Yesterday Princeton historian Sean Wilentz published his latest piece opposing the 1619 Project at The Atlantic. In it, Wilentz argues that he—along with the other historians who signed a letter to the editors of the New York Times Magazine questioning the Project’s conclusions—are taking issue as a “matter of facts” that were presented in the 1619 Project, in particular in the essay authored by Nikole Hannah-Jones, the lead editor for the magazine’s issue, and in the letter of response from the Magazine’s editor, Jack Silverstein.
I’d initially planned not to comment publicly on the 1619 Project, but Wilentz’s essay is flawed in the precise area of my expertise—Revolutionary-era newspapers—in ways that diminish the credence of his claims. Critiques of the 1619 Project have tended to obscure the practice of historical research and writing, but there is nonetheless an opportunity to illuminate how we locate, contextualize, and interrogate sources. In making that clear, we can understand better the debate about interpretations of the American Revolution.
In the Atlantic essay, Wilentz focuses on the Somerset case, the 1772 decision in which an enslaved man was freed because, judge Lord Mansfield determined, his master could not legally hold him in bondage in England. Here’s what he writes about how American newspapers responded:
In the entire slaveholding South, a total of six newspapers—one in Maryland, two in Virginia, and three in South Carolina—published only 15 reports about Somerset, virtually all of them very brief. Coverage was spotty: The two South Carolina newspapers that devoted the most space to the case didn’t even report its outcome. American newspaper readers learned far more about the doings of the queen of Denmark, George III’s sister Caroline, whom Danish rebels had charged with having an affair with the court physician and plotting the death of her husband. A pair of Boston newspapers gave the Somerset decision prominent play; otherwise, most of the coverage appeared in the tiny-font foreign dispatches placed on the second or third page of a four- to six-page issue.
There’s a lot going on here. The information Wilentz provided was so precise that it had me wondering at its source. The only scholar he refers to in the essay is Christopher L. Brown, so I went back to Brown’s Moral Capital and the sections he wrote about the Somerset case. There was no reference to newspaper coverage, but Brown in turn cites journalism scholar Patricia Bradley, who published Slavery, Propaganda, and the American Revolution in 1998. Her book includes an entire chapter on the Somerset decision and its coverage in the American colonies, but not the numbers that Wilentz cited. For that, it seems we need to go back to a 1984 paper that Bradley presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism—or at least, this is the only place I could locate these figures. I’d also mention that Bradley’s 1984 paper seems the most likely source because she includes the very specific anecdote about Princess Caroline in her essay.
But between my own knowledge and Bradley’s paper and chapter, it is clear that Wilentz’s statistics are misleading.
First, there are two problems with the number of newspapers he cites. Bradley’s research involved taking a sample of newspapers, and she did not include newspapers from North Carolina or Georgia because too few issues existed. So we’re missing two colonies which boasted three newspapers (two in North Carolina and one in Georgia). The other problem is that those six newspapers are the sum total of those published in those colonies in 1772. In other words, we could easily re-phrase his first sentence to say that “every newspaper in Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina reported on the Somerset decision,” which makes the evidence seem far more significant than Wilentz would allow.
Second, as to the number of times the case was mentioned, the significance of the number fifteen isn’t clear. Fifteen mentions doesn’t suggest complete ignorance of the case, but it’s not clear from Bradley’s paper or book chapter how exactly she defined a “mention.” She includes some fascinating information about the extent of coverage in Boston’s Loyalist newspaper, the Massachusetts Gazette … but that’s a complex issue that would require a separate post for a full discussion.
The third issue in Wilentz’s paragraph is his dismissal of the news items about Somerset as appearing in the middle of the newspaper in a “tiny-font.” It sounds clever but does not reflect how newspapers were organized in the eighteenth century. Any mention of the case appeared where it did (on pages 2 and 3) because that was the obvious place to put it. Newspapers were not organized by the importance of the news (with a few notable exceptions). Instead editors organized the paragraphs they collected by function and geography. Long essays and some advertising would appear on the first page, followed by news from London and Europe continuing onto the second page. Then printers would include news from other colonies, usually working their way closer to their own town’s news at the end of page 2 or somewhere on page 3. The rest of the newspaper would then include advertising. News was published by paragraphs with no headlines; the only way to determine what news was important was to read all of it.
Understanding the circulation of news about the case in this way undercuts Wilentz’s claim. It’s actually rather significant that every newspaper published (and available!) in the Southern colonies in 1772 mentioned Somerset, even if only in passing. Further, it’s important to remember that newspapers were less central to the news culture of Southern colonies than they were further north. Elite Southerners did little to support local newspapers, but they would have had access to news about the decision from London newspapers and magazines which, as Bradley and Brown note, reported extensively on the trial and decision. They also would have had access to news through their correspondents in London because letters were a key source of news traveling across the Atlantic. This is not a specific event I’ve researched, to be fair, but my point is that there is very likely more to the story than these newspapers can tell.
Facts are important, but they need to be placed into a historical context. Indeed, the ways in which Wilentz frames newspaper coverage belies just how much the debate over the 1619 Project is actually about interpretations and not, as he claims, simply a “matter of facts.”
 The America’s Historical Newspapers database still includes no issues of the Georgia Gazette, the Cape-Fear Mercury, or the North-Carolina Gazette for 1772.
 Self-promotion alert! The introduction to my book, Revolutionary Networks, goes into even more detail about how newspapers were structured and edited.