Historians know the past is a battleground. History as studied and taught is part of a contest to control the present and alternative visions of the future. Today is different. The contest between fact and truth and fiction and lies is unique to this moment. Each of today’s “competing” visions is embedded in book form from a range of publishers.
The nondebate is encapsulated in false competition over the “origins” of the American experience—as if there were a single origin—between the Pulitzer Prize–winning, groundbreaking 1619 Project, led by the New York Times’ (now Howard University’s) Nikole Hannah-Jones and colleagues, and the alternative contentions of the 1620, 1776, and Texas’s 1836 Patriotic Education projects.
The 1619 Project, revised from its 2019 releases in the New York Times’ print and online editions, was published in November 2021 by Penguin Random House’s imprint One World. Peter Wood’s 1620 was published by Encounter Books (“for smart conservatives”) in 2020. The 1776 Project was published in book form in 2021 by Flag & Cross Store in regular, large-print, and coffee-table versions, and on the Project’s website. 1836 exists on a website.
Notice the repeated declarations of “project.” Despite misrepresentations, 1619 is a specific proposal to reorient American history by systematic inclusion of peoples of color whose first nonnative constituents arrived as enslaved persons in Virginia in 1619. Documented articles, lesson plans, and historical sources accompany it. Unlike other projects, 1619 readily admitted to errors of fact and emphasis when presented with evidence and arguments. The authors corrected and revised.
Despite distortions, the 1619 Project never claims to date all American history from 1619. It underscores the underacknowledged but singularly symbolic date for basic understandings of American history. The 1619 Project is subjected to unwarranted scrutiny, including entire books and trivial “fact checking.” It is called “racist” and “un-American,” when its foundations are the opposite.
By contrast, each competing “project” claims the status of new or substitute gospel. They presume to account for all American history, despite almost complete exclusion of racial and minority groups, most immigrants, and women.
The 1619 Project includes the work and testimony of professional historians as well as veteran journalists. The “alternatives” rarely involve trained scholars. There are claims but no record of contributors for the 1776 Project. The only exception is the historian of Southern slavery Peter Wood of Duke University. The contents of Wood’s 1620 are significantly less than the title implies; Massachusetts is not his specialty.
Wood proposes the founding of the white, Protestant, Mayflower Covenant as an alternative to 1619. That date and events are significant, but they do not compare in historical impact or symbolism to Black African slavery. Wood ignores the relationships of the Massachusetts Puritans to Indigenous peoples, and the bitter divisions among various English Protestant immigrant groups and other Christians.
The Trump-endorsed 1776 Project is faux history with gaping holes. Decreeing it to be the national curriculum, he did not know that the federal government lacks that power. Favorite of right-wing media and financially supported by the Heritage Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, and Robert Gates, who all invest in the assault on teaching inclusive history, 1776 begins American history with the Revolution. It erases race, gender, and most conflict in favor of a march for limited forms of white, male “freedoms.” Its patriotism is narrow, selective, and sanitized. A shadow of a factual, inclusive history, it is comforting to some right-wing people.
The Texas legislature- and governor-endorsed 1836 Project is the most idiosyncratic “project.” Ignoring Texas’s past and excluding Mexicans, Spaniards, Indigenous peoples, and nonwhite, native-born Americans, it celebrates a distorted version of the Battle of the Alamo. The Alamo supposedly created Texas and modern America. This fiction memorializes a less-than-successful battle fought in opposition to remaining under Mexican authority, because that nation abolished slavery, an action untenable to many white Texans.
Based on these warped visions, more than a dozen attorneys general from Republican states joined together to demand that the U.S. Department of Education refuse to endorse teaching the 1619 Project. State Boards of Education heatedly debate bans versus endorsement of teaching accurate, equitable history and civics. Almost 20 state legislatures have opted to ban it.
1619 vs. 1620, 1776, and 1836: How many “projects” and books does it take to obfuscate a truly American history?
Harvey J. Graff is professor emeritus of English and history and Ohio Eminent Scholar at Ohio State University. He is the author of many books on social history, including Searching for Literacy, which will be published this year. He writes and speaks widely on critical race theory and related issues.