Why I organized the ‘1619 or 1776’ event

By Gary Winslett, Assistant Professor of Political Science

I serve as co-convener of the Hamilton Forum this year, as the Forum’s director is on sabbatical. Last week, the Forum hosted an event with a leading American historian and a leading political theorist to discuss the relationship of slavery to the American founding. Although over 200 individuals attended the event on Zoom, many will have only heard of it through various social media posts and letters written before the event occurred. Therefore, some background may be helpful.   

 Last August, the 1619 Project was released. It is a thought-provoking, engaging collection of essays in the “New York Times Magazine” that seeks to re-center slavery in broader society’s mental map of American political development. It took a while, but I read every essay in the collection and found it a really rewarding exercise. Within the 1619 Project, I found some essays and passages more effective than others. For example, I was fascinated and persuaded by Jeneen Interlandi’s essay on health care and also thought Nikita Stewart’s piece on slavery in public education was great, but I found Matthew Desmond’s essay on capitalism to be overly reductive and unpersuasive (despite loving his book “Evicted”). It seemed to me that other people would also have parts of the collection that they liked better and parts that they were more critical of, and so it was a collection around which enlightening conversation and good-faith disagreement could be had. This was a factor that suggested to me that a public event could be held on this topic without garnering any significant protest. 

Since the 1619 Project came out, it has had a wide range of defenders as well as a wide range of critics. One set of those critics is represented in the 1776 Unites Project. This project is a collection of essays by a group of scholars and public intellectuals pushing back against the 1619 Project. The group is predominantly African-American and features some very highly acclaimed academics, including Glenn Loury of Brown and John McWhorter of Columbia. Whereas the essays in the 1619 Project argued that America was built top-to-bottom on slavery, the 1776 Project essays argued that slavery was something that America did but not something that was in America’s soul. In essence, the 1776 Project argues that although slavery was a terrible crime that America committed, it was not who America was. As best I can tell, the 1776 Unites Project has not been on the receiving end of any significant protests of any kind. It is considered a serious part of a national conversation. 

Historical memory is foundational to nation-building and so it goes without saying that historical memory is part of political dialogue. These two collections of essays argue over the meaning and legacy of slavery, America’s political founding and subsequent political development. Such debates can be healthy, educative and invigorating. 

I’m sure there are some people who are staunchly opposed to the perspective presented by the 1776 Unites Project just as there are certainly those who are staunchly opposed to the perspective presented by the 1619 Project. I tend to think that it would be wholly inappropriate for me to tell either the Black scholars associated with the 1619 Project or the Black scholars associated with the 1776 Project that their views are beyond the pale or out of bounds. That kind of boundary policing of scholars who are in good standing within the profession is also deeply illiberal. Since neither of those sets of views are genuinely out of bounds, it is my responsibility as a teacher to present both viewpoints so that students may think through these matters themselves. This is what led to the title “1619 or 1776: Was America Founded on Slavery?” The title was, in essence, inviting us to consider this serious disagreement between the 1619 Project and the 1776 Unites Project. 

In the late spring of this year, my colleague and friend Keegan Callanan asked if I’d be willing to be a co-convener of the Hamilton Forum for the academic year of 2020–21 since he would be at Princeton for the year. It seemed like fun, engaging work so I said yes. In July, Professor Callanan and I discussed potential Hamilton Forum topics for the fall semester. I suggested that a discussion around the 1619 Project, with a defender of the project and a critic of the project, would be a high-level educational event. It would be about the founding of the country, which is a major part of the Hamilton Forum’s remit. It would have viewpoint diversity, which is an important part of a liberal arts education, and it would be on a topic that was both timely and of significant interest to students. (Nikole Hannah-Jones, the producer of the 1619 Project, spoke at Middlebury to a packed audience earlier this year.)

We then set about finding the best speakers for the two slots. Leslie Harris, Professor of History and African American Studies at Northwestern, was a clear choice.  A leading scholar of slavery, she was one of the fact-checkers that worked closely with the 1619 Project and has an extremely impressive academic record. In 2016, Professor Harris visited Middlebury at President Patton’s invitation to help us begin a new institutional conversation about race

As we turned to identify a critic of the 1619 perspective, a natural choice was Lucas Morel, Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee University. A gifted teacher, he has published widely on Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Ellison, Frederick Douglass and race in America.  His criticisms of the 1619 Project are grounded in his study of Lincoln and have been amongst the most thoughtful criticisms of the project. 

Harris leans left politically, just like many prior Hamilton Forum guests such as Bill Galston, Randall Kennedy and Michael Kazin. Morel is a conservative, just like many prior Hamilton Forum guests such as Bill Kristol, Ross Douthat and Jean Yarbrough.  Both are serious thinkers.

As it happens, my own views tend to more closely align with those of Leslie Harris. I’m a liberal, in both the classic sense of the term and in the contemporary association with the political left in America. Less than two months ago, I wrote an article for The Middlebury Campus, “In Search of Peace and Justice,” that openly and directly argued for more monuments like The National Memorial for Peace and Justice that advance a 1619-aligned political narrative. I am one of the faculty members who signed the open letter that calls for removing cops from Middlebury’s campus and for fundamentally rethinking the posture of Public Safety. I really like the 1619 Project and I think that everyone should read it. In the broad scope of American politics, I am no one’s idea of a conservative. But I am a liberal who believes in viewpoint diversity and in listening to people I do not agree with.

All that being said, I like Lucas Morel and have learned from him even if I don’t always agree with him. Dr. Harris herself volunteered during her final question that Dr. Morel had made points that she would like to think about more. If as a campus we’ve gotten to the point where we can’t listen to people like Lucas Morel, we’ve gone radical and illiberal. If Leslie Harris, one of America’s leading historians of slavery, can learn something from Morel, so can we. We have to be able to have these kinds of important but challenging conversations across political difference.

There are two groups who do not want these dialogues across disagreement, like our event this past Thursday, to happen. The first group are populist nationalists. They have a very simple relationship to this country: unblinking patriotism. To them, any meaningful discussion of America’s great sins (slavery, ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, Japanese internment) must be stamped out because it might lead people to not be unblinkingly patriotic, and to them, lack of patriotism is a kind of thought crime that has to be prevented. They thus want the 1619 Project banned from educational curricula. The second group who do not want these conversations are radical super-leftists. They too have a very simple relationship to this country: they see it as rotten to the core. To them, any defense of the U.S. founding or political traditions are tantamount to racism. To them, those defenses have to be stamped out because eradicating them is necessary to eradicate oppression. They thus see any criticism of the 1619 Project as emerging from bad faith, if not outright prejudice.

 It seemed to me that this event we were putting on was pretty squarely in defiance of both of those extremes. I think most of us, here at Middlebury and in the country more broadly, are neither radical super-leftists nor MAGA nationalists. A lot of us, including myself, have a very complicated relationship with this country. We have a deep-seated urge to be proud of this country, but we’re not stupid enough or callous enough to not see the enormity of America’s sins, both past and present. It seemed to me that this event would be quite appealing to that broad middle. It seems to me, even now, that catering to either the MAGA nationalists or to the radical super-leftists compromises the core commitments of liberalism, viewpoint diversity and dialogue across difference that are at the heart of a liberal arts education. This event seemed to me to be in the best traditions of those liberal arts commitments.

 At the end of the event on Thursday, I asked Professors Harris and Morel how they would respond to criticism of the event. Their answers were clear and direct regarding the need to maintain dialogue across difference. If you did not get a chance to hear their answers to that question, I invite you to watch the talk, which is now on the Alexander Hamilton Forum website.

It seems to me that some of those who voiced concerns before the event may have misunderstood what the event was about and where it was coming from intellectually. There was a big difference between what some people seemed to think we were trying to do with this event and what we were actually trying to do with this event. Such a misunderstanding is regrettable. But if some understood us perfectly well and simply feel that everyone who disagrees with any aspect of the 1619 Project — no matter how thoughtful and well-informed — is beyond the pale, then I hate to say it but we are in a disagreement that will not be easy to get around. 

Finally, I want to reiterate that I am committed to liberalism and to viewpoint diversity, but I am also committed to working constructively with other members of our community, particularly students. I value you all and I want the best for you all. Even if you are angry with me and even if you yell at me, I am rooting for you to achieve your ambitions and I am rooting for you to be able to become the kind of person that you want to be. 

Gary Winslett is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and a co-convener of the Alexander Hamilton Forum.