McPherson on the 1619 Project

 

The best one volume history of the Civil War is Battle Cry of Freedom (1988) by James McPherson, a book which has received endless accolades and earned each one.  I therefore found interesting his comments on the New York Times 1619 Project:

 

Earlier this month the site interviewed James McPherson on his reaction to the Times’ Project. McPhereson is a Princeton history professor who specializes in the history of the Civil War including a Pulitzer Prize winning history on the topic. Here’s a sample of what McPhereson had to say about 1619:

Q. What was your initial reaction to the 1619 Project?

A. Well, I didn’t know anything about it until I got my Sunday paper, with the magazine section entirely devoted to the 1619 Project. Because this is a subject I’ve long been interested in I sat down and started to read some of the essays. I’d say that, almost from the outset, I was disturbed by what seemed like a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lacked context and perspective on the complexity of slavery, which was clearly, obviously, not an exclusively American institution, but existed throughout history. And slavery in the United States was only a small part of a larger world process that unfolded over many centuries. And in the United States, too, there was not only slavery but also an antislavery movement. So I thought the account, which emphasized American racism—which is obviously a major part of the history, no question about it—but it focused so narrowly on that part of the story that it left most of the history out.

So I read a few of the essays and skimmed the rest, but didn’t pursue much more about it because it seemed to me that I wasn’t learning very much new. And I was a little bit unhappy with the idea that people who did not have a good knowledge of the subject would be influenced by this and would then have a biased or narrow view…

Q. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the lead writer and leader of the 1619 Project, includes a statement in her essay—and I would say that this is the thesis of the project—that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.”

A. Yes, I saw that too. It does not make very much sense to me. I suppose she’s using DNA metaphorically. She argues that racism is the central theme of American history. It is certainly part of the history. But again, I think it lacks context, lacks perspective on the entire course of slavery and how slavery began and how slavery in the United States was hardly unique. And racial convictions, or “anti-other” convictions, have been central to many societies.

But the idea that racism is a permanent condition, well that’s just not true. And it also doesn’t account for the countervailing tendencies in American history as well. Because opposition to slavery, and opposition to racism, has also been an important theme in American history.

Go here to read the rest.  Politicized history is junk history.

Published in: on December 3, 2019 at 6:02 am  Comments (2)  
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2 Comments

  1. With his body of work, he definitely has an iron in this fire. One of the reasons I could not take the project seriously, the exclusion of scholars like this.

  2. Capable historians would have gotten in the way of the politics, which is the whole point of The 1619 Project.


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