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The antidote to America’s race wars The narrative of the 1619 Project has been dismantled

African Founders feels like a book out of time (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

African Founders feels like a book out of time (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)


July 5, 2022   5 mins

The date 1619 does not appear in the introduction to African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals, Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian David Hackett Fischer’s encyclopaedic, magisterial new book. But the controversial project that takes that date as its name — launched first as a special issue of The New York Times magazine in 2019 to mark 400 years since the first slaves arrived at Jamestown, fronted by the journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and now adapted into a bestselling book and nationwide classroom curricula — is the elephant in the room as he ambitiously documents the contributions to the Republic of African Americans in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Hackett Fischer, a professor of History at Brandeis University, notes that “with many important exceptions, the tone of much American historical writing turned deeply negative during the early 21st century. It remained so as these words were written, in 2021.” He complains of demands for political correctness on campus and laments a public discourse in which “we have seen a growing disregard for truth, and a cultivated carelessness of fact and evidence”. He argues that “ancient ideas of open inquiry and empirical truth have gained a new importance, in part because of hostile assaults upon them from many directions.”

African Founders has been years in the making. “My substantive work on this project had its beginning in 1955,” writes Hackett Fischer, 86, in the book’s acknowledgments. But, with the history wars raging, it arrives in the nick of time.

To set the scene, briefly, the 1619 Project aims to “reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very centre of our national narrative.” Since it was launched, 1619 has been rebutted and debunked by American historians of comparable or even higher standing than Hackett Fischer (a very select group). Among those who have pointed out its many distortions, lies and inaccuracies is Gordon S. Wood, perhaps America’s greatest living historian, who has said he was surprised the project “could be so wrong in so many ways”. When another esteemed historian, Leslie M. Harris, expressed her reservations about one of 1619’s core claims — that the American Revolution was fought in large part to preserve slavery in North America — to a New York Times fact-checker, she was ignored.

Since publication, The New York Times has stealthily edited contentious passages while Hannah-Jones seems to spend most of her time arguing on Twitter, accusing her critics of being old white dudes who Just Don’t Get It. In one swiftly deleted tweet, she appeared to revel in the idea that the violent eruptions of the summer of 2020 be called “the 1619 riots”. None of these problems with the 1619 Project as a work have dampened its impact on American public life.

This is the fraught landscape into which African Founders arrives. A few asides in the introduction notwithstanding, Hackett Fischer’s rebuttal to the vogue for deeply pessimistic history is quieter and less direct than that of many of his colleagues. But that makes it all the more persuasive. African Founders is a devastating counter-example: a thorough, compelling work free from the didacticism of both 1619 and conservative attempts to set the record straight, such as the 1776 commission launched by Donald Trump in 2020.

African Founders is a successor to Hackett Fischer’s most lauded work, Albion’s Seed. Published in 1989, it described how settlers from different parts of the British Isles imported a range of enduring “folkways” — culture, religion, language, ethics and so on — to different parts of what would become the United States: East Anglican puritans in New England, southern gentry in Virginia, Quakers from Wales and the Midlands in Pennsylvania, and Scots-Irish border folk in Appalachia. (The enthusiasm of the descendants of that final group for Donald Trump caused many pundits to dust off their copies of Albion’s Seed after 2016.)  Taking the same regional approach, African Founders charts the migrations, cultures and political and social contributions of slaves, freed slaves and their descendants throughout America.

It is hard to overstate the scope of this 900-page work. Open it at random and you will find subheadings such as “How African School Children In Philadelphia taught Benjamin Franklin A Lesson About Race” and “Diversity of African Traditions Among Afro-Texan Cowhands”. Breaking up the demographic, social and political big picture are stories of many African Americans whose tireless work didn’t just win freedom for themselves but helped to expand the very notion of American liberty.

Many of the most pre-eminent such heroes came from Chesapeake Virginia and Maryland, foremost among them Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Hackett Fischer argues that this was no coincidence. The prominence of men from the region in the founding of the United States — George Washington and Thomas Jefferson being the two most obvious examples — left a lasting impression on a later generation of slaves-turned-leaders: “These former Chesapeake built on a regional tradition of leadership, and reached beyond it in creative ways. They learned from its strengths, corrected its weaknesses, and invented other new ways of leading from their own heritage and experience.”

Hackett Fischer spotlights less well-known figures too. Juan Rodriguez, for example, was an enterprising “black mulatto” who became the first documented non-native settler on Manhattan: he liked the look of the island and blagged his way off a Dutch merchant ship in 1613. Rodriguez fought for his freedom, fended off an attempted enslavement, married an Indian wife, became a successful trader and a translator and go-between for the Dutch and American Indians. Several scholars have called him “Manhattan’s first merchant”.

In New England, the enslaved poet Phillis Wheatly, named for the ship on which she was brought to Boston in 1761, confounded racist expectations and won praise for verse that Hackett Fischer calls “a large-spirited celebration of a common spirit in all people everywhere”. As well as the racism she encountered in her own time, Wheatly would later be criticised by black nationalists, who weren’t especially keen on her short poem “On being Brought from Africa to America”: “’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land/Taught my benighted soul to understand”. Hackett Fischer notes the irony in the similarities between the black nationalist critiques and the contemporary racist criticism, including from Thomas Jefferson.

Hackett Fischer is clear that none of this should detract from the cruelty of slavery or the racist violence that followed. His book is full of terrifying detail of the lives of slaves across America, including detailed accounts of how those experiences varied over time and geography. But he understands that lingering on the horrors of slavery only get you so far in understanding America’s past.

The story told by Hackett Fischer stands in stark contrast to the demotivating, almost paralysing lesson of the 1619 Project: slavery not as America’s original sin but something hardwired into its DNA, a past that cannot be escaped. It is a dispiritingly static view of the country. Rather than displaying a curiosity at the paradox that has animated so much American history — “How is it,” asked Dr Johnson in 1775, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” — the 1619 approach dogmatically sweeps aside everything other than the existence of slavery as minor details in the story of the United States.

African Founders, by contrast, demonstrates that there doesn’t need to be a trade-off between “centring” the experience and stories of black Americans and an appreciation of the gift of American liberty. Indeed, the takeaway from Hackett Fischer’s work is that the latter cannot be achieved without the former.

“What if we told a story that centred slavery and Black Americans and, well, no one read it,” writes Nikole Hannah-Jones in the introduction to The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, remembering her fretting on the eve of The New York Times magazine special edition. She needn’t have worried. It was an overnight sensation. Indeed, measured by impact on the public conversation, rather than merit, the 1619 Project is a more successful contemporary work of opinion journalism or pop history than any other in recent history.

African Founders, by contrast, feels like a book out of time. Inconveniently heavy and equivocal in the age of skinny provocations. Moderate in an era of extremes. But closer to the truth than the divisive works that hog the limelight.


Oliver Wiseman is the deputy editor of The Spectator World and author of the DC Diary, a daily email from Washington. He is a 2021-22 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow

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Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
1 year ago

Of course, the 1619 Project was old hat compared to the 1584 Project when Sir Walter Raleigh, chief tobacconist to Good Queen Bess, sent the first shipload of “waste population” to the Roanoke Colony. Why “waste population?” Well, what with the end of the feudal era, there were a lot of landless vagabonds and vagrants — we call the homeless — wandering around in Britland. Something had to be done! Send the waste population to the Americas, old chap.
And then, let us celebrate the greatest slave states in all history, in which entire populations of vast countries were enslaved to a brutal overclass: Stalin’s USSR and Mao’s China.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 year ago

Let us hope African Founders gets the attention and respect it merits despite not endorsing the ideological approach. Sane and balanced history is essential if dystopian myths are not to drag the US down.

Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago

I cannot recommend Albion’s Seed highly enough. I listened to it recently on Audible and it was very well produced. If you wish to understand the relationship between Britain and the USA, this is the place to start.
African Founders will go on my list.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
1 year ago

Slavery or racism is “hardwired into (America’s) DNA”? Because Americans, at least most of them, have “a past that cannot be escaped”?

Does the 1619 express mean that 
 now America cannot deny the truth? Now that the truth has been elucidated? Does the project show that the only explanation for those scores of mostly men who were given the mantle of having made America is that it had to be their malign internal make-up of their DNA and all that that made them take all the credit for their undeserving selves? That their efforts had essentially been all show?

I must be exaggerating! But what is taught in the nationwide classroom curricula vis à vis this Project? Yes, “it is a dispiritingly static view of the country.” Do the very young, schoolchildren, need all that? Their school bags are probably weighed down by all the other theories they have to haul home with them.

Must America now look much less fondly and gladly upon the achievements of the Wright brothers: the inventors of the modern aeroplane? An invention that took place some forty years after the end of the Civil War. Because, well, there were many and profound injustices being committed against black Americans tens, hundreds, thousands of miles from where the Wright brothers, bicycle shop repairmen, were striving to solve the design problems?

Perhaps there are designs to make America miserable. To knock the stuffing out of America. What about music? The old pop singles charts? When stars, both black and white, smiled out from their record sleeve covers? It was a sign of equality and drive and hope and gladness, back in the day. Of course, there was probably not much equality back then either. But after the travails of the Sixties, and during them, music offered hope. The signs were displayed all the same. America was good at projecting hope. But how can America project hope when, in the technology age, when we’re all supposed to be having a whale of a time, misery and dispiriting fare dominate the airwaves, both in education and in entertainment?

What does it mean to be “hardwired” with badness? That Christianity is so yesterday?

Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
1 year ago

Reverse racism is no less awful than the racism is purports to target.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
1 year ago
Reply to  Julian Pellatt

Reverse racism? Isn’t racism just racism? Unless you mean anti-racism (obviously a good), which can easily be perverted into an evil? But, if not, surely racism is just racism whichever way it goes?

Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

Fair point. Some ‘anti-racism’ is a cover for straightforward racism.

John K
John K
1 year ago

Of course all this ignores the people who have arguably been the most abused by the events of the last 400 years and are still largely ignored – the Native Americans.
“The white man made us many promises, more than I can remember. They only ever kept one: they promised to take our land, and they took it” [Red Cloud]

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  John K

The same could be said of virtually every native peoples on earth. It is the history of mankind all over the planet, not just the peoples of Africa or the Americas.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
1 year ago

This article deserves to be read in conjunction with Paul Kingsnorth’s superb essay on “how the Left fell for capitalism”.

There’s a reason why the collectivist left, the corporatist right, and the technocratic “centre” all have a shared interest in trashing the spirit of the individual that set brushfires alight in the American revolution. And that is that it challenges their power, that is built in each case with a web of clever, convincing, materialistic lies; handouts of bread and circuses; and good old-fashioned fear.

Each day more and more people are waking up to their nonsense and they know it. You can only push people so far before they will snap and revolt: humans are hard-wired to seek and find truth, and they will sooner or later dispense with truthless things. What other way for a mammal uniquely dependent on its cerebral cortex to survive, if not intellectually to know what truthfully works and what doesn’t when faced with a threat or when looking for the means of survival? It may make evolutionary sense to stick with the herd, a strategy which works right up until to the point at which it doesn’t: and it doesn’t if individuals use their god-given sense to discern that the herd is being led at increasing speed off a huge cliff by a morally compromised, panicking, fundamentally untruthful leadership.

This could all flip around, and very quickly.

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew Horsman
Russ W
Russ W
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

I hope it does flip around quickly

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

The French Revolution was met with stunned shock across all of Europe. Louis XVI never saw it coming. If he had, he certainly would have fled in time to save his own life. By the time the revolution completely concluded with the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the old feudal nobility’s power was shattered forever. Where they weren’t entirely destroyed, they were obliged to yield their chokehold on political power, lest they end up on the guillotine next. Could Trump be a Robespierre who began what some future Bonaparte will finish? Things can flip very quickly indeed.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Jolly
Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
1 year ago

I’m not sure about this at all, From this very brief review, it sounds as if this book is in a similar tradition to the 1619 Project, but conducted with more concern for evidence: viz., mining the records to construct a political narrative rather than to establish what happened and what was it like to be there. No doubt it will be said that history has always been done like this (step forward the Whig view of British history), but this seems much more selective and tendentious.

R Wright
R Wright
1 year ago
Reply to  Jonathan Nash

It is possible to explore the African tradition of America without pandering to the insecurity of modern black and white liberal women by pretending it was the centre of everything. 1619 is an exercise in narcissism and power grabbing; this is not. Most great history books have a narrative. They are not mere annals but have themes.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
1 year ago
Reply to  R Wright

Well I read a lot of history, and it was my undergraduate degree, so I well understand that history is not “mere annals” (or even Annales). My point was that of course the 1619 Project is garbage and doesn’t really merit any serious consideration as history – it is a piece of flimsy propaganda. However, one of the jobs of the historian is to attribute appropriate importance to the themes which he or she is writing about: that is, after all, what is meant by historical context. My doubts about this book (which I have not read – I’m commenting on what this review tells us), is that it may fall into another form of ahistoricity which strives to attribute greater or different significance to people or events than they truly have for essentially propaganda purposes. We have seen that over here for the past twenty years or so with the promotion of Mary Seacole (for whom streets, parks and housing estates are now named) into a towering figure of nineteenth century nursing at least on a par with Nightingale, when her actual achievements are frankly indetectable. The title of this book, “African Founders”, appears to argue that some or all of the figures identified in it should be regarded as being of the same historical importance as the Founding Fathers: if that is the basic point, it is wrong, and “pandering” is a good word for it.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  Jonathan Nash

Agreed, that’s my concern too. I also read a lot of history books, and sometimes mistakenly buy books that have good reviews, only to realise on starting to read them that there is an agenda, which defeats the purpose of reading the book.
I can cope with agendas when reading the news, filtering it out as I read it; but I expect a decent historian to seek objectivity and perspective. I suspect ‘Albions Seed’ is an important contribution to understanding the USA, as the different parts of the British Isles contributed massively to the existing USA culture; but I suspect ‘African Founders’ will hugely over-egg the contribution of Africans to the existing USA culture, and therefore be a work for supporting social justice, not historical understanding.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
1 year ago
Reply to  Jonathan Nash

In the strange times that we live in it’s difficult to ignore the common orthodoxy; difficult to escape it. I suppose that’s one sign of a successful propaganda campaign. (Think: Christianity in medieval Europe. Who could have written anything, other than Snorri Sturlesson, that wasn’t influenced by Church doctrine?)
So the question is “who was influenced by ‘1619’, the author or the reviewer”?
I discovered something useful in my own readings on history. Sometimes the heavy-weight academic tomes start with an “Author’s Forward”, or some such, that lays out the whole argument in fifty or a hundred pages. Saves a lot of time and effort. I’m going to wait until I can get “African Founders” from the library and see for myself.

Nell L
Nell L
1 year ago

When will “The 1492 Project” be published? Isn’t it time for a rebuttal to “The 1619 Project” that correctly asserts that the creation of the modern Americas (including the US) began with the European colonization of the Western Hemisphere? This would correctly center the experience of indigenous people as the most important transformative experience in the history of the US and the rest of the Americas. The westward movement of Europeans in North America, and the near-eradication of indigenous peoples, is the single most important foundational aspect of the development of the US. The introduction of slavery into the economy of the early US in 1619 was a secondary effect of the conquest of land by European settlers who chose to use either slave, indentured, or free labor for its exploitation. And 1619 hardly marks the beginning of slavery in the Americas either, since slavery had played a role in many of the societies and civilizations of the Americas long before then. A history of America that centers of experience of indigenous peoples is badly needed.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 year ago

The 1619 Project implies that there was no human life in the land that is now the USA before 1619. That in turn suggests that Native Americans are sub-human. Not exactly fighting racism.

Mickey Mouse
Mickey Mouse
1 year ago

Hackett Fischer’s best book is The Great Wave.

Mike Bell
Mike Bell
1 year ago

This is a priority for today:“ancient ideas of open inquiry and empirical truth have gained a new importance, in part because of hostile assaults upon them from many directions.”
There are various harmful manifestations (Woke etc) of the intellectual invasion of post-modernist ideas. The central task is to alert fair-minded people to what is happening so that we can address and reverse it.
At present, most people are not aware of what is happening as it is rarely stated or defined.
The intellectual foundations of Western civilisation are being dismantled. It is an emergency.

Kat L
Kat L
1 year ago

I have seen no evidence that multiculturalism works anywhere.