the past three and a half years as if preserving that narrative is more important than the credibility of all the rest of the 1619 Project or of the New York Times as an institution. And nobody around her has deterred her from that course.
Wrong about the Revolution
That brings us to the first episode of the miniseries. Once again, Hannah-Jones dedicates crucial space and time to casting the Revolution as depending for its success on people motivated to fight by British threats to slavery, and strongly implies that it would have been better if the British had won the war and the United States had never existed as an independent nation. This is a jarring posture when juxtaposed with her repeated framing of black Americans as the true patriots, such as her American-flag-flying father; it suggests that her radical politics are out of step with the very people her miniseries celebrates.
The original magazine version of the 1619 Project, in the sentence that was since “clarified,” blandly asserted as 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.” At the time, Hannah-Jones did not even bother to cite facts or scholarship to back up her theory, other than asserting generically that “in London, there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade. This would have upended the economy of the colonies, in both the North and the South.” This was false history: As Sean Wilentz of Princeton notes, “the colonists had themselves taken decisive steps to end the Atlantic slave trade from 1769 to 1774. During that time, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Rhode Island either outlawed the trade or imposed prohibitive duties on it. Measures to abolish the trade also won approval in Massachusetts, Delaware, New York, and Virginia, but were denied by royal officials.”
In fact, at the time, there was more opposition in the American colonies to the slave trade than there was in Britain, which did not ban it until 1807 (the same year it was banned by Congress). Hannah-Jones centers her colonial narrative almost entirely on Virginia, but it escapes her notice that Virginia banned the transatlantic slave trade by statute in 1778, in a bill signed and probably authored by Virginia governor Thomas Jefferson (the same man who signed the federal ban in 1807). It makes no sense whatsoever to say that Americans revolted against something the British were not prepared to do, then did it themselves once British opposition had been removed.
More broadly, actual historians of the period are all but unanimous that the anti-slavery movement organized itself and enacted laws earlier in America than in Britain. The world’s first anti-slavery society was organized in Pennsylvania in 1775 at the urging of Quaker abolitionist Anthony Benezet, over a decade before the nascent anti-slavery movement began seriously organizing in Britain in 1786–87. Between 1777 and 1784, slavery was banned in Vermont, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. It was banned by Congress in the Northwest Territory in 1787, and by statutes passed in New York in 1799 and New Jersey in 1804. Parliament, by contrast, did not ban slavery in the British colonies until 1833, long after most of the American revolutionaries were in their graves. These are historical facts, and Hannah-Jones has never made any effort to address them. Indeed, historian Woody Holton, who features in the miniseries and has been one of the few academics to attempt a factual defense of the 1619 Project’s theories about the Revolution, has observed in his academic work that Hannah-Jones “vastly exaggerates the size and strength of the British abolition movement” at the time of the Revolution.
In subsequent versions of the 1619 Project, including the book, she has advanced two theories not mentioned in the original magazine piece. One was that the colonists were alarmed by the 1772 Somerset judicial decision, which held that slaves brought from the colonies into Britain would be free because slavery was disfavored at common law, and Parliament had passed no positive slavery law. This decision did not affect slavery in British colonies, and it produced nothing remotely resembling the colonial reaction to the Stamp Act, the tea tax, or other causes of riots, protests, and bloodshed. At the time, Benjamin Franklin — citing Benezet — derided Somerset as empty virtue-signaling, merely the “setting free of a single negro” while doing nothing against the brutal transatlantic slave trade.
In the miniseries, Hannah-Jones no longer pursues any of these angles but focuses entirely on the November 1775 Dunmore Proclamation, by which the royal governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, offered to free any adult male slaves of patriot masters if the slaves served in the British army. Hannah-Jones and Holton frame this as an early version of the Emancipation Proclamation. They do not mention that it was Dunmore who had refused to sign a ban on the slave trade in Virginia, which is why it had to await Jefferson to do it after ousting royal authority in the colony.
As I discussed at length in reviewing the 1619 Project book, its narrative gets the chronology backwards. Dunmore was already locked in conflict with the Virginia legislature in 1774. Patrick Henry gave his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech in March 1775 to persuade an assemblage of Virginia’s leading men to raise a militia. George Washington took the most fateful step that summer:
The Dunmore Proclamation was issued in November 1775. Did that turn George Washington into a revolutionary? On July 3, 1775, in Cambridge Massachusetts, Washington assumed command of the Continental Army. He was immediately employed in besieging the British troops occupying Boston, two weeks after the Battle of Bunker Hill. In other words, four months before the Dunmore Proclamation, George Washington was not merely considering joining a war against Britain; he was already its commander in chief. This was, as Washington well knew, treason against the Crown, for which he could and likely would have been hanged. By October 1775, Washington was signing off on an American invasion of Quebec. For the Dunmore Proclamation to have turned Washington into a revolutionary, he would have needed a time machine.
The miniseries avoids discussing Washington or Henry or any of these events. The redoubtable Phil Magness has dismantled the revised-for-TV version, noting among other things that Dunmore himself was a slave-owner, and an unrepentant one, as he showed as royal governor of Bermuda after the Revolution. Magness also details how Hannah-Jones and Holton use the visual format to mislead viewers: Sitting in front of the governor’s mansion in Williamsburg, they falsely characterize Dunmore as issuing the proclamation from the mansion, when he had actually already been chased out of the capital months earlier and no longer governed Virginia in any practical sense.
There are more problems with framing the Dunmore Proclamation as a crucial factor in bringing Virginia into a revolution that its troops were already fighting, and in which its most prominent soldier was already commanding the army. The proclamation was quite modest. It exempted the slaves of loyalists, so any colonist who was truly motivated mainly by the protection of slavery could simply switch sides to back the British and retain their slaves. As David North and Eric London explained in a 2019 critique at the World Socialist Web Site:
While there is evidence that thousands of slaves escaped to join the British forces in the hope of securing freedom, the British treated these runaways with such extreme brutality that many runaways soon fled the British. Loyalist forces returned slaves whose owners switched their support to the crown, subjecting the slaves to brutal punishment as captured fugitives. The British armed a small minority of the runaways, but the vast majority were made to perform dangerous and brutal labor with virtually no pay and little food. There is evidence that many were ultimately sold off into the West Indian slave trade. . . . Of the 800 who escaped to Dunmore’s forces, most died of disease by 1776 due to lack of food, clothing and shelter.
If this was truly some sort of radical act of liberation, it would not have wholly excluded black women and children, who were left enslaved. Hannah-Jones simply erases black women from this particular story. Moreover, by casting the Dunmore Proclamation as a red line that triggered Americans because it armed black men and freed slaves in exchange for military service, Hannah-Jones and Holton run into another problem: The Americans did the same thing themselves not long afterward. As North and London note:
Thousands of freed blacks and slaves served in the racially integrated Continental Army after January 1, 1777, when the ban on black conscription was lifted. Baron Von Closen, a German officer serving in the French Royal Deux-Ponts, estimated that up to a quarter of the Revolutionary army was black. In 1783, the Virginia legislature passed an Emancipation Act granting freedom to all slaves who had “faithfully served agreeable to the terms of their enlistment, and have thereby of course contributed towards the establishment of American liberty.”
This was not entirely magnanimous; Virginians had sent slaves to fight as substitutes for enlisting themselves. Some slave-owners did not wish to honor that commitment once the military emergency had passed. But the state legislature honored the deal, concluding that after
representing to . . . recruiting officers that the slaves so enlisted by their direction or concurrence were freemen; and it appearing further to this assembly, that on expiration of the term of enlistment of such slaves that the former owners have attempted again to force them to return to a state of servitude, contrary to the principles of justice, and to their own solemn promise. . . . It appears just and reasonable that all persons enlisted as aforesaid . . . should enjoy the blessings of freedom as a reward for their toils and labours.
Consider the case of James Armistead, a Virginia slave who served as a spy for the Marquis de Lafayette, playing a crucial role in the Yorktown campaign. Armistead faced some resistance to freeing him after the war because he had not served in the regular army, but he was granted his freedom by Congress in 1787 after an appeal by Lafayette testified to his service. He adopted Lafayette’s surname in gratitude.
The practice of freeing slaves in exchange for military service has a long history in warfare, often as a tool of weakening one’s adversaries. Consider, however, how the use of emancipation in the Civil War differed from Dunmore’s approach. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863, was (like Dunmore’s proclamation) limited to slaves in Confederate territory, but it differed in freeing all such slaves, not only those who would serve in the Union Army. Indeed, it was originally drafted nearly a year before the Union began enlisting black soldiers. (Hannah-Jones suggests in the miniseries that black soldiers won the war for the Union, which is an exaggeration given that they did not begin fighting until after Gettysburg and Vicksburg had decisively turned the tide of the war.) The Confederacy, near the very end of the war, also offered freedom to slaves who would enlist with their master’s permission, but only when the Confederate cause was already visibly hopeless and the United States Congress had already passed the 13th Amendment, guaranteeing that the slaves would be freed anyway once the war was over.
Wrong about the Present
The misrepresentations of fact in this episode are not confined to long-ago history. Hannah-Jones airs a number of contemporary Democratic Party grievances. She quotes impartial observers such as Chuck Schumer and the “Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda,” a group so closely allied with Stacey Abrams that a link directing Abrams supporters to the GCPA remains on the front page of Abrams’s website; Hannah-Jones simply describes them as “a non-partisan organization working to defend the right to vote.”
The litany of partisan grievances includes complaining about voting laws in states such as Georgia in the past decade, which she describes as “just like laws passed during Jim Crow.” Never mind that Georgia voters of all races in 2022 reported nearly unanimous satisfaction with the convenience of the voting system under the new law, including zero percent of black Georgians reporting a poor voting experience. She claims that the Georgia voting bill “criminalizes passing out food and water to those standing in line to vote,” which is a gross mischaracterization of the law. She touts the allegations in a federal lawsuit against the Georgia voting laws, while failing to tell her viewers that federal courts have found those laws constitutional and consistent with the Voting Rights Act and are even requiring Abrams’s group to repay Georgia’s court costs. She implies (ignoring precedent) that the Senate’s refusing to confirm Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court was somehow about race because he was nominated by Barack Obama.
In one of these partisan gripes, Hannah-Jones says of voting-rights activists that “in 2020, they helped mobilize a multiracial group of voters who, in a perennially red state, chose Democrats for both Senate seats and the presidency, a move that shifted the balance of power in Washington and prompted President Trump to infamously call Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger,” demanding that he find more votes. Much of this is narrated over scenes of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff rallying together, and of Warnock’s campaign bus. The viewer is led to believe that a Warnock victory was a major impetus for the Trump call to Raffensperger.
The problem? The Trump-Raffensperger call took place on January 2, 2021, and was publicly reported in the Washington Post on January 3. The runoff elections won by Warnock and Ossoff were held on January 5 — after the call was made and publicized. Trump wasn’t calling to protest Democratic Senate victories that hadn’t happened yet; if anything, the call helped cause those victories by further spooking suburban voters worried about Trump’s assault on the electoral system. On Election Day 2020, Ossoff got fewer votes than his Republican opponent David Perdue, and in both Senate races, the Republican candidates got more votes than the Democratic candidates in November. It was only in the runoff election that the Democrats pulled ahead. Hannah-Jones has her chronology of 2020–21 as backwards as her chronology of 1775.