1619 v. 1776: The First Direct Debate Between Scholars

At our recent Annual Meeting, our opening session was an online debate between two academics who’ve known each other since graduate school. Professor Leslie Harris, a historian from Northwestern University, is one of the fact-checkers of The 1619 Project, published by the New York Times in August 2019. The goal of that project is “to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”  

Joining Professor Harris was Professor John McWhorter, a linguist from Columbia University and a contributor to 1776 Unites. McWhorter has been one of many vocal critics of The 1619 Project, publishing articles such as this one to explain why he believes it is misguided and even damaging to the cause of black Americans. 

Despite all the media attention The 1619 Project has received and the flurry of critical responses, we believe this is the first time that authors from both sides of the debate have met face to face to discuss their perspectives and, in a meaningful sense, explain what has been disappointing about the other’s  approach and perspective. It was the kind of conversation that many are saying we have to be willing to have if we are to make progress as a nation. 

Moderating this unprecedented discussion was Conor Friedersdorf, a staff writer at The Atlantic. He has been writing on this debate and, in that process, has carefully considered the merits and pitfalls of each side’s arguments. His essay in The Atlantic, “1776 Honors America’s Diversity in a Way 1619 Does Not,” provides an insightful analysis of the key issues. One of the most interesting observations Friedersdorf makes is that each faction in this debate feels like it is the underdog. 

These were some of the questions discussed: 

  • What are constructive ways to critique The 1619 Project? 
  • The 1619 Project has suggested that the American Revolution was motivated to protect slavery. How should that be evaluated?
  • What is the role of history in today’s conversations anyway? 

 We are making the recording of this debate available, and hope it is the beginning of an ongoing conversation. We can strongly disagree, and we can talk about our disagreements to gain increased understanding of each other’s points of view.