As the debate over the New York Times’ 1619 Project continues, it is helpful to have a list of resources that encompass the project’s contents and criticisms of the same. What follows below is a bibliographic reference to each, which I will also periodically update as new commentary becomes available.
I make no specific endorsements of these materials beyond my own contributions to the debate, other than drawing attention to the arguments they contain as substantive avenues of engaging the topic. In compiling this list, I aimed to gather commentary on the project from across the political spectrum. The discussion following the project’s publication has since produced several detailed criticisms that delve deeply into the historical debates it raises over slavery and early American history.
Defenses of the project are noticeably more scarce. This is in no small part due to an unfortunate tendency of its supporters to attack the critics rather than the criticisms, with most of that taking place on insult-laden Twitter threads. Should a more substantive defense emerge at a future date, I will gladly add the link. However, efforts to fulfill this task to date have been both underwhelming and light on substantive engagement.
The Times’ original project and critiques are accordingly presented here to help the reader make an informed assessment of the controversies entailed.
New York Times Sources
The 1619 Project – Published in August 2019 as a special issue of the New York Times magazine, this multi-part journalistic endeavor launched the ongoing debate. Although the magazine covered historical topics from the early colonial era to the present, the overwhelming majority of the controversy has focused on just two pieces: the introductory essay by project editor Nikole Hannah-Jones, which depicts the American Revolution as partially motivated by the defense of slavery, and the essay by Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond, attempting to link modern American capitalism to slavery.
The Five Historians’ Letter, and the New York Times Response – On December 20, 2019, the Times published a short letter critiquing the project by historians Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, James Oakes, Gordon Wood, and Sean Wilentz. This letter featured criticisms of the project’s claims about (1) the American Revolution, (2) capitalism and slavery, and (3) Abraham Lincoln and pointed to (4) problems with its historical vetting process.
In response, Times editor Jake Silverstein penned a lengthy rebuttal that defended the project from the first, third, and fourth criticisms. Silverstein’s essay did not address the criticisms of Matthew Desmond’s essay on capitalism and slavery.
“The Anti-Capitalist Ideology of Slavery” – In this essay, I examine the first of many oversights in Desmond’s 1619 Project essay, in which he asserts that American capitalism is infused with the brutality of the slave system. Briefly, his account completely neglects the role of intellectual history in defining and interpreting capitalism. Upon examining this history, two trends emerge.
First, the originators of what we now refer to as “capitalism” — the free market liberal tradition that passed from Adam Smith to the laissez-faire and free trade traditions of Richard Cobden and Frederic Bastiat — had a directly adversarial view of slavery. Economists and political writers in this tradition heavily overlapped with the contemporary abolitionist movement and tended to view slavery as both morally and economically repulsive.
Second, proslavery theorists of this same period also held capitalism in contempt — and especially its laissez-faire iteration. I document this pronounced hostility to capitalism in the work of George Fitzhugh, the leading proslavery theorist of the late antebellum period. For academics such as Desmond who wish to forge a conceptual alliance between slavery and capitalism, this historical record of capitalism’s proponents and adversaries remains a substantial and unaccounted obstacle.
“How Capitalist-Abolitionists Fought Slavery” – This article tells the little-known story of Lewis Tappan, a wealthy New York abolitionist who financed several of the most important publications and institutions in the American anti-slavery movement. Tappan’s philanthropy caused an immense slaveholder backlash against his business interests. Rather than surrender to insolvency and ruin, he found a way to use free market institutions to circumvent a slaveholder boycott and slaveholder attempts to defraud his company.
“A Comment on the New History of Capitalism” – This longer paper, adapted from my published work on the subject, contains a historiographic discussion of the New History of Capitalism (NHC) literature. This emergent genre of historical scholarship forms the basis of Matthew Desmond’s essay and argument. In my paper, I discuss the problems of the NHC literature, including its use of defective definitions for the term “capitalism” and its embrace of a heavily anti-capitalistic ideological lens.
“The Statistical Errors of the Reparations Agenda” – This article predates the 1619 Project by a few months, but touches directly on a faulty statistical claim that informs the broader NHC literature on which the Times relies. A widely repeated passage from a book by NHC historian Edward Baptist incorrectly asserts that slave-produced cotton accounted for almost half of the antebellum economy’s gross domestic product (GDP). As I investigate and discuss, Baptist’s claim is based on an elementary misunderstanding of how GDP is calculated that causes him to double- and triple-count several intermediate steps of cotton production. The actual share of antebellum GDP accounted for by cotton is closer to 5 percent.
“How the 1619 Project Rehabilitates the ‘King Cotton’ Thesis” – In this essay, written for National Review, I examine the 1619 Project’s heavy reliance on the NHC literature. A recurring theme of this literature is the unwitting rehabilitation of the “King Cotton” thesis — the notion that cotton occupied a commanding place in the 19th-century global economy, which made the economic engines of the world dependent on plantation slavery. “King Cotton” was invented for proslavery propaganda reasons by Confederate secessionists around the eve of the Civil War as an attempt to lure foreign allies to their cause.
The war itself disproved the “King Cotton” premise, as foreign powers simply turned elsewhere for their cotton supply and the Confederacy collapsed in economic isolation from the world. While most economic historians since that time have recognized the error of logic behind the “King Cotton” theory, the recent NHC literature has revived it — minus the Confederates’ slavery defenses — in an attempt to restore cotton to a historically untenable place as the centerpiece of 19th-century capitalism.
“The New History of Capitalism Has a Whiteness Problem” – In this piece, I look at some of the backlash against criticism of the 1619 Project by its editor Nikole Hannah-Jones and by some of its historian-defenders on Twitter. A common theme of the pushback has been to focus on the race, age, and gender of the project’s historian-critics, including essentially dismissing them as “old white guys.” Aside from the weakness of this line of argument as a means of eschewing substantive engagement, it suffers from another problem. The contested part of the 1619 Project does not pass its own test, as the NHC literature it heavily relies upon is almost exclusively written by a small and insular group of white scholars with Ivy League connections. The NHC literature is therefore susceptible to the same charge it makes against its critics.
“Fact-Checking the 1619 Project” – I wrote this essay as an extended assessment of the debate between the five historians mentioned above and the Times’ Jake Silverstein, following the simultaneous publication of each in the paper’s letters section in December 2019. I evaluate each of the four contested claims and link to appropriate scholarly literature. Briefly, I find that (1) the historians have a stronger but not uncontested case on the role of slavery in the American Revolution, (2) the 1619 Project has a stronger argument on Abraham Lincoln, (3) the historians are correct to chastise the New History of Capitalism literature, and (4) the Times appears to have done an inadequate job at seeking scholarly guidance for the 1619 Project’s sections on the American Revolution, slavery, and the Civil War, although it also did a much better job at externally vetting its claims on the 20th century and present day.
The Five Historians’ Criticisms:
In addition to their published letter to the Times, the five historians have each written or interviewed at length about their criticisms of the project.
WSWS interview with James Oakes – This World Socialist Website (WSWS) interview with historian James Oakes critiques the project on its claims about the Civil War, Lincoln, and the relationship between slavery and capitalism. Oakes is a distinguished historian of the American Civil War and the Lincoln presidency.
WSWS interview with James McPherson – This interview with historian James McPherson chastises the 1619 Project for a myopic view of the Civil War that generally downplays the role of abolitionists and others who resisted slavery. McPherson is a Pulitzer Prize winner and is widely regarded as one of the leading Civil War scholars in the nation.
WSWS interview with Gordon Wood – This interview with historian Gordon Wood harshly scrutinizes the 1619 Project’s claim that slavery was a primary motivator of the American Revolution. Wood is also a Pulitzer Prize winner, and is widely regarded as one of the leading scholars of the American Revolution today. Wood also issued a rejoinder to the New York Times’ defense of its work against the five historians after it was published.
WSWS interview with Victoria Bynum – This interview with historian Victoria Bynum scrutinizes the project’s deficient historiographical treatment of the Civil War era and of the complex history of race in the 19th century. Bynum is a distinguished historian of the Civil War era, focusing on the American South. Bynum also published a rejoinder to the Times’ defense in the wake of the historians’ letter.
“American Slavery and the Relentless Unseen,” by Sean Wilentz – This adaptation of a lecture by Wilentz appeared in the New York Review of Books. It contains a longer elaboration of the arguments in the historians’ letter to the Times, which was also primarily composed by Wilentz.
Other Criticisms of the 1619 Project
“How Slavery Shaped Capitalism,” by John Clegg – Written for the far-left magazine Jacobin, this essay by sociologist John Clegg examines the treatment of capitalism by the NHC literature, as featured in Desmond’s essay. Clegg discusses shortcomings in the works of several NHC scholars including Ed Baptist, Sven Beckert, and Walter Johnson, showing how their claims both overstate the economic position of cotton and have fared poorly under scrutiny by economic historians from across the spectrum. These subjects are approached from a classical Marxist perspective.
“The 1619 Project Is Not History; It Is Conspiracy Theory,” by Allen Guelzo – This essay for the Manhattan Institute mainly critiques the 1619 Project’s handling of the Civil War, the history of capitalism, and the Constitutional Convention. It is written by conservative historian Allen Guelzo, a well-known Lincoln biographer.
WSWS interview with Adolph Reed – This interview features a critique of the project for supplanting labor analysis of slavery with an idiosyncratic branch of critical race theory. It features Adolph Reed, a distinguished African-American political scientist who specializes in labor politics and who generally writes from a classical Marxist perspective.
WSWS interview with Dolores Janiewski – This broad-based interview critiques the 1619 Project for its inattention to labor history, its politicization of race, and its neglect of the interrelationships between the civil rights movement and other contemporary causes, among them an anti-war movement that attracted significant support from Martin Luther King, Jr.
WSWS interview with Richard Carwardine – This interview with distinguished British historian Richard Carwardine includes a detailed exploration of Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and criticisms of the 1619 Project’s handling of each. Carwardine argues that the project is often inattentive to nuance and detail of this era, missing a large part of the relevant historiography as a result.
An analysis of the New York Times’ reply to the five historians, by David North and Eric London – This lengthy rebuttal to Times editor Jake Silverstein was published by the two main interviewers of the historians featured on the World Socialist Website. It is argued from a classical Marxist perspective, but also digs deep into the historical evidence surrounding the contested claims — especially the debate over the Dunmore Proclamation and the role of slavery in the American Revolution. In a second essay by North, along with Niles Niemuth and Tom Mackaman, the WSWS editors attack the 1619 Project as a “racialist falsification of American history.” They argue that the project’s race-centric interpretations obscure the role of economic class in shaping the same events, leaving the reader with a politicized narrative that largely aligns with the Democratic Party’s modern electoral objectives.
“America Wasn’t Founded on White Supremacy,” by Lucas Morel – This essay critiques the 1619 Project for failing to adequately capture the philosophical debate over equality as an ideal of the American founding. It is written by political theorist Lucas Morel, a conservative who comes from the Straussian school of Lincoln scholarship.
“The New York Times Surrenders to the Left on Race,” by Damon Linker – This essay in the Week is one of the few criticisms of the 1619 Project that does not focus primarily on the period between the American Founding and the Civil War. Instead, Linker digs into an essay by Princeton historian and Twitter warrior Kevin M. Kruse that places blame for Atlanta’s notorious traffic jam problem on a highway system built around racial segregation. Linker argues that Kruse severely overstates his case by using only race to interpret a problem that has much wider implications arising from population growth, infrastructure demands of suburbia (including a large black suburban population), and the high costs of mass transit.
“The 1619 Project Is the 2019 Project,” by Peter Coclanis – This essay for the Specator by business historian Peter Coclanis adds to some of the historical critiques of the project’s treatment of slavery in the colonial era. It also knocks the project’s editors for attempting to politicize historical content, with objectives that have a closer relationship to electoral politics in the present than to scholarly analysis of the past.
“The New York Times ‘1619 Project’ Revisited,” by Katherine Kersten – This essay in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune by conservative writer Katherine Kersten frames itself as something of an alternative to the 1619 Project’s narrative. It argues for a competing vision that is more in line with American conservatism and that emphasizes a historical trajectory of triumphing over racism.
“Counterpoint: The Point Katherine Kersten, New York Times‘ ‘1619 Project’ Both Miss,” by August Nimtz – This short essay by political science professor August Nimtz critiques both the 1619 Project and the response to it by Kersten for presenting what he calls “mirror image” accounts that are selective in their use of evidence to argue their respective positions.
“Reclaiming 1619,” by Kevin Gutzman – This essay for Law and Liberty by Kevin Gutzman, a leading biographer of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, investigates the early history of slavery in Virginia, finding that the 1619 Project confuses the complex evolution of slavery as a legal institution. Gutzman also notes examples of clear anti-slavery advocacy among several leading figures of the American revolution.
“Did Slavery Give Us Double-Entry Bookkeeping?” by Hans Eicholz – This essay for Law and Liberty digs into Matthew Desmond’s 1619 Project essay, noting its propensity to weave thinly supported and ahistorical connections between modern economic events and the legacy of slavery. Eicholz notes that Desmond plays “fast and loose” with his evidence, and redefines capitalism to serve his own political ends, severely limiting the value of his article as a work of history in the process.
“America’s Exceptional Guilt” by Jason Ross – This third essay in the Law and Liberty series uses William Lloyd Garrison’s famous critique of the constitution as a pro-slavery document to investigate the ideals that Garrison wished to uphold. As a point of contrast, Ross notes Garrison’s acclaim for the Declaration of Independence’s ideals – a distinction, he argues, that is missing from the 1619 Project’s philosophical underpinnings.
“The New York Times Resurrects the Positive Good Slavery Argument” by W.B. Allen – Is this short contribution to the Law and Liberty series, Allen explores some of the curious implications of the 1619 Project’s attribution of great economic growth to plantation slavery.
“Some Thoughts on the 1619 Project” by Bradley Hanson – This data-packed blog post by an economic historian at the University of Mary Washington subjects several of Matthew Desmond’s empirical claims about the slave economy to scrutiny and finds them on shaky grounds.
“How The New York Times Is Distorting American History” by Wilfred McClay – In a lengthy review essay for Commentary magazine, historian Wilfred McClay notes the deficient historiographical background of the 1619 Project, including its oversight of several landmark historical works from the past half-century that investigated the cultural and economic dimensions of slavery. He concludes that the project offers a skewed and incomplete account of U.S. history.
“The Founders Were Flawed. The Nation Is Imperfect. The Constitution Is Still a ‘Glorious Liberty Document.‘” by Timothy Sandefur – This essay by Frederick Douglass biographer Timothy Sandefur examines the project’s neglect of competing constitutional visions in the early republic. This leaves the Times essentially embracing a pro-slavery constitutional interpretation, as put forth by John C. Calhoun and Roger B. Taney, while omitting contesting interpretations including that of Douglass, who tried to reconcile the document to the anti-slavery cause.
“A Critical Look at the 1619 Project” – This podcast discussion between Brown University economist Glenn Loury and Columbia University linguist John McWhorter – both leading African-American academics – offers a constructively scrutinizing take on the project’s framing of race relations in the United States.
1619 Project Responses to Criticism
Note: This section intentionally left blank due to the paucity of substantive responses to criticism of the 1619 Project, excepting the above-noted December 20, 2019 New York Times rebuttal to the five historians. Additional links will be added here if/when they are published.
Addendum (January 9, 2020): A small number of responses to criticisms of the 1619 Project have begun to appear in print. As previously noted, this section will be updated to reflect new additions.
“The 1619 Project and Bringing History to the People,” by Anne C. Bailey – This short essay by a 1619 Project contributor responds to pushback from professional historians by emphasizing the need to keep historical discussion accessible to the general public. Although she does not get into specific contentions made by the historian critics, Bailey pushes back against a tendency in public discussion to position academic historians as authorities and arbiters of historical dialogue. The 1619 Project, she contends, performed a service by expanding historical discussion beyond these barriers.
Editorial Coverage of the Debate
“The 1619 Project Gets Schooled,” by Elliot Kaufman – This essay by a Wall Street Journal editorial writer explores how the WSWS essentially scooped the 1619 Project by securing interviews with four top historians in their fields, each of whom challenged the accuracy of its content for the momentous historical period of roughly 1775 to 1865. Kaufman also scrutinizes the initial reactions to this criticism by 1619 Project contributors and their defenders. As he notes, quite a bit of the defense relied on dismissing the critics as “white historians” while also neglecting to engage the content of their criticisms. It was published shortly before Silverstein’s response in the Times.
“The Fight Over the 1619 Project Is Not About the Facts,” by Adam Serwer – Published shortly after the historians’ letter and the Times’ response, this essay by Adam Serwer at the Atlantic characterizes the debate as a contest between competing visions of the American past and present. Serwer interviews some of the historians involved, as well as other historians who declined to sign the letter. Several of those who declined did so for reasons related to its tone as framed by Wilentz, or out of a belief that their endorsement would signify a “white guys’ attack” on a project spearheaded by African-American journalists.
“History Without Truth,” by K.C. Johnson – This essay for the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal examines the fallout from the historians’ letter and the Times’ response. Written by historian K.C. Johnson, it harshly evaluates Silverstein for largely dodging the historians’ specific criticisms and for presenting a superficial counterargument. Johnson also looks at the response by project editor Hannah-Jones and of the historians Serwer interviewed, noting that they have similarly avoided the substance of the criticisms while focusing on the racial identity of the authors involved.
“Teachers Should Reject the 1619 Project,” by Max Eden – This essay argues against the adoption of 1619 Project materials in the K-12 classroom curriculum, in light of its criticism by historians including McPherson and Wood. Published by the Manhattan Institute, Eden’s essay also contends that the project veers too heavily into partisan political arguments and fails to present a well-rounded historical account of the contentions involved.
“1776 Honors America’s Diversity in a Way 1619 Does Not,” by Conor Friedersdorf – This commentary piece in the Atlantic evaluates the debate over the 1619 Project between historians and journalists on the political left and right. Friedersdorf also makes an intriguing argument that 1776 offers a more diverse and inclusive date of commemoration on account of the Declaration of Independence’s ecumenical egalitarian ideals, and their broader salience with marginalized individuals – including African-Americans, as both Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King argued.
Useful Addenda on the New History of Capitalism
The following links contain useful contributions to the scholarly debate around the NHC literature. While not specific responses to the 1619 Project itself, they address the contents of the historical works that Matthew Desmond used while compiling his essay.
“Cotton, Slavery and the New History of Capitalism,” by Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode – This article by two leading economic historians severely criticizes the NHC literature’s treatment of slavery by misusing statistical data, misrepresenting archival materials, and in some cases even making up “evidence” without a basis in fact to recast slave-produced cotton as an integral feature of American capitalism. It focuses in particular on the works of Ed Baptist, Sven Beckert, and Walter Johnson.
“Slavery and Anglo-American Capitalism Revisited,” by Gavin Wright – This keynote lecture by leading economic historian Gavin Wright was delivered at a recent conference of the Economic History Association. Wright harshly critiques the NHC literature, evaluating it against the latest empirical evidence on the economics of slavery.
“Slavery Did Not Make America Rich,” by Deirdre McCloskey – In this short essay for Reason, noted economist Deirdre McCloskey takes on the NHC literature for attempting to rehabilitate the “King Cotton” thesis. As McCloskey notes, this argument is both lacking in evidence and heavily politicized. She concludes that the NHC genre should be interpreted as an attempt to enlist the “history of slavery to bolster anti-capitalist ideology.”
“Review Essay on the New History of Capitalism,” by Stanley Engerman – This article by Stanley Engerman, co-author of the groundbreaking Time on the Cross, examines recent NHC contributions by Ed Baptist and Calvin Schermerhorn. Like others, Engerman notes the similarity of these works to the “King Cotton” thesis and explores the problems this creates for their narratives. He also severely criticizes Baptist for evading his scholarly critics, and instead indulging in name-calling and accusations of racism.
“Capitalism and Slavery,” by John Clegg – This article contains an extended version of Clegg’s thesis on the NHC literature, as summarized in his critique of the 1619 Project for Jacobin. Though written from a perspective clearly on the political left, Clegg’s position largely echoes the economic historians in pointing out the deficiencies of this literature and its placing far too much weight on the cotton sector as a causal mechanism for industrialization.
“Review of The Half Has Never Been Told” – This special issue of the Journal of Economic History held a symposium on NHC scholar Ed Baptist’s book The Half Has Never Been Told. Featuring contributions from a half dozen economists and economic historians, it gives a largely negative assessment of Baptist’s argument and evidence.
“Throwin’ Scholarly Shade: Eric Williams in the New Histories of Capitalism and Slavery,” by H. Rueben Neptune – This article in the Journal of the Early Republic explores how a predominantly white group of NHC scholars have misappropriated the work of the black radical historian Eric Williams to their arguments about slavery and capitalism. Neptune uses close textual analysis to show that NHC scholars such as Ed Baptist, Walter Johnson, Greg Grandin, and Sven Beckert have essentially inverted the Williams’s thesis through careless and superficial readings.