A reporter friend who has done signature work on the New York Times’ 1619 Project – the magazine length collection of 18 articles that dated the founding of America to the year enslaved people were brought to Virginia and then viewed all of subsequent history through that lens (along with an unhealthy dose of critical race theory) – was asked what he thought of the recent “clarification” issued by the paper in response to objections from top historians.
The Times’ note was a master class in calculated protection. It was written as a minor of clarification when, in fact, it conceded that the core of the new interpretation offered by the project was false. As my colleague observed, the Times backtracked on the suggestion that preserving slavery was not the sole motive for all the patriots of the American Revolution, but rather the prime motive for some patriots. He also notes that the Times has yet to name a single patriot identified decisively by name for whom preserving slavery was a prime motive for breaking away from Great Britain. He observes that “ ‘some’ ” is a sufficiently vague term that leaves plenty of wiggle room for the NYT to maintain its claim that the AmRev wouldn’t have taken place without this motive, so in a sense they didn’t retract anything: Preserving slavery is still the main ingredient. This is what used to be called a ‘non-denial denial.’ ”
Most people who have followed this debate will have figured that out for themselves after reading the Times’ clarification. I am highlighting my colleague’s response because of the smart, creative way he illustrates what the paper was really saying by making a slight change to its note. He wrote:
Consider this analogy: A media outlet runs a project asserting that the Civil War was fought over states rights, and that slavery was merely a pretext. The materials are distributed to thousands of public schools. A furor ensues. The Pulitzer Prize hangs in the balance. Said publication runs the following clarification:
Today we are making a clarification to a passage in an essay from The 1865 Project that has sparked a great deal of online debate. The passage in question states that one primary reason the rebels fought the Civil War was to protect states rights. This assertion has elicited criticism from some historians and support from others [talk about false equivalence!].
We stand behind the basic point, which is that among the various motivations that drove the rebels toward secession was a concern that the Union would seek or was already seeking to disrupt in various ways the entrenched system of states rights. Versions of this interpretation can be found in much of the scholarship into the origins and character of the Civil War that has marked the past 40 years or so of early American historiography.
The 1865 Project aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of states rights and the contributions of freedom and self-determination at the very center of our national narrative. That accounting is itself part of a growing acceptance that the rebels represented a truly diverse coalition animated by a variety of interests, which varied by region, class, age, religion and a host of other factors.
If the scholarship of the past several decades has taught us anything, it is that we should be careful not to assume unanimity on the part of the rebels, as many previous interpretive histories of the rebel cause did. We recognize that our original language could be read to suggest that states rights was a primary motivation for all of the rebels. The passage has been changed to make clear that this was a primary motivation for some of the rebels. A note has been appended to the story as well.