I can think of no book more deserving of a review in The New York Times—or less likely to receive one—than Peter Wood’s just-published 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project. More than a powerful refutation, Wood’s 1620 is a withering appraisal and deadpan skewering of the 1619 Project as a cultural phenomenon. That ill-starred journalistic project is the purest and most perfect example of woke. The cultural revolution of 2020 will always rightly be associated with the 1619 Project of The New York Times. Not for nothing did project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones cheerfully embrace the term “1619 riots.”
Many young Americans believe that slavery was a novelty in world history—an exclusively American innovation. That misapprehension is abetted by the 1619 Project. Wood thus begins with a quick tour of New World slavery prior to 1619. Among the indigenous peoples of the Americas, captive enemies were kept for their labor, for the sport of torture, and in a few cases for what Wood calls “almost industrial level” human sacrifice, not to mention cannibalism.
Long before 1619, the Spanish and Portuguese used slavery to extract forced labor from native peoples. Eventually, they abolished the enslavement of native Americans in favor of something closer to serf-like dependence. Certainly, the Spanish and Portuguese imported slaves from Africa (where slavery was also common), sometimes putting them in charge of indigenous slaves. Those African overseers often discharged their task with brutality. When a party of Spanish conquistadors out to subdue what is now Florida were shipwrecked, they themselves were enslaved by the indigenes. Most died in short order. Slavery was a world-wide human norm.
What, then, of the slaves brought to Virginia in August of 1619, an act which according to the Times, “inaugurated a barbaric system of chattel slavery that would last for the next 250 years”? The slaves sold at Jamestown in 1619 were likely treated as indentured servants, and would thus have been freed after a number of years. One may eventually have become a plantation owner himself, a Virginia black man with African slaves of his own. This African in early Virginia renamed himself Anthony Johnson and successfully sued one of his white neighbors in a Virginia court. The evidence on the precise status of the Africans who disembarked at Jamestown in 1619 is limited and disputed, but in pointed contrast to The New York Times Wood calmly and fairly assesses the arguments on all sides.
Well, so what? What’s a bit of historic license between friends? Maybe chattel slavery actually began sometime after 1619, but the evidence is imperfect and the symbolism of the earlier date is powerful. By placing the origins of American slavery four hundred years before the present—well before America’s seeming founding in 1776—and by marking that anniversary at the commencement of a presidential campaign deemed by the Times to pivot around the incumbent’s racism, a bold argument could be made to the effect that the inauguration of slavery was America’s “true founding.” That would make American exceptionalism shameful rather than “great.”
Here, Wood’s argument moves to another level, exposing and probing the political motives and historical deceptions that would someday entangle the Times. The climax came only a few months after the text of Wood’s 1620 was completed. (Wood himself played a role in that denouement, as we’ll see below). Wood’s penetrating critique of 1619’s fast-and-loose relationship to truth effectively predicted the fiasco that developed just months after the text of 1620 was completed and sent to the printer.