Why President Trump is Targeting the 1619 Project

tags: history education, slavery, racism, 1619 Project, 1776 commission

Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the book, Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party. Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer

President Donald Trump, who has proven himself to be a master of psychological projection, is rewriting and politicizing history all while accusing schools around the country of doing the same.

On Thursday, Trump attended the White House Conference on American History at the National Archives and railed against the left for everything from "defil(ing) the American story" to "attempting to destroy" Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision for every child to be judged by the content of their character, rather than their skin color.

"The left-wing rioting and mayhem are the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools. It's gone on far too long," he said.

He went on to announce the creation of the 1776 Commission "to promote patriotic education" in a direct response to the New York Times' 1619 project -- a Pulitzer Prize winning project that traces the history and legacy of slavery in the US.


The President's attacks focus on changes in the history profession since the 1960s. The Baby Boom Generation of historians challenged the notion that history textbooks should focus exclusively on presidents and legislators. That approach, they said, missed huge swaths of the lived experience of Americans. This generation of historians also took aim at a portrait of US history that depicted the country as forever moving in a positive direction and always correcting long-standing weaknesses.

Historians from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s integrated issues of racism, sexism, nativism, class conflict and more into our understanding of our country and broadened the canvas of actors who were considered important, including marginalized and disenfranchised peoples who struggled for their rights.

One of the classic works of this genre came from Columbia University's Eric Foner, who produced a brilliant reframing of history in his 1988 book "Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877," which placed freed African Americans at the center of the story. Despite President Trump's comments that "our heroes will never be forgotten," Foner's book is filled with exemplary Americans, just not the limited canon to which Trump refers.

Over the past two decades, Generation X and Millennial historians have also brought high politics back into the picture (I have been part of this cohort) by taking a fresh look at political and economic elites.

Instead of presenting presidents and legislators as isolated figures who embodied the nation, however, we portrayed them as politicians who governed in relationship to society, culture, and social movements. We explored how social divisions and cultural biases informed public policy and political leadership. And, yes, many very good historians found that the United States has not been as exceptional as older generations liked to think.


To be sure, there was a group of prominent historians, including my colleague Sean Wilentz and Brown University's Gordon Wood, who criticized key parts of the publication and disagree on some of the narrative. For instance, they contend that the 1619 Project downplayed the impact of the anti-slavery movement on the founders and skewed the ideals that drove the revolution.

Nonetheless, even these critics agree that slavery and race relations belong at the center of our American history. As Wilentz and others said in their letter criticizing the 1619 Project, "We applaud all efforts to address the foundational centrality of slavery and racism to our history."

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