The 1619 Project and the Long Battle for US History

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The earliest attempts to chronicle the nation’s history were in the form of reports of military campaigns, summaries of state and federal legislative activity, dispatches from the border, and other narrowly focused reports. These were published in 10 volumes from the 1830s to the 1870s, and widely considered to be the first comprehensive history of the country, and its influence has been unpredictable. Bancroft’s ambition was to condense American history into one great and glorious epic. He saw the European colonists who colonized the continent as the execution of a divine plan and the revolution as an almost purely philosophical act undertaken to model self-government for the whole world.

The scientific attempt to revise this narrative began in the early 20th century with the work of the “progressive historians”, above all Charles A. Beard, who tried to show that the founders not only of idealism and virtue, but also of theirs Paperbacks were motivated. “Suppose”, asked Beard in 1913, “our Basic Law is not the product of an abstraction known as ‘the whole people’, but of a group of economic interests that must have expected useful results from its adoption?” Although the work of progressives When she was influential, she was bitterly attacked for her theories, which shocked many Americans. “FASCINERS, HYENE-LIKE, APPRECIATE THE GRAVES OF THE DEAD PATRIOTS WE HONOR,” slammed a headline in an Ohio newspaper.

As the Cold War broke out, it became clear that this school could not provide the necessary inspiration for an America that imagined itself as the defender of global freedom and democracy. The Beardian approach was beaten back by the counter-progressive or “consensus” school, which emphasized the values ​​shared by the founders and downplayed class conflicts. A keen sense of national intent was as evident among consensus historians as was an eagerness to disavow the whiff of Marxism in the progressive narrative and restore the idealism of the founders. In 1950, Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison lamented that the progressives “robbed the people of their heroes” and “insulted their popular memory of the great figures they admired”. Seven years later, one of his former students, Edmund S. Morgan, published “The Birth of the Republic, 1763-1789,” a key text of that era (called “the brilliant shade of the Eisenhower prosperity era” by a reviewer at the time). Morgan emphasized the revolution as a “search for principles” that led to a nation committed to freedom and equality.

By the 1960s, the pendulum was ready to swing the other way. A group of scholars, variously identified as neo-progressive historians, historians of the New Left, or social historians, challenged the old paradigm and turned their focus to the lives of ordinary people in colonial society and US history in a broader sense. Earlier generations studied above all elites, who left an extensive archive of written material. Since the subjects of the new story – workers, seafarers, enslaved, women, indigenous people – produced relatively little of their own writings, many of these scholars turned instead to large data sets such as tax lists, real estate inventories and other public records to illuminate the lives of the so-called “inarticulate masses”. This novel approach put aside “the central assumption of traditional history that might be called the doctrine of implicit meaning,” wrote historian Jack P. Greene in a 1975 article in the Times. “From the perspective of modern history it has become clear that the experiences of women, children, servants, slaves and other neglected groups are as integral to a comprehensive understanding of the past as those of lawyers, lords and ministers of state.”

There was an explosion of new research that changed the field of American history. One of the most significant developments has been an increased awareness of black history and the role of slavery. For more than a century, a white-dominated profession had mostly marginalized these subjects. Bancroft had viewed slavery as problematic – “an anomaly in a democratic country” – but mostly because it strengthened a southern planting elite whom he believed to be corrupt, lazy and aristocratic. Beard and the other progressives hadn’t done much of slavery either. Until the 1950s, the institution was treated as an aberration in canonical works of American history, best, if at all, addressed minimally. When studied in depth, as in Ulrich B. Phillips’ 1918 book American Negro Slavery, it was viewed as an inefficient enterprise run by benevolent masters to whom the enslaved people mostly showed gratitude. That began to change in the 1950s and 1960s when works by Herbert Aptheker, Stanley Elkins, Philip S. Foner, John Hope Franklin, Eugene D. Genovese, Benjamin Quarles, Kenneth M. Stampp, C. Vann Woodward, and many others the mainstream view of slavery.


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