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1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project

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Peter Wood argues against the flawed interpretation of history found in the New York Times’ 1619 Project and asserts that the true origins of American self-government were enshrined in the Mayflower Compact in 1620.

"1620 is a dispassionate, clear reminder that the best in America’s past is still America’s best future." —Amity Shlaes, chair, Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation

"Peter Wood’s pushback against the 1619 Project is at once sharp, illuminating, entertaining, and profound." —Stanley Kurtz, senior fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center

When and where was America founded? Was it in Virginia in 1619, when a pirate ship landed a group of captive Africans at Jamestown? So asserted the New York Times in August 2019 when it announced its 1619 Project. The Times set out to transform history by tracing American institutions, culture, and prosperity to that pirate ship and the exploitation of African Americans that followed. A controversy erupted, with historians pushing back against what they say is a false narrative conjured out of racial grievance.

This book sums up what the critics have said and argues that the proper starting point for the American story is 1620, with the signing of the Mayflower Compact aboard ship before the Pilgrims set foot in the Massachusetts wilderness. A nation as complex as ours, of course, has many starting points, most notably the Declaration of Independence in 1776. But the quintessential ideas of American self-government and ordered liberty grew from the deliberate actions of the Mayflower immigrants in 1620.

Schools across the country have already adopted the Times’ radical revision of history as part of their curricula. The stakes are high. Should children be taught that our nation is a four-hundred-year-old system of racist oppression? Or should they learn that what has always made America exceptional is our pursuit of liberty and justice for all?

ISBN-13: 9781641771245

Media Type: Hardcover

Publisher: Encounter Books

Publication Date: 11-17-2020

Pages: 272

Product Dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

Age Range: 18 Years

Peter W. Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars. A former professor of anthropology and college provost, he is the author of several books about American culture, including Diversity: The Invention of a Concept (2003) and A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now (2007). He is editor-in-chief of the journal Academic Questions and a widely published essayist. In 2019, he received the Jeane Kirkpatrick Prize for contributions to academic freedom.

Read an Excerpt

Preface: October 1462

When Columbus set foot on Watling’s Island in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492, he set in train events that would change the whole world. He was, of course, confused about his location. He imagined him- self on the outskirts of Asia, which is about twelve thousand miles west of Watling’s Island – half the circumference of the Earth. Scholars believe Columbus erred by relying on old books that estimated latitude in Arab miles, which he mistook for shorter Roman miles.

In September 1999, another long-distance voyage failed for similar reasons. Ten months earlier, NASA had fired off the Mars Climate Orbiter. The $125 million device reached Mars but immediately disintegrated. The design team, led by Lockheed Martin Astronautics, had built the machine using English units of measurement – inches and feet – while the navigation team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory did its calculations in the metric system.

NASA’s accident left a lot of red-faced engineers. Columbus’s accident led to Europeans’ discovering corn, tomatoes, tobacco, potatoes, sweet potatoes, peppers, pumpkins, peanuts, vanilla, blueberries, and chocolate among some ninety New World crops. These were part of what is now called the Columbian Exchange. Material items flowed in both directions. The New World peoples soon had rice, citrus fruits, and bananas brought by Europeans – and exotic animals including horses, don- keys, mules, pigs, cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, cats, and larger breeds of dogs. Europeans also introduced West- ern technology, including wheeled vehicles and more advanced metallurgy.

These days Columbus is more often excoriated than he is celebrated. His accusers emphasize that native peoples had little immunity to the diseases that Europeans brought with them, and the death rates from the result- ing epidemics were appalling. Moreover, in the wake of Columbus’s discoveries came brutal Spanish adventurers intent on coercing labor and extracting every bit of wealth they could from the local inhabitants. Columbus, in fact, and at least some Spanish clerics and officials, tried hard to protect native people but failed to impede the demographic disaster that followed contact. They also could not stop the orgy of rape, murder, and plunder, documented by the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas in a series of reports – giving rise to the “Black Legend” of Spanish cruelty in the New World.1 The Spanish, and soon the Portuguese, saw the opportunity to impose forced labor on the natives. Slavery, first in the mines and soon on plantations, became part of the Columbian Exchange.

Slavery itself, however, was nothing new to the New World. It was an institution familiar to many native societies in both North and South America. These popula- tions had been enslaving one another, as far as we can tell, from time immemorial, and forced labor was far from the worst of it. Captured people fed the almost industrial level of human sacrifice at the center of the Aztec Empire. Some New World peoples captured and kept their enemies for rituals and the sport of torture and, in the case of cannibalistic societies, to maintain a mobile food supply. Cortés could not have captured Tenochtitlán without the aid of tens of thousands of indigenous allies who had been suffering under the Aztecs’ brutal imperial rule.

As Europeans learned of these hideous customs, they were relieved of any qualms they had about extracting labor from or forcing Christian conversion on the people they encountered. Better to have your beating heart ripped out of your chest by a masked man with an obsidian knife, or to kneel to a painted image of the Virgin Mary?

Native peoples saw the Europeans as fair game for slavery as well. We have, for example, the account of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish nobleman and would- be conquistador who served as the treasurer of the ill- fated Narváez Expedition in 1528. De Vaca and some three hundred compatriots intended to conquer Florida but were shipwrecked on the Florida coast. Within months, all but sixty died; by spring 1529, fifteen were left, and soon just four. They survived because they were enslaved by the local Indians and were traded from tribe to tribe, based on their skills as faith healers. After eight years of this, they escaped to Mexico. De Vaca’s description of what he saw (Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America) is a key source for anthropologists – of which I am one – and it is among other things testimony to how thoroughly established slavery was in the New World long before any possible influence of European interlopers.

The year 1492 changed the world, but not by introducing slavery to the Americas. Slavery was already here. The Spanish initially embraced the idea of enslaving native people, but then thought better of it. First, the Laws of Burgos, adopted in 1512, attempted to restrain the Spanish abuse of indigenous people. But in 1542, with the issuing of the New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians, the Spanish liberated the Native Americans from this yoke:

We ordain and command that from henceforward for no cause of war nor any other whatsoever, though it be under title of rebellion, nor by ransom nor in other manner can an Indian be made a slave, and we will that they be treated as our vas- sals of the Crown of Castile since such they are.

The exact meaning of this is debated by historians. It seems the Spanish crown wanted to roll back the encomienda, a form of servitude slightly different from the plantation slavery we are more familiar with. The encomienda gave Spanish holders of land-grants the right to demand tribute and forced labor from the local inhabitants.

Table of Contents

Foreword vii

Preliminaries, 2022 xviii

Preliminaries What Is the 1619 Project? 1

Preface October 1492 15

Chapter 1 November 1620 25

Chapter 2 August 1619 34

Chapter 3 August 2019 51

Chapter 4 1776 63

Chapter 5 1775 77

Chapter 6 March 2020 99

Chapter 7 March 1621 116

Chapter 8 April 1861 124

Chapter 9 January 1863 145

Chapter 10 October 1621 165

Chapter 11 January 2020 173

Chapter 12 September 2020 178

Chapter 13 The Future 208

Postscript 225

Addenda 231

Notes 259

Index 285