The New York Times “Update” On Its Reporting About Slavery and the American Revolution
By Phil Magness
As originally framed, the 1619 Project depicted the preservation of slavery against a British emancipatory threat as a central motivating factor for the American Revolution. They are now relaxing that claim to suggest that preserving slavery was a motive for only “some of the colonists.”
Much of the contention focused upon a late 1775 attempt by Lord Dunmore, the British governor of Virginia, who moved to preserve his rule by drawing the slaves of rebellious colonists into his militia in exchange for their freedom.
Most of the problems with this key point in the 1619 Project’s narrative appear to have stemmed from the way that Hannah-Jones went about researching and preparing her collection of essays. While the New York Times Magazine feature emerged under the consultation of several expert scholars in other areas of the 400-year swath of American history under its scope, it used very few specialists in the period between the American Revolution and the Civil War – arguably the most crucial period for the study of slavery in the United States.
Instead, Hannah-Jones took on this subject herself or assigned specific themes from this period to non-experts, such as Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond who wrote an accompanying piece on the economics of slavery despite having no scholarly competencies in that subject.
The results have made the period of 1775 to 1865 an acute vulnerability for the 1619 Project, even as the remainder of the initiative has faced far less criticism. At this point it would be accurate to conclude that the reputation of the project’s other essays, many of them entirely unobjectionable adaptations of scholarly insights for a popular audience, has suffered because of the Times’ inflexible refusal to address erroneous historical claims in the essays by Hannah-Jones and Desmond.
While the Times has thus far evaded scrutiny of Desmond’s claims, Hannah-Jones began casting about after the fact for scholars who would lend credence to her elevation of slavery to preeminence among the motives behind the Declaration of Independence.
So what brought about the Times’ sudden, if underplayed, reversal?
The previous summer Harris had been contacted by the Times to serve as a fact-checker on the 1619 Project’s discussions of slavery, one of her areas of specialization. The newspaper had asked her to verify the following claim:
One critical reason that the colonists declared their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery in the colonies, which had produced tremendous wealth. At the time there were growing calls to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire, which would have badly damaged the economies of colonies in both North and South.
In Harris’s own words, “I vigorously disputed the claim. Although slavery was certainly an issue in the American Revolution, the protection of slavery was not one of the main reasons the 13 Colonies went to war.” The Times’ editors ignored her warning and ran with Hannah-Jones’s argument anyway.
It took less than a week for the Times to migrate from its previous steadfast defense of the claim to the concession noted at the outset of this essay. Even then, the concession remains understated.
The newspaper’s peculiar wording attempted to chalk the confusion up to interpretive ambiguities by its readers. In Silverstein’s words, the Times recognized “that our original language could be read to suggest that protecting slavery was a primary motivation for all of the colonists. The passage has been changed to make clear that this was a primary motivation for some of the colonists.”
Contrast that with the original passage, which stated, “Conveniently left out of our Founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.”
There is no issue where the passage “could be read to suggest” an erroneous historical claim. It made that claim outright in unambiguous language that Hannah-Jones subsequently doubled down upon and, until the correction, showed few signs of ever relaxing or qualifying.
Still, the concession revealed more than its guarded conciliatory language displayed. Although they are conspicuously unacknowledged in Silverstein’s correction note, the critics of the 1619 Project were on solid ground to question this claim and did so when it first appeared in print over six months earlier. The Times, in turn, behaved atrociously in deflecting and denying a substantive scholarly challenge to its content until its hand was forced.
Thus we’re left with “could be read to suggest.” That tepid backtracking, in effect, gave away the game. It’s a fitting epitaph to what could have been an important and provocative contribution to historical inquiry about the lasting harms of slavery in the United States, but instead veered down the path of an ideological project, consumed by maintaining its own 21st-century political narrative above the history it weaponized to that cause.