American History and the New York Times




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Richard Drew/Associated Press

Many politicians and pillars of the media establishment are constantly urging national conversations about race. But too often such conversations seem to begin with inaccurate assertions. Take recent news coverage concerning the history of the American founding. A group of historians is now urging the Pulitzer committee to rescind a prize awarded this year to a writer at the

New York Times.

In a Tuesday letter, professors at Brown, the University of Virginia and other institutions write:

We call on the Pulitzer Prize Board to rescind the 2020 Prize for Commentary awarded to Nikole Hannah-Jones for her lead essay in “The 1619 Project.” That essay was entitled, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written.” But it turns out the article itself was false when written, making a large claim that protecting the institution of slavery was a primary motive for the American Revolution, a claim for which there is simply no evidence.

When the Board announced the prize on May 4, 2020, it praised Hannah-Jones for “a sweeping, deeply reported and personal essay for the ground-breaking 1619 Project, which seeks to place the enslavement of Africans at the center of America’s story, prompting public conversation about the nation’s founding and evolution.” Note well the last five words. Clearly the award was meant not merely to honor this one isolated essay, but the Project as a whole, with its framing contention that the year 1619, the date when some twenty Africans arrived at Jamestown, ought to be regarded as the nation’s “true founding,” supplanting the long-honored date of July 4, 1776, which marked the emergence of the United States as an independent nation.

The project and its contentions have repeatedly been questioned by academics in the relevant fields. The Journal’s Elliot Kaufman noted in December 2019:

‘So wrong in so many ways” is how Gordon Wood, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the American Revolution, characterized the New York Times’s “1619 Project.” James McPherson, dean of Civil War historians and another Pulitzer winner, said the Times presented an “unbalanced, one-sided account” that “left most of the history out.”

Messrs. McPherson and Wood were among the scholars who wrote to the Times last winter to note the “closed process” surrounding the project, as well as its factual errors. The scholars added:

These errors, which concern major events, cannot be described as interpretation or “framing.” They are matters of verifiable fact, which are the foundation of both honest scholarship and honest journalism. They suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology…

On the American Revolution, pivotal to any account of our history, the project asserts that the founders declared the colonies’ independence of Britain “in order to ensure slavery would continue.” This is not true. If supportable, the allegation would be astounding — yet every statement offered by the project to validate it is false.

In a separate letter to the Times, historians at Yale, Princeton and other institutions wrote “to express our deep concern about the New York Times’ promotion of The 1619 Project” and noted “the problematic treatment of major issues and personalities of the Founding and Civil War eras.” The scholars added:

We are also troubled that these materials are now to become the basis of school curriculums, with the imprimatur of the New York Times. The remedy for past historical oversights is not their replacement by modern oversights. We therefore respectfully ask the New York Times to withhold any steps to publish and distribute The 1619 Project until these concerns can be addressed in a thorough and open fashion.

In March, the Times did make one significant correction, though it simply labeled it an “Editors’ Note.” But the historians signing this week’s letter say the passage is still flawed:

Where Hannah-Jones had originally written, “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery,” the new text says “some of the colonists.” Even this softened assertion has little or no documentary basis, according to the most distinguished specialists in the period.

Historian Phillip Magness, among the signers of this week’s letter, noted recently that the Times has quietly edited its material again to remove the claim that 1776 is not the true American founding—and amazingly the Times’ prize-winner is now saying that she never made the claim. In this week’s letter, the historians write:

The duplicity of attempting to alter the historical record in a manner intended to deceive the public is as serious an infraction against professional ethics as a journalist can commit. A “sweeping, deeply reported and personal essay,” as the Pulitzer Prize Board called it, does not have the license to sweep its own errors into obscurity or the remit to publish “deeply reported” falsehoods.

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Mr. Freeman is the co-author of “The Cost: Trump, China and American Revival.”

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Mr. Freeman is also the co-author of “Borrowed Time.”

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