The American Project

You’ve probably heard of the “1619 Project”, even if you’ve never read it. I have a subscription to The New York Times but avoid the weekly magazine section. That’s where a series of articles was published last year to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first Black slaves being brought to Virginia in August 1619. The Project’s other purpose was to show the many ways slavery has affected this country up to the present day.

The 1619 Project has been celebrated and criticized and used by Republicans for their usual nefarious purposes. The Washington Post has an interesting article called “How the 1619 Project Took Over 2020”. The title is an exaggeration but the article nicely summarizes how a series in the Times Sunday magazine became a big deal.

Americans, being citizens of a forward-looking country, are relatively ignorant of our history, so any significant effort to inform us about our nation’s proud but checkered past, like the 1619 Project, is a positive development.ย 

What went wrong in this case is that the Times writer, Nikole Hannah-Jones, who initiated the project and won a Pulitzer Price for her efforts, wrote this:

One of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slaveryโ€ [at a time when] โ€œBritain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution.

A well-known Princeton historian, Sean Wilentz, strongly objected to this characterization. From the Washington Post article:ย 

This, Wilentz argues, is patently false: Other than a few lonely voices, England remained committed to the slave trade in 1776. The abolitionist movement didnโ€™t take hold in London for more than a decade โ€” and then it was inspired by anti-slavery opinions emerging from America.

Professor Wilentz and three other historians wrote a letter to the Times and the controversy took off from there, exacerbated as usual by right-wingers, including, of course, our Controversialist-In-Chief. The controversy could probably have been short-circuited early on except for the actions of an egotistical Times editor, who overreacted to the historians’ letter, viewing it as an attack on the entire project instead of acknowledging the error. (Egotism and refusal to admit error are defining characteristics of Times editors.)

The Times has a statement saying “the 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine . . . [that] aims to reframe the countryโ€™s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative”. It’s hard to overestimate the importance of those consequences and contributions. I remember reading Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice in college and being shocked when he said the relationship between Black and White Americans was central to this country’s history. The more I’ve learned about America, the more I’ve agreed with him. (I wish I could find his exact words. Is it predictable that there is no Kindle edition of Soul On Ice?).ย 

Yet the language that upset the historians, including the statement that “we may never have revolted against Britain if some of the founders had not . . . believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue” remains. That’s odd for what the Times says is “an ongoing initiative” (see “egotism and refusal to admit error”).ย  Meanwhile, Republicans claim Democrats all believe the United States began in 1619, not 1776.

Reading about the 1619 Project today got me thinking about America’s founding. That led me to a site run by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, “an educational agency of the Commonwealth of Virginia”. Although Spanish explorers founded our longest lasting city, St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565, it’s generally agreed that the arrival of the English in Virginia’s Jamestown marked the beginning of what became the United States. Here’s some of the chronology from the Jamestown-Yorktown site:

1570-1ย  Spanish Jesuits set up a mission on the York River . . . Within six months, the Spaniards were killed by local Indians.

1585-7 ย Three separate voyages sent English explorers and settlers to the coast of what is now North Carolina, then known as Virginia. John White, who . . . had gone back to England for supplies, returned in 1590 and found no trace of the settlers.

1607 ย On May 13, nearly five months after departing from England, an expedition of 104 colonists arrived at a site on the James River selected for settlement. . . . The group named their settlement for King James I.

1608 ย Captain Christopher Newport, . . . who had sailed back to England, returned to Virginia in January with settlers and goods. It was the first of a series of regular arrivals in the colony.

1613 ย Pocahontas, a daughter of Powhatan, powerful leader of 30-some Indian tribes in coastal Virginia, was kidnapped by the English.

1619 ย The first representative legislative assembly in British America met at Jamestown on July 30. The first documented people of African origin in Virginia arrived in late summer aboard an English ship flying Dutch colors.

Wow. Notice that last sentence? The Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation is missing something, or maybe these “people of African origin” arrived in Virginia because they’d heard about the so-called “New World” and wanted to check it out for themselves.

Putting aside the racists in charge of the Jamestown chronology, or rather taking note of their attempt to whitewash history, I wondered how we should remember America’s founding. Although we tend to think it was an event, it was actually a process. In fact, we might say the process continues.

1607ย  An English expedition settled in Jamestown.

1619 ย The first African slaves were brought to America.

1620 ย The Plymouth colony was established in Massachusetts.

1763ย  The French and Indian War ended.

1776ย  The Declaration of Independence was adopted in Philadelphia.

1781ย  The British surrendered at Yorktown, ending the Revolutionary Warย 

1788ย  The Constitution was ratified, taking effect in 1789.

1791ย  The Bill of Rights was ratified.

1803ย  The United States and France agreed to the Louisiana Purchase.

1830ย  The Indian Removal Act became law (leading to, among other things, the Trail of Tears)

1865ย  The Civil War ended.

1868ย  The 14th Amendment, guaranteeing citizenship and equal protection under the law to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States”, was adopted.

1869ย  The transcontinental railroad was completed.

1920 The 19th Amendment, allowing women to vote, was adopted.

1924ย  The Indian Citizenship Act was passed (because the 14th Amendment wasn’t enough).

1933-1939ย  The New Deal was enacted.

1964 The Civil Rights Act, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, became law.

1965 The Voting Rights Act was passed (although Republicans on the Supreme Court improperly declared it unnecessary in 2013)

2016 A Black American was elected president.

Other milestones along our path to becoming the United States of America are yet to occur. (It’s 19 days until the first Tuesday in November.)