On Thursday, Donald Trump waded into a version of an argument that we’ve heard for decades. “The left has warped, distorted, and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods, and lies,” Trump said an event at the National Archives. He accused universities and schools of “[rewriting] American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom.”
Trump’s immediate target was The 1619 Project of the New York Times, a collection of essays marking the first arrival of Africans in Virginia in 1619 and which sought to integrate slavery more deeply into the discussion of American history. The authors recently issued a school curriculum designed to promote more discussion in schools of slavery and its legacy of racism that continues to this day. A Times spokesperson, Danielle Rhoades Ha, defended the project, saying “it deepened many readers’ understanding of the nation’s past and forced an important conversation about the lingering effects of slavery, and its centrality to America’s story.”
This is the latest escalation of an argument that began the very moment the project was published in August 2019. Though it has been widely lauded, including by us, some historians and critics, including us, have taken issue with some of its claims. Conservative politicians have used The 1619 Project to open another front in the culture war that has long fixated on history.
Both of us teach early American history and we still get asked who got it right and who got it wrong: Was the New York Times right or wrong to write that the Revolutionary War was motivated in part by a desire to protect slavery? Did slavery have a “foundational” role in the establishment of our nation? Did the Times’ eventual revision of its language about slavery and the Revolutionary War indicate that its work is fatally flawed?
We think these are critical questions about what history is, and how we use it—but not perhaps for the reasons you might think.
The 1619 Project’s focus on slavery and racism, including its assertion and then revision about slavery and the Revolution, highlights how history is always in the process of revision through new information and new perspectives. But that process flies in the face of common ideas about history, that it is static and certain. Criticisms of the project and misunderstanding about revision come from this basic misapprehension about how we know what we know about the past.
Journalists and politicians are examples of two groups that are differently but equally susceptible to a desire for clarity and simplicity about the historical past. But the past is rarely clear and was never simple. We understand the motivation—in both cases they are eager for a usable past, a way of explaining in straightforward terms the context for the present.
That context, though, is almost always richer and deeper in ways it would be more useful to know and convey. This is particularly fraught when the subject is the American founding.
In essence, what happened with the New York Times is an example of how anyone—including journalists and politicians—can step into the stream of historical knowledge without acknowledging that the stream is moving. American history—indeed, any history—is actively created as researchers learn new facts and gain new perspectives on the past. History is unfolding chronologically: We each experience this in our lives as time moves inexorably forward. There is a tension between experiencing history—time moving forward—and representing history—holding time still. But how we represent the past is also moving; it never stays still for long, and it never has.
The other big stumbling block for some is when historical actors and situations seem contradictory to us. Although we tend to think of “slavery” and “freedom” as two separate ideologies and lived experiences, the Founding Fathers, and many others in North America, experienced both at the same time as intertwined features of their society.
Today, we imagine that the Founding Fathers had the same conceptions of freedom and democracy that we value. But it is vital to acknowledge that over centuries our nation has developed very different definitions of those “foundational” ideals. For example, not only did the founders exclude nonwhites and women from voting—they also excluded those white men who didn’t own property. This is very different from our current values about civic participation. To see how removed their reality was from ours, just imagine what the response would be if a politician suggested disenfranchising every renter, nursing home resident, college student or other adult who doesn’t own their residence.
Which aspect of this past is more important depends on many things—not least, what is important to our nation today. Which aspect is highlighted may depend on which history, and whose stories, we are telling. So the stream of historical knowledge keeps moving, and the histories we are telling can be different at the same time.
The moving stream of historical knowledge and contradictory historical realities may flummox a reporter aiming to fact-check the meaning of slavery to the founding generation, or a politician reaching for a straightforward assertion about American freedom. But the research process for history is just that—a process—and it’s strikingly similar to that for medicine and other fields. In today’s pandemic, we are witnessing in real time scientific research that experiments, gains critical knowledge, and discards wrongheaded or disproven beliefs and practices. We investigate, we propose ideas, we collaborate and share with colleagues and audiences, and we revise our thinking. Rethinking our assumptions is a productive, necessary part of inquiry and learning that leads to fuller understanding. This might take place in a single generation, or take a generation or two to emerge. And with new information, new methods, new perspectives from new researchers, those fuller answers might be fully revised again. Research is a process, for individual researchers, for communities of knowledge, and for nations.
As in medicine, we are frustrated by the research process only when we are in urgent need of a solution. Certainly we can understand the urgency of correct knowledge about the coronavirus. But we are also in a moment of urgency about our history, given the racial and class disparities exposed by the pandemic and given police actions that have inflamed racial tensions and raised questions about the fairness of American society. If we are arguing over history now, it’s because we’re in urgent need of way to fix these problems, to cure these social diseases.
The 1619 Project reflects new histories. The depth and extent of new research on slavery and the enslaved in early America has been one of the most important developments in the field. Just as we prefer medicine that reflects current research, at this time we should prefer history that reflects current research. This does not mean that histories written decades or even centuries earlier must be wrong—far from it. They may reflect deeply important views and information. We have seen how in biomedical research ideas about what at one point was considered old fashioned or wrong was in fact vitally important: who would have thought leeches, that caricature of pre-professional medicine, would make a comeback? We can both use knowledge and interpretations that stand the test of time, and be attentive to how much new information and insight we have gained.
If our history is constantly evolving as we develop new understandings of the past, does it mean all claims about the past have equal integrity—or validity? No. Understanding the past requires evidence marshaled to a narrative (or argument, or interpretation). Not all evidence is equally germane, not all arguments about the past are equally persuasive. Understanding the process by which historians make them better equips us to assess them.
Our current discussions around the founding of our nation seem to demand declarative statements and clear heroes or villains. If the United States was founded on the ideals of liberty then how important is the Founding Fathers’ complicity in slavery, Native genocide, gender hierarchy, and other forms of inequality?
We have seen time and again how the “history wars” undermine our ability to understand history. Historians have long been unsettling easy characterizations about the heroism of the founding generation—and we’re not done yet. This is not about patriotism or the lack thereof, and is not driven by a love or hate of country, although we would argue that we do our work in part because we believe it is of vital service to our nation. Rather, these views of the founding emerging from research simply reflect the complexity of history, historical decisions and moral judgments—then, and now.
In order to address the complex society in which we live, we must understand the contradictory and imperfect beginnings that history reveals. That’s the only way to better prepare ourselves for civic engagement on the serious issues that confront us today.