There’s a Legitimate Critique of the 1619 Project. And Then There’s Sean Wilentz.

For over a year, the 1619 Project has been the subject of fierce debate. The 1619 Project has sought to reframe the history of the United States by foregrounding slavery and anti-Blackness with a scope as impressive as it is broad. Taking its namesake year seriously, the Project is meant to start U.S. history not with the Revolution, and not at the founding of Jamestown in 1607, but when the first enslaved Africans arrived in British North America. The Project has been met with open arms by many scholars and educators who have not only worked towards the same goals as the 1619 Project, but have sought educational material for younger audiences – many of whom, like myself, have never adequately been taught the history of slavery and its aftermath.

While the 1619 Project was published in August of 2019, the controversy over the Project has ebbed and flowed. The initial months after its publication saw a flurry of denunciations that called the Project untrueun-Americanrevisionisthistory. The overwhelming majority of these attacks were leveled by conservative politicians and pundits, who took issue with the very idea of the 1619 Project. This group was joined by a small but vocal group of historians who lent their clout and “expertise” to the argument that the 1619 Project was just bad history, at best, and identity politics at worst.[1] The overwhelming majority of the criticism was leveled at one single sentence by the journalist and 1619 Project organizer Nikole Hannah-Jones, who wrote in the Project’s introductory essay that the American Revolution was fought to protect slavery – one sentence out of a 100-plus page work. But given that the 1619 Project was meant to dispel the mythic history of America rooted in 1776 and the independence struggle, that one sentence became the perfect target to invalidate the entire project.

This isn’t to say that the 1619 Project is beyond reproach. My own historical research on the topic of slavery in the early United States would lead me to disagree with Hannah-Jones’s statement on the American Revolution, a statement she has since amended. And there are grounds to say that in totalizing the history of anti-Blackness, the 1619 Project misses an opportunity to highlight the debates over race and slavery throughout American history, which could actually bolster the Project’s central arguments by illustrating just how much work went into creating systemic racism and oppression. Thoughtfully engaging with the 1619 Project, however, was not what conservatives were interested in doing. Their attacks were solely meant to fundamentally invalidate the Project and its aims. 

By the beginning of 2020, the anti-1619 brigade’s arguments appeared to have run their course. However, they were instead lying dormant until recent months when conservatives began to use the 1619 Project to rally supporters around white supremacy in the face of historic protests against racial injustice. While conservative politicians and pundits have been pushing their anti-1619 Project rhetoric into overdrive in recent months, most historians who also initially came out against it have not rejoined the chorus of dissent. 

Enter Sean Wilentz.

Wilentz has been a critic of the 1619 Project since its publication. He has largely sought to make himself the de facto leader of the small group of historians who speak out against the Project, writing numerous pieces “exposing” its faults. Wilentz, a professor at Princeton University, is mostly a historian of class struggle in U.S. history. His first book, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class (1984), is still widely assigned in graduate seminars.  For Wilentz, the debate over the 1619 Project is, and always has been, a “matter of facts.” Facts are important to Wilentz. Or so he says. Wilentz has stated in multiple outlets that the 1619 Project has responsibility for a “scrupulous regard for factual accuracy,” a responsibility Wilentz believes the project fails to uphold. In reality, Wilentz’s  criticism applies to only a handful of sentences that he believes unfairly center race and slavery in U.S. history. And as some of his fellow historians, with whom he signed a December Letter to the Editor of the New York Times, have said, in seeking to foreground slavery as much as it does, the 1619 Project is less history than “identity politics.” Wilentz and these other historians have tried to present their problems with the 1619 Project as simply a matter of history, outside the bounds of politics. 

In attacking the 1619 Project, however, Wilentz’s own criticisms have not only mirrored those of conservatives, but ebbed and flowed in unison. When the first wave of conservative backlash began to die down by early 2020, so did Wilentz’s own crusade. And now that the attacks have emerged from their winter rest – in response to protests for racial justice during what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have called a “sweltering summer of…legitimate discontent” – so has Wilentz risen to add his voice to the anthem.[2] However, his own critiques of the 1619 Project have taken a new, and frankly more insidious, turn.

One of Wilentz’s most recent musings on the 1619 Project appeared, at first glance, as if he was beginning to backpedal his long-standing and vapid criticisms. In the beginning of a New York Review of Books article, Wilentz attempted to distance himself, from Republican Senator Tom Cotton (AR) who, in a recent Fox News interview with Tucker Carlson, name dropped Wilentz as someone who had “debunked” the 1619 Project. Wilentz, who seemingly felt compelled to clarify his stance on history, stated, “I have fundamental publicized objections to the project, but these in no way mitigate Cotton’s serious misrepresentations of the historical record for evident political gain.” 

As Wilentz would have us believe, he and Cotton share no common ground in their criticisms of the 1619 Project, or even in their understanding of history. Why then did Wilentz, who had not previously attempted to break the link between himself and ardent right-wing 1619 detractors, feel the need to distance himself from Cotton? Our clue comes when Wilentz, towards the end of his article, suddenly shifted gears away from history towards the Senator’s calls to use the military against peaceful protesters. The jump was so sudden it was impossible to miss, and was a dead giveaway that Wilentz cared little about breaking bread with conservatives until they crossed his own arbitrary line towards outright fascism. It wasn’t Cotton’s lack of historical understanding that bothered Wilentz, but the idea that his legacy might be tied to a senator who used their shared view of American history to advocate violence against Americans. 

Following his “criticisms” of Senator Cotton, Wilentz, in late September, used Donald Trump’s recent call for a 1776 Commission to once again lambast the 1619 Project and continue his personal revisionist history. Trump, speaking at the National Archives on September 17th, had announced his 1776 Commission as a move to encourage the use of “patriotic education” in schools, while specifically denouncing the 1619 Project, critical race theory, and a host of other things that he saw as advocating for a fundamentally un-American view of history and society. In a Washington Post article titled “What Trump doesn’t understand about U.S. history,” Wilentz spent more than a third of his time ignoring the President, and instead refocused his readers’ attention towards the very thing President was attacking: the 1619 Project. In the now classic “both sides” argument, Wilentz claimed both Trump and the 1619 Project share equal blame for historical “essentialism,” and will one day be seen as “closely matched symptoms of the same era, feeding off each other.” 

Wilentz’s focus on the 1619 Project in his lighthearted critique of conservatives is (in line with his piece on Senator Cotton) a futile attempt to rewrite his own history and preserve his legacy. As he introduces the 1619 Project to the reader, Wilentz brazenly claims that it has “received far weightier criticism from the left than from the right.” Such a claim is false, and while historians have engaged with the 1619 Project’s interpretation of history, most criticisms have not been used to completely invalidate the Project, as Wilentz’s criticisms have. However, such a statement by Wilentz, gives us key insight into his motives, illustrating how he is attempting to rewrite his own legacy and separate himself from the very people he gladly aligned with mere months ago. Such a statement can only be true if we, inextricably, consider Wilentz himself to be the vanguard of the left and its supposed criticisms of the 1619 Project. 

Perhaps the reader thinks I am unfairly targeting Sean Wilentz. Or that I am simply spending too much time focusing on Wilentz who is, after all, just one historian. However, Wilentz has repeatedly put himself at the forefront of historians’ criticisms against the 1619 Project. He has continually been given space in major publications, such as the Washington PostThe AtlanticThe New York Times, and more, to air his grievances, and happily accepted such invitations without concern (until recently) for how he has contributed to the ideological talking points of conservatives. Even as he attempts to side with “protesters exercising their First Amendment rights to decry racism,” he has time and time again used his platform to make himself the public face of a small group of historians who take issue with the 1619 Project. Whether he realizes it initially or not, Wilentz has been willing to lend his expertise and credentials to the very people who would deny and further entrench white supremacy in this country.

This is what is most problematic about Wilentz’s criticisms of the Project. Many historians in 2020 would not characterize Wilentz as the face of the profession. He has not, for many years, been representative of the general turn in the scholarship and the evolving understandings of American history. Leslie M. Harris, for example, in her own piece engaging with the 1619 Project, which Wilentz cites in his recent Washington Post article, specifically points out the gaps in Wilentz’s own scholarship. Despite having recently written a book on slavery, Wilentz is not an expert on the topic. His latest book, No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding (2018), takes a much older historical understanding of the Constitution to argue for the document’s anti-slavery leanings. Furthermore, Wilentz even went so far as to walk back his own condemnations of the pro-slavery elements of the Constitution when activists and politicians  on the left began challenging the merits and history of the Electoral College. His views on history, and its application, seem to constantly be shifting depending on the extent to which progressive politics seem to align with him. While he will gladly walk back from the shared ground with the left, he has shown an overwhelming reluctance to do so with the far-right. 

Even as Wilentz is undoubtably an outlier in the historical profession as far as his fervent criticisms of the 1619 Project go, he has been given numerous opportunities in national publications to add fuel to the 1619 fire in the name of historians. For almost a year after he initially denounced the Project, he stayed silent on conservative attacks on the Project that mirrored his own. To this day his self-distancing from right-wing critics has been not only measured, but specifically targeted at individuals – namely Senator Cotton and President Trump. He has said nothing of the numerous other Republican politicians and right-wing activists who have constantly attacked the 1619 Project on identical lines but received slightly less news coverage than Cotton and Trump. And at every turn, he has made sure to lace his comments about these attacks by doubling down on his own, in a failed attempt to distinguish himself from these people. 

Wilentz has repeatedly taken attention away from not only the 1619 Project’s contributions, but from emerging and junior scholars who are – and this cannot be stressed enough – actually experts in the field of slavery, race, and anti-Blackness.He has used national publications – where his analysis is not subject to the peer-review of scholars who are experts in these areas – to espouse his own dated and conservative view of history, while stifling the opportunities younger scholars could have by appearing in those same spaces and sharing their work with the general public. And now, to make matters even worse, Wilentz is using this same national platform to not only continue his crusade against the 1619 Project, but to rewrite his own history before our eyes – fashioning himself the bastion of the left instead of an ideological ally of the right. 

Since Wilentz cares about facts, let’s consider a number of simple facts right now. Wilentz has repeatedly denounced the 1619 Project with the same rhetoric as conservative pundits and politicians. He has also aligned himself with fellow historians who complain that the 1619 Project isn’t about history, but “identity politics.” In saying the 1619 Project sets out to educate Americans through “falsehoods, distortions, and significant omissions,” we can hear the voice of Senator Tom Cotton. Cotton, in July, introduced a bill to the United States Congress that would have taken funding away from public schools that used the 1619 Project as educational material, stating “an activist movement” is setting out to “obfuscate” American history by claiming the country was founded on “slavery and oppression.”

Wilentz cannot disavow the endorsement of the right without first dropping any and all pretenses that his own arguments against the 1619 Project aren’t thoroughly based in the same rhetoric and ideology as the senator. Wilentz cannot claim to be against Trump’s (mis)understanding of history while simultaneously employing the same strategies the president uses to defend his ideas about history and to bolster white supremacy. Wilentz would have us believe that he and Trump are polar opposites. Yet, by casting Trump’s white supremacy – based in part on attacking the very foundations of the 1619 Project – on the same moral grounds as the Project itself, Wilentz is no better than the President he supposedly disagrees with. If Wilentz is interested in setting up the 1619 Project’s historical interpretations as a (false) equivalent to Trump’s impoverished and white-supremacy-sustaining understanding of U.S. history, then it is important we recognize a salient fact: Wilentz is taking a page from Trump’s own playbook when he declared there were “very fine people on both sides,”following the deadly events of Charlottesville in 2017.  


Featured image: Front Cover, The 1619 Project, New York Times, 2019.

[1] Victoria Bynum, Interview by Eric London, World Socialist Web Site (October 30, 2019), https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/10/30/bynu-o30.html; James McPherson, Interview by Tom Mackaman, World Socialist Web Site (November 14, 2019),https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/11/14/mcph-n14.html; James Oakes, Interview by Tom Mackaman, World Socialist Web Site (November 18, 2019), https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/11/18/oake-n18.html; Gordon Wood, Interview by Tom Mackaman, World Socialist Web Site(November 28, 2019), https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/11/28/wood-n28.html; and Dolores Janiewski, Interview By Tom Peters and John Braddock, World Socialist Web Site (December 23, 2019), https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/12/23/inte-d23.html.

[2] For a transcript and audio recording of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream Speech,” see https://www.npr.org/2010/01/18/122701268/i-have-a-dream-speech-in-its-entirety.

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