• Susannah Colt

THE TRUTH ABOUT THE 1619 PROJECT and Lincoln's Legacy

In Joseph Mendola’s My Turn ("The Falsehoods of the 1619 Project", Monitor of Aug. 6, 2021), he gave Nikole Hannah-Jones, the New York Times journalist who wrote the introductory essay for the 1619 Project, which was published in the New York Times Magazine in September 2019, an “F” for failing to use footnotes. He then proceeds to call out falsehoods in Hannah-Jones’s essay and provides footnotes for his version of the truth.

After the New York Times Magazine published the 1619 Project, conservative leaning historians raised a hue and cry about falsehoods and lies in Hannah-Jones’s essay. On December 20, 2019, five historians wrote a letter that was published in Times Magazine. Sean Wilentz from Princeton, one of the five historians, wrote a separate article in The Atlantic on Jan. 22, 2020, entitled “A Matter of Fact,” which Mendola cites in his essay.

A careful reading of Wilentz’s article reveals that he applauded the 1619 Project’s “stated aim to raise public awareness and understanding of slavery’s central importance in our history.” Wilentz went on to write, “The opportunity seized by the 1619 Project is as urgent as it is enormous. For more than two generations, historians have deepened and transformed the study of the centrality of slavery and race to American history and generated a wealth of facts and interpretations. Yet the subject, which connects the past to our current troubled times, remains too little understood by the general public. The 1619 Project proposed to fill that gap with its own interpretation.” Wilentz wrote his article to help make sure any inaccuracies would not “give ammunition to those who might be opposed to the mission of grappling with the legacy of slavery.”

The bottom line is that for centuries historians have differed on how facts are interpreted and now is no different. Doris Kearns Goodwin (Team of Rivals, 2005 at p. xv) also writes about this phenomenon in relation to Abraham Lincoln: “In the nearly two hundred years since his birth, countless historians and writers have uncovered new documents, provided fresh insights, and developed an ever-deepening understanding of our sixteenth president.”

Unfortunately, in Mendola’s essay he has propagated falsehoods which I feel obligated to expose and correct. He accuses Hannah-Jones of calling Abraham Lincoln a “racist,” which she never explicitly did. What she did was tell a story about a meeting in August 1862 Lincoln had at the White House with five Black freedmen to discuss his idea about colonizing the freed slaves to South America (not Africa). She clearly stated that Lincoln opposed slavery, a position he held most of his life, but she also pointed out that he “opposed black equality.”

When I read Team of Rivals, I learned about this meeting for the first time and was astonished to learn that Lincoln wanted to colonize the slaves. At least he was not in favor of forced colonization, a fact that neither Hannah-Jones nor Mendola write about (which is an example of historians cherry-picking facts to suit their purpose).

I learned so much more than I’d ever known about Lincoln when I read Team of Rivals. The sad truth is that for most of his life, Lincoln did not believe in black equality. It took a lifetime of experience for him to get close to black equality and he died before he could prove that he was fully for it. Even Wilentz acknowledges, “Like the majority of white Americans of his time, including many radical abolitionists, Lincoln harbored the belief that white people were socially superior to black people.” When Mendola complains that Hannah-Jones had failed to mention white abolitionists in her essay, I’m not sure if he was aware that a large number of abolitionists were white supremacists. I’m not suggesting John Hale or John Hay were white supremacists, but one cannot assume that everyone who believed in abolition also believed if full citizenship and equality for black slaves.

Mendola also gets the story of John Hay completely wrong in his essay. He claims Hay was at the White House meeting where colonization was discussed and “was so taken aback by the conversation, he called the idea ‘hideous & barbarous humbug.’” Mendola then goes on to write, “Lincoln was a good listener. He ‘sloughed off’ that idea and he never brought it up again.” This is patently untrue.

Lincoln did pursue the policy of voluntary colonization for nearly two years after that meeting. Phillip Shaw Paludan in his 2004 article “Lincoln and Colonization: Policy or Propaganda?” writes that Lincoln “encouraged a project in Chirique (a venture which a sponsor said had enlisted nearly 5,000 freedmen) and then moved in behalf of the Ile de Vache effort. Both failed, but Lincoln still seems to have retained hopes for gradual process until sometime around July 1, 1864.” His proof for that was a journal entry written by John Hay on July 1, 1864, in which Hay wrote: “I am glad the President has sloughed off that idea of colonization. I have always thought it as a hideous and barbarous humbug.” Paludan concludes that “Lincoln then seems to have abandoned the idea as much because of the complications and corruption that attended the enterprise as out of a belief that he should now become more liberal.”

It is true that six months after Lincoln finally abandoned colonization, Congress passed the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, but his life was tragically ended before he clearly outlined his policies on reconstruction. That is why so much has been left to speculation and why historians have been parsing his life’s work, writings, speeches, and actions ever since.

While Lincoln was a major player in the ending slavery, the whole history of slavery is so much bigger than him. It would be my hope that all the disparate groups of historians could get together and agree upon a set of facts that will result in raising public awareness and understanding of slavery’s central importance in our history, so we can move forward and end racial inequality and create a more equitable world to live in.

I give the 1619 Project an “A” and believe it should be included as one of the teaching tools. But don’t just take my word for it, Hannah-Jones’s essay also won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2020 for her “sweeping, provocative and personal essay . . . prompting public conversation about the nation’s founding and evolution.”

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