After months of criticism from historians all over the political spectrum, the New York Times is finally admitting a fatal flaw to their 1619 Project. A central essay in the project, written by Nikole Hannah-Jones, underwent a major correction this week. Only two words were changed, but they were big words. And given how much they change the underlying argument, the correction shows this project should not be used as a teaching tool in our schools.
In a tweet Hannah-Jones says that sometimes journalists (note she did not say historians) trying to “summarize” and “streamline” can lose important context. So what was the context lost here? In the original she said that maintaining slavery was a primary motivation of colonists in revolting against England. That was one of the most bashed claims in the whole project. Now it reads, that it was a primary motivation for “some of” the colonists.
It is hard to overstate just how massively this correction undermines the entire project. The purpose of this historian-free history of America was to refocus the American story by centering it on slavery. The idea was that 1619, the year the first chattel slaves arrived is the date of America’s founding, not the traditional 1776 with the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
This re-dating of the founding of the United States only makes sense if we accept an ahistorical claim that slavery was a major reason colonists split with England. That is exactly why Hannah-Jones made the claim. It is also why the Times has dragged its feet while a deluge of virtual failed peer reviews poured in from actual historians.
And the motivation for revolution is not the only error that has been found. Constitutional scholars have taken issue with the 1619 Project’s treatment of the creation of the Constitution. As recently as December, New York Times Editor in Chief Dean Baquet was defending the project in his pages against esteemed historians trying to tell him what the Times got wrong.
What is now clear is that plans to use the 1619 Project in public schools, as an aid to understanding the founding of the nation must either be scrapped altogether, or at least delayed until all of the flaws in the documents can be scrubbed. This should not be controversial: historians, not journalists, even well-intentioned progressive ones, should be providing our students with history.