Book Review: 1620

Wood, Peter W. 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project. (New York: Encounter Books, 2020)

The New York Times sponsored the 1619 Project to tell a previously ignored aspect of the history of the US. At least, that was the original claim. The actual project paints all of US history as a product of the importation of chattel slavery and its evils to the English colonies in 1619. Peter W. Wood, former president of the National Association of Scholars, penned this rebuttal and critique. In his view, the signing of the Mayflower Compact of 1620 is far more important start-point for the American story.

Wood begins with an overview of the 1619 Project and the major components originally published in and by the New York Times. The authors of the essays and poems included a few historians, several cultural commentators, activists, and artists. Their goal was to re-frame the story of the US, moving the focus away from the group traditionally called the Founding Fathers and onto the enslaved Africans sold by Dutch pirates to English planters in 1619. From this beginning, claims the 1619 Project, come all the major turning points and ills of the United States, including the Revolution, the Civil War, and the continuing discrimination against African-Americans (and other minorities).

Wood, an anthropologist, makes the point that slavery existed in the Americas long before Columbus arrived (and before the Vikings). Various groups enslaved members of other groups, used them as human sacrifices, or as forced labor, or incorporated their children into the tribes to replace those lost in war, or . . . Similar things happened back in Africa, again pre-dating 1500. Wood also notes that the Africans sold by the pirates in 1619 were fortunate. They had been destined by their Spanish captors for the sugar plantations. The English treated the Africans as indentured servants, and at least one of the slaves served out his indenture, took the name Anthony, and became a slave owner who sued whites in court over run-away indentured servants, among other things. That Anthony had not come from England did not matter to the colonists – race did not matter.

The 1620 Mayflower Compact, drawn up as a way to keep Saints and Strangers (Separatists and non-Congregationalists) working in harmony (mostly) and self-government once they moved off the ship and onto land. It was the first civil government contract in the colonies, signed by mutual agreement of the free men and male servants aboard the Mayflower. What makes the US so exceptional among nations and states is that foundation of self-government. Slavery had existed forever. What the Plymouth colonists created was brand new, experimental, and radical.

From this point, Wood alternates critiques and evidence. Scholars including Sean Willentz (a left-of-center labor historian and senior scholar), Gordon S. Woods (a right-of-center historian of the American Revolution and Colonial Era) and academics of all sorts raised objections to the 1619 Project. Even those who endorsed the goals of the project – shifting focus away from the Founders and onto those who often remain voiceless, highlighting the inequalities in America’s past – expressed concerns that the major historical errors in the Project would harm its efforts. At the time, I noted with some interest that when something gets both the American Communist Party and the National Association of Scholars to agree, the errors had to be glaring. Wood points to those errors, and provides sources and documentation.

History “from the bottom up” has been done and done very well since the 1960s in the US. When I was in grad school, I read books about slaves and former slaves, back-country farmers, women, urban laborers, and others who had been passed over by earlier generations of historians (often for lack of access to records, and lack of the tools needed to make sense of those documents.) A chunk of what made the American Revolution so radical was how women and workers contributed to the lead-up to the fighting, and then shaped the governments that followed. A “competence” replaced landed property as the mark of responsible manhood and eligibility to participate in public life. The 1619 Project is not new, at least in this regard, nor is it revolutionary.

Wood writes an excellent summary of the project, its goals, and the challenges and rebuttals of the work. I recommend this book to anyone interested in US history, academic arguments, and the importance of being faithful to the documents. As Wood points out, American history is messy. It is not perfect. Neither is any society’s past, if you judge it through the lens of modern aspirations. I also recommend this book to parents of children in schools that have adopted the curriculum developed from the 1619 Project. It provides excellent sources to say, “That’s true, but . . .” or “That’s not quite right, and here’s why.”

I was given this book as a gift and received no remuneration from the author or publisher for this review.


12 thoughts on “Book Review: 1620

  1. The rebuttal appears to be interesting, informative, and educational. It is also useless in the current cultural wars. The Left has chosen their agenda. They are impervious to the truth. It simply does not matter to them. They can lie louder and faster than we can explain. None so blind as those who will not see.

    That’s not to say that the truth doesn’t matter to us, of course. Truth is valuable for its own sake. Propaganda also works on friendlies, to bolster their spirits and strengthen their resolve.

    • Good points, and that’s one of the complaints the professional historians have made: The NYT will not publish corrections to the Project, and when cornered, bluffed, then ran. One strength of the Wood book is it has lots of other books and articles that you can read, or encourage others to read, that are well written and that present good arguments against the errors in the Project.

      I’ve read a lot of Woods’ books, several by Willentz, and at least one by the other scholars Wood lists. Willentz first book (_Chants Democratic_) was a little dense, but in his defense, it was his dissertation, and he was going places no other historian had gone, so he had to have lots and lots of supporting material.

  2. A “competence” replaced landed property …

    I knew that the franchise was originally restricted to male landowners, and then evolved, but this bit is news to me. How did that “competence” thing work? When did it happen?

    • According to Willentz and a few others, the roots go back to the urban protests that started in response to the Stamp Act. Craftsmen and workers participated in boycotts, protests, and riots, and began arguing that a skill able to support a family (and a workshop with apprentices and journeymen) should be proof of independence. New York City and Philadelphia were hot-beds of this kind of radical thought. A “competence” originally implied a farm sufficient to feed and clothe a family. It came to mean a skill or skills as well, like being a master carpenter or smith, or tanner or joiner, that provided enough income to make a man independent of others. The big reason for landed property – according to political theorists of the Enlightenment – was so a man would not depend on others for support, and thus subject to their political influence. The push for the skilled trades to be seen as sufficiently independent to merit the vote grew in the late 1700s, and by the 1830s, some places and states accepted a per capita income OR other property (tools, workshop) in lieu of farmland.

      • You know… that would be a hilarious development for an alternate-Regency story. Because people are always talking about how X man has a fortune and Y man has just a competence, and vice versa for the eligible young ladies. But if you have all these young lady sorceresses running around, their talent could reasonably also be their fortune or their dowry. (And actually, I think that among the French, it was seen as part of a woman’s dowry (“dot”) to have her own shop, or her own skills as a practicing moneyearning lacemaker, her own family special recipes, or whatever. At least among the lower and middle class, and in the 1830’s or 1840’s, etc. Same thing with the Spanish “dote” and the other dowry word.)

  3. It isn’t revolutionary in the sense of being no or in being a worthwhile development as an artifact of the historian’s art.

    It is revolutionary in the sense of being communist.

    Post modern criticism says that all speech reflects power, and the representatives of power just happen to not be post modern critics.

    Religious and cultural influence are at least as much a valid basis for such navel gazing as post-modern ideas of culture.

    Academic and intellectual work with a basis in Marxism, as in it denies a basis in Christianity, is not of the same value was work based in Christianity. Mixing these bodies of work, treating them as if they should be evaluated according to the same standards of value, is more and more apparently a mistake.

    Academic fields which are Marxist have little valid grounds for interdiscplinary collaboration with academic fields that yet remain unmarxist.

    Because of who wrote it and their process, 1619 Project is only valid as a satirist’s 1619 BC Project, which claims that indigenous cultures are all a result of Hitler traveling back in time.

  4. I remember years ago when some guy (happened to be a militant atheist, but I’ve seen militant Christian guys say the same thing) was claiming that all the Founding Fathers were atheist (he thought Deist meant atheist), all the settlements of the US were atheist (apparently his school hadn’t mentioned most of the major religious motives for settlement, much less all the settlement groups), there was no such thing as the Great Awakening, and religious thought had had no effect on American history.

    So of course I started with the Mayflower Compact.

    And the first thing he did was claim that any mention of God was a technicality, and they didn’t really mean it.

    So then I had to talk about English common law, and being under oath, and I think he went away at that point.

    I mean, your personal beliefs are your own business, and certainly you’re entitled to believe that everybody was an idiot for having religion, or that they were all hypocrites. But when it’s both an underlying motive and an explicit one, you can’t just pretend that the idea of God and the Christian religion isn’t there at all, and isn’t having an effect. Argh.

    • I’m not sure whether to, in jest, chide you for advocating freedom of speech or to, in jest, chide you for not being enough of a free speech extremist.

      I’m probably just in a silly mood, and have nothing productive to say.

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