Battle of the Books: When Historical Reassessments Collide

From Publishers Weekly:

Historians know the past is a battleground. History as studied and taught is part of a contest to control the present and alternative visions of the future. Today is different. The contest between fact and truth and fiction and lies is unique to this moment. Each of today’s “competing” visions is embedded in book form from a range of publishers.

The nondebate is encapsulated in false competition over the “origins” of the American experience—as if there were a single origin—between the Pulitzer Prize–winning, groundbreaking 1619 Project, led by the New York Times’ (now Howard University’s) Nikole Hannah-Jones and colleagues, and the alternative contentions of the 1620, 1776, and Texas’s 1836 Patriotic Education projects.

The 1619 Project, revised from its 2019 releases in the New York Times’ print and online editions, was published in November 2021 by Penguin Random House’s imprint One World. Peter Wood’s 1620 was published by Encounter Books (“for smart conservatives”) in 2020. The 1776 Project was published in book form in 2021 by Flag & Cross Store in regular, large-print, and coffee-table versions, and on the Project’s website. 1836 exists on a website.

Notice the repeated declarations of “project.” Despite misrepresentations, 1619 is a specific proposal to reorient American history by systematic inclusion of peoples of color whose first nonnative constituents arrived as enslaved persons in Virginia in 1619. Documented articles, lesson plans, and historical sources accompany it. Unlike other projects, 1619 readily admitted to errors of fact and emphasis when presented with evidence and arguments. The authors corrected and revised.

Despite distortions, the 1619 Project never claims to date all American history from 1619. It underscores the underacknowledged but singularly symbolic date for basic understandings of American history. The 1619 Project is subjected to unwarranted scrutiny, including entire books and trivial “fact checking.” It is called “racist” and “un-American,” when its foundations are the opposite.

By contrast, each competing “project” claims the status of new or substitute gospel. They presume to account for all American history, despite almost complete exclusion of racial and minority groups, most immigrants, and women.

The 1619 Project includes the work and testimony of professional historians as well as veteran journalists. The “alternatives” rarely involve trained scholars. There are claims but no record of contributors for the 1776 Project. The only exception is the historian of Southern slavery Peter Wood of Duke University. The contents of Wood’s 1620 are significantly less than the title implies; Massachusetts is not his specialty.

Wood proposes the founding of the white, Protestant, Mayflower Covenant as an alternative to 1619. That date and events are significant, but they do not compare in historical impact or symbolism to Black African slavery. Wood ignores the relationships of the Massachusetts Puritans to Indigenous peoples, and the bitter divisions among various English Protestant immigrant groups and other Christians.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

From The History Channel:

On the morning of November 11, 1620, when the Mayflower dropped its anchor off the coast of Cape Cod, the group of English Separatists later known as the Pilgrims fell to their knees and blessed God for bringing them safely across the “vast and furious ocean” to a new life in the New World.

Before they could begin this new life, however, they had to solve some very practical problems. Their solution was to draft an agreement, later known as the Mayflower Compact, that became a first in consensual government and ensured everyone in the new colony would abide by the same laws.

Back in England, the Separatists had signed a contract with the Virginia Company to establish a colony near the Hudson River, which at the time was part of Virginia. By its terms, the stockholders who financed the journey would share in the new colony’s profits.

In order to increase the voyage’s chance of success, the Pilgrims recruited a number of other people—ordinary merchants, craftsmen and workers, along with their families and indentured servants—to come along with them. These “strangers,” as the Pilgrims called them, had their own reasons for joining the journey, and didn’t share the goal of separating from the Church of England.

After bad weather during the Atlantic crossing pushed the Mayflower hundreds of miles further north, to Cape Cod, the “strangers” didn’t think they should be subject to the contract’s provisions anymore. As William Bradford later wrote in his famous History of Plymouth Plantation, some of them made “discontented and mutinous speeches” claiming that since they were not in Virginia, “none had power to command them.”

Before departing the ship, then, the Pilgrims decided to draw up an agreement to bind them and the “strangers” together, and ensure that everyone in the new colony would abide by the same laws. The result, a document drafted and signed aboard the ship by nearly all of the adult male passengers, would become known as the Mayflower Compact.

While they intended to form a government for their new colony, the Pilgrims and others aboard the Mayflower were not declaring their independence: The Mayflower Compact (though the Pilgrims never called it that) began with a clear statement of loyalty to King James of England, along with a commitment to God and to Christianity.

In settling the first colony in the “Northern parts of Virginia,” the document continued, the Pilgrims and the other Mayflower passengers would “covenant and combine our selves together into a civil body politick.” As part of this united body, they pledged to make and abide by the same “laws, ordinances, Acts, constitutions, and offices” in order to further “the general good of the Colony: unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”

In its form and content, the Mayflower Compact echoed that of earlier covenants that Separatist Christian groups had drawn up when they established their churches in England and Holland, to bind them to each other as well as to God.

The agreement also drew on the secular tradition of the social contract, the idea of covenants between men themselves, which went back to ancient times, but would later be made more famous by philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

According to a list printed by Bradford’s nephew, Nathaniel Morton, in his 1669 pamphlet New England’s Memorial, 41 of the adult male passengers on the Mayflower signed the agreement, including two of the indentured servants aboard. Soon after signing it, they elected John Carver as the first governor of the new colony, which they called Plymouth Plantation.

While 400 years earlier, the Magna Carta had established the idea of the rule of law, this had previously meant the king’s law. In the Mayflower Compact, the Pilgrims and strangers were pledging their loyalty to laws they would make themselves. As historian Rebecca Fraser wrote in her book The Mayflower: The Families, the Voyage and the Founding of America: “Plymouth Colony was the first experiment in consensual government in Western history between individuals with one another, and not with a monarch.”

The Mayflower Compact was clearly a religious document, in that it held that the people derived their right of self-government from God. But it did not mention a specific church, or method of worship, leaving it open for acceptance by both the Separatist Pilgrims, and the “strangers,” many of whom remained loyal to the Church of England.

Finally, as the first written constitution in the New World, the Mayflower Compact laid the foundations for two other revolutionary documents: the Declaration of Independence, which stated that governments derive their powers “from the consent of the governed,” and the Constitution.

In 1802, speaking at Plymouth, the future president John Quincy Adams underscored the lasting importance of the agreement signed aboard the Mayflower more than 180 years earlier, calling it “perhaps the only instance, in human history, of that positive, original social compact, which speculative philosophers have imagined as the only legitimate source of government.”

Link to the rest at The History Channel

5 thoughts on “Battle of the Books: When Historical Reassessments Collide”

  1. Virtually any time that an entire historical movement is tied to a specific date or event, there’s a truly significant body count… and, equally likely, an entire panoply of small things leading up to that specific date or event.

    For example, any examination of the history of slavery in the US that doesn’t look at the commercial hostility between English and Dutch drygoods (cloth) merchants, and the economic pressures that put on the English merchants from the 1590s on — in particular on their labor and productions costs — is missing a lot. As Americans, we tend to neglect the gnarliness of European history from the 1530s on, focusing on the Plymouth Rock mythology typically taught in rote-memory-oriented history classes. Then, once the celebrated Pilgrims (who, on balance, were just as religiously intolerant as those they were running from) and Thanksgiving get into the lesson plan, Europe goes out the window for a century and a half…

    …and all of that assumes that nobody who had critical information had anything to hide and succeeded in doing so. Hint: There’s a new history of Watergate just out…

    • Europe goes out the window for a century and a half…

      The Enlightenment does not go out the window for Americans.

  2. This has become similar to journalists morphing into “opinion journalists.” Historians can choose to report the most objective telling of an event or create a work based on their bias. If the latter, please do your reader a favor and tell them. I don’t like Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” or his use of singular/weak sourcing, but I appreciate that he tells his readers his purpose and bias.

  3. And while we’re on the subject, let’s not forget another key date in the history of America’s origins: September 12, 1609. This is the day when Henry Hudson and his mixed Anglo-Dutch crew sailed up to a certain wooded land that would one day become the world’s first “megacity”: New York. Notwithstanding the importance of the founding of Jamestown two years prior, Hudson’s 1609 encounter with both land and people (the Lenape of Mannahatta) would contribute mightily to what the Pilgrims to the north and the Virginians to the south were doing to start the American experiment, especially from an economic point of view.

    Here’s a bit from my book—New York 1609—to add to the story…

    . . . The day before, they had passed the two headlands and the narrow passage Master Verrazzano had described 85 years prior. Now, in undiscovered territory, Hudson could see they were fully in an upper bay, more clearly defined than the shapeless lower one. And it was a bay such as he had never seen before.

    “It’s almost circular, like an amphitheatre,” marveled his son, who stood by his side. “As beautiful as an open sea.”

    “And at 20 fathoms, almost as deep,” Hudson added, unable to disguise his pleasure at what he was witnessing. “And smell the fresh sweetness of the air.”

    Hudson clapped John on the back while seabirds careened above. “It’s a good day for discovering, wouldn’t you say?” He felt giddy with enthusiasm.

    Porpoises jumped on both sides of the ship as he spied the mouth of a vast river dead ahead. With the sun directly behind them, he could see a line of thick, green forest flanking both sides of the river, with hills climbing in the distance to meet the brilliant blue sky of midday.

    “Remember this twelfth day of September, John,” Hudson said to his son without turning from the sight. “I believe that history is about to change.”

  4. The past ain’t what it was.

    As a kid in grade school during the 60’s, I watched as the history books changed year by year, creating American Exceptionalism. I was good at history because it was Story. When that Story got twisted I noticed, but said nothing because I needed the grade.

    I have seen how we don’t really know what has happened in the past. The 19th century corrupted and fabricated most of what we know, and that corruption of the past has been ongoing to where now we have no clue what actually happened over the past thirty years, and major events of the past ten years are only now being revealed to be a total fabrication.

    Hayden White talked about this before he died.

    Hayden White, Who Explored How History Is Made, Dies at 89

    “When he made brief remarks to the Class of 2014 at commencement, he didn’t tell them to go discover their pasts, to go find out who they really were and then express that,” Michael S. Roth, Wesleyan’s president, wrote on Tuesday in a commemorative blog post. “No, Hayden told us all that we weren’t rooted in some authentic past and that we could make out of ourselves something new, something not beholden to someone else’s idea of who we really were and where we had really come from. We could remake the meanings of our pasts, paradoxically, by seizing opportunities to create our futures.”

    This is extremely useful for Story.


    This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

    — The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

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