Was the American nation founded in 1776 or 1619? It sounds like a question for an exam paper. But it has become an issue in the 2020 presidential election.
In a speech at the National Archives, earlier this month, Donald Trump, promised to create a “1776 commission” to “restore patriotic education to our schools” and to counteract any effort to brand America as a “wicked and racist nation”. The US president explicitly took aim at the 1619 project — a much-discussed series of articles published by the New York Times and named after the year that the first enslaved Africans arrived in the colony of Virginia.
That project was a reframing of US history that placed slavery and racial oppression at the heart of the American story. By contrast, Mr Trump argues that liberty should be seen as the central theme of American history. So his commission would reassert 1776 — the year of the Declaration of Independence — as America’s foundational moment.
A reasonable person might conclude that US history is complex and that stories about freedom and oppression are not mutually exclusive. But this is raw politics. By highlighting the 1619 project — at a time of heightened racial and social tension — Mr Trump aims to put Joe Biden, the Democratic party’s presidential candidate, in a tricky situation. The question for the Democrats is how simultaneously to acknowledge the centrality of racial injustice in the American story while promoting the positive vision of the country that is expected of would-be presidents.
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The publication of the 1619 project, which began last year during the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery, sparked enormous interest and controversy. Many schools and universities embraced it and moved to incorporate it into their curricula. It provided some of the intellectual background for the explosion of emotion and activism associated with the Black Lives Matter movement. But it also attracted criticism — some of it from unexpected quarters. The scholarship behind the project was questioned in a series of interviews with prominent historians run by the World Socialist Web Site — whose class-based view of American history was at odds with the race-based view promoted by the 1619 project.
Several of these historians went on to write a critical letter to the New York Times — taking issue with the project and demanding corrections. One key dispute was about the claim — made in a passionate and closely-argued introductory essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones — that a primary motivation for the American Revolution was the desire to preserve slavery in the US, at a time when it was coming under pressure in Britain.
The critical historians, who included some of the best-known scholars of the American Revolution, branded this claim as simply untrue. But some younger academics have supported the 1619 project’s argument. They point, in particular, to Dunmore’s Proclamation, issued by the British governor of Virginia in 1775, promising freedom to slaves willing to flee their owners and join the British in fighting the American rebels. This academic debate rumbled on and the New York Times has since amended some of the project’s original language to soften its claims, without pulling back from its central argument.
This debate is of much more than academic significance. It goes to the heart of the claim made by the Black Lives Matter movement that slavery and racism have been integral to the American project from the beginning — and underpinned even some of its most celebrated moments, such as the Declaration of Independence and the writing of the constitution. American conservatives understand that if a new generation embraces that view it will be easier for the BLM movement to win support for deep social and structural change.
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But, as well as seeing danger in the 1619 project, the Trump camp sniff political opportunity. It provides a perfect chance to brand the Democrats as “anti-American”. The Republicans know that Americans tend to be pretty patriotic and would like to embrace the pilgrims’ view of their nation as a “shining city on a hill”.
Mr Biden has yet to show how he will handle Mr Trump’s call for patriotic education and the president’s attack on the 1619 project. If the Democratic nominee is put on the spot, he could borrow the framing used by former president Barack Obama at this year’s Democratic convention. Without referring to the 1619 controversy directly, Mr Obama acknowledged that the US constitution “wasn’t a perfect document. It allowed for the inhumanity of slavery”. But, he continued, “embedded in this document was a north star that would guide future generations . . . a democracy, through which we could better realise our high ideals”.
Mr Obama’s approach was a humane and nuanced way to reconcile the tensions between the dark 1619 view of American history and the soaring 1776 version. Unfortunately, humane and nuanced are not words commonly associated with the Trump era.
Do not be surprised if the politics of history resurface during this presidential election. This is not just a skirmish in the “culture war”. It is also an argument about the nature of the US and about political power. As George Orwell noted in his dystopian novel 1984: “Who controls the past, controls the future. Who controls the present, controls the past.”
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