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New York Times makes ‘clarification’ to 1619 Project after its own fact-checker calls it out

‘Some of’ the colonists fought to preserve slavery

If your school district is already drawing up plans to teach students a highly contested version of American history from The New York Times, stop the presses.

The Gray Lady issued a “clarification” to its 1619 Project, which identifies slavery as the founding credo of America, saying it had changed one passage in particular.

Editor-in-Chief Jake Silverstein said the passage “could be read to suggest that protecting slavery was a primary motivation for all of the colonists,” when it should have said “this was a primary motivation for some of the colonists”:

We stand behind the basic point, which is that among the various motivations that drove the patriots toward independence was a concern that the British would seek or were already seeking to disrupt in various ways the entrenched system of American slavery.

The revised sentence in the essay reads: “Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” The only change is the addition of “some of.”

The clarification drew mockery on Twitter from the 1619 Project’s academic critics, including Phillip Magness, an economic researcher and former history professor who has tangled with one of the project’s defenders at Howard University.

What the passage literally said, Magness noted, was that “the colonists” – full stop – “decided to declare their independence from Britain” in order to “protect the institution of slavery.”

“[W]hat’s amazing is it took your own fact-checker calling out the paper to prompt” the clarification, Magness tweeted. That person, Northwestern University historian of slavery Leslie Harris, documented her frustration with the project in Politico last week.

MORE: Defender of 1619 Project responds to factual criticism: ‘Your mom’

When a research editor asked her to verify the statement that slavery was “one critical reason” that the American colonies declared independence, Harris said she “vigorously disputed” the claim but the newspaper published it anyway.

“Although slavery was certainly an issue in the American Revolution, the protection of slavery was not one of the main reasons the 13 Colonies went to war,” Harris wrote. The newspaper further bungled the issue by associating early American slavery with “laws and practices more common in the antebellum era than in Colonial times,” she said. (Silverstein’s statement finally credits Harris among several other scholars “whose insightful advice has helped us decide to make this change.”)

Brooklyn College historian KC Johnson mocked the vagueness of the clarification in his own tweet, saying the word “some” was “doing a lot of work” in Silverstein’s statement. “[H]ow many, to the Times, is ‘some’–two? One percent? A significant plurality? Who knows?”

MORE: Star of 1619 Project charged with fabricating quotes, evidence

One of the project’s main sources, Cornell University historian Edward Baptist, was previously caught inflating statistics, inventing facts and altering quotes to fit his narrative that modern capitalism includes remnants of slavery and America’s economy remains influenced by slavery.

Last month Magness called for the wholesale retraction of the essay in which Baptist’s theories were featured. “Meanwhile, multiple other glaring errors in the remain uncorrected. And the magazine’s editor is standing firm against correcting them, despite unambiguous documentation that they are in fact errors,” he tweeted Wednesday.

Magness further tangled Thursday with Nikole Hannah-Jones, the author of the clarified essay, accusing her of spending several months “maligning” the historians who challenged her broad-brush claim about colonists’ motivation. She posted a cryptic tweet earlier that suggested the clarification had provoked further criticism: “This is why people quit Twitter.”

Read Silverstein’s statement.

MORE: NYT rejects calls by professors to correct many errors in 1619 Project

IMAGE: Osugi/Shutterstock

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg spent several years as a technology policy reporter and editor for Warren Communications News in Washington, D.C., and guest host on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” He co-founded the alternative newspaper PUNCH and served as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Falcon at Seattle Pacific University.

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