The 1619 Project and the Work of the Historian

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).[1] 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.[2]

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.”

_______

[1] 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.

[2] Self-promotion alert! The introduction to my book, Revolutionary Networks, goes into even more detail about how newspapers were structured and edited.

18 responses

  1. I too admire this essay by Joseph Adelman. I would add only one point — that Professor Wilentz’s essay seems to have been informed by an ahistorical sense of eighteenth-century newspapers’ editorial practice, internal arrangement, and editorial policies as equivalent to late twentieth-century or twenty-first century newspapers’ editorial practice, internal arrangement, and editorial policies. I strongly suspect that this point is just a rephrasing of Prof. Adelman’s argument.

  2. Kudos to Joe for exploring this. I agree that SW’s reading of the scholarship around Somerset and its reception is tendentious. The remarkable thing is not that “coverage” was limited but that any newspaper would mention it at all.

    There remains

    My response to the 1619 Project controversy will appear later today in the Boston Review,

    Something I do not treat there concerns the con tinuing ambiguity about the nature of antislavery before Somerset. You wound;t know from SW that our mutrual mentor, David Brion Davis, emphasized the striking upsurge in antislavery sentiment during and after the Seven Years War. This has been confirmed and connected to larger critiques of empire in Jack P. Green, Evaluating Empire and Conffronting Colonialism in Eighteenth-Century Britain (2013), esp. ch. 5.

    Sean cites Christopher Brown on British antislavery being lame before 1789, i.e. just Granville Sharp, and Trevor Burnard on Somerset as having less impact in the West Indies than one might expect.

    But here are Trevor Burnard’s latest thoughts on the subject of antislavery in the 1760s. He argues that the brutal suppression Tacky’s revolt in Jamaica in 1760-61 (subject of a major brand new book by Vincent Brown) made a major difference, disillusioning many Britons:

    “We still don’t know very much about the early origins of abolitionism and how it moved from the very margins of British society to a more central position by 1772. The frustrations that Christopher Brown has expressed about how accpounts of the beginnings of abolitionism fail to do more than describe what happened before moving on to the exciting years once abolitionism was established still remian, especially for the years between 1756 and 1772…. What we miss from the many histories of British abolitionism, most of whbich start from 1772 or from the publication of great works against the slave trade that came out after the end of the American Revolution, is an analysis of the political process of anti-slavery.”

    Trevor Burnard, “Slavery and the Enlightenment in Jamaica and the British Empire, 1760-1772: The Afterlife of Tacky’s Rebellion and the Origins of British Abolitionism” in Damien Tricoire ed., Enlightened Colonialism: Civilization narratives and Imperial Politics in the Age of Reason (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), p. 238.

    • “We still don’t know very much about the early origins of abolitionism and how it moved from the very margins of British society to a more central position by 1772”

      It’s quite a leap of logic to go from a statement that begins “we still don’t know much about” to supporting the 1619 contention that protecting slavery was definitively a major cause for the revolution.

      The fact that there might be more evidence to show how widespread the growing nascent antislavery movement was in Britain proves little. And then one must prove that any new information had an actual effect on the Revolution. It’s all a hypothetical house of cards all in support of a proposition that already been argued to be proven.

  3. Pingback: George Packer gets Hitchens Prize for free expression, decries the Offense Culture as a detriment to writing and thinking « Why Evolution Is True

  4. Certainly interesting facts to add to the mix, but frankly, it doesn’t make the argument that a main reason for the revolution was to protect slavery any stronger in the slightest.

  5. Well, then let’s look at what the article says.

    “Wilentz’s essay is flawed in the precise area of my expertise—Revolutionary-era newspapers—in ways that diminish the credence of his claims.”

    Let’s look at whether this claim of diminishment is true.

    First, note that Wilentz is not making any affirmative claims. He is, rather, challenging the evidence behind the 1619 claim that the reporting of the Somerset case was a major cause of Southern support for the revolution. It is not up to Wilenz to prove that Southern newspapers had no influence (you can’t prove a negative) only that the evidence 1619’s asserts does not prive its claim.

    Let’s look at Wilentz’s first claim that Edelman disagrees with.

    “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 Somers”

    Putting aside the point that Adelman is guessing at his source for the statistics, Adelman responds that Bradley took a “sampling” and failed to look at North Carolina and Georgia Newspapers. This is not true. Bradley says she looked for those sources, but extant copies did not exist.

    So Adelman’s argument boils down to, there were two NC and one Georgia newspapers in existence at the time of the Somerset case. It’s possible they might have carried stories about the case, but there is no way to know. Hardly “diminishing the credence” of the argument.

    Aldeman’s second argument is

    “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.””

    The appendix to the Bradley’s article states the exact number of words across all articles devoted to Somerset case for each newspaper. It’s noteworthy that number of words printed by Southern newspapers were middle of the pack among all newspapers with several Northern newspapers devoting twice as many words as the most verbose Southern newspaper.

    Third Aldeman claims that. “It’s actually rather significant that every newspaper published (and available!) in the Southern colonies in 1772 mentioned Somerset, even if only in passing.”

    Why this is so significant Aldeman doesn’t say, but even if it it is, it only shows its significance to the newspaper editor not necessarily to the reader. Especially considering Aldeman’s next argument that Southern newspapers were “less central.”

    Last we have the following very important claim that actually strengthens Wilentz’s argument.

    “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.”

    This diminishes 1619’s claim that Southern newspaper coverage of the case had a major influence in southerners supporting the revolution and seemingly makes the other points moot. Why are we arguing about, articles, mentions and fonts when newspapers themselves had little influence?

    Perhaps the claim about London Newspapers and letters is true, but its just speculation at this point.

    The font issue I will grant, but it’s a very minor issue among all these arguments

  6. Can we connect some dots here? Are there any letters, diaries, or other statements by planters or others stating to the effect of, “If we don’t separate we’re in danger of losing slavery?” If we’re going to say protection of slavery was a motivating factor, and let me make clear I’m not opposed to that, it seems to me we would need some direct evidence rather than speculation based on they read about it in the newspapers. Is there any evidence that doesn’t rely on speculation? If not, then shouldn’t we be saying southern planters MAY have had a motivation of protecting slavery, in addition to other motives, instead of flatly asserting, as the introductory essay did, that protecting slavery was the driving force behind the Revolution?

  7. Pingback: The 1619 Argument Continues: The Revolution | Student of the American Civil War

  8. Pingback: The 1619 Project, the Founders-Industrial Complex, and History Pedagogy – The Tattooed Professor

  9. Pingback: Tracking the 1619 Debates – The Winds of War

Leave a Reply to David Waldstreicher Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s