Economic historian Phllip W. Magness on classical liberalism and abolition, Abraham Lincoln’s contested legacy, and why history matters in contemporary politics.
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When The New York Times launched its 1619 Project last year, it sought to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” What began as a series of articles in the Times magazine morphed into a collection of lesson plans for K-12 students and provoked an immediate controversy.
Five of the nation’s most eminent academic historians co-signed a letter to the Times describing the project as “partly misleading” and containing “factual errors.” And Northwestern University Professor Leslie M. Harris revealed that she had been a fact-checker on the series and that her warnings of a major error of interpretation had been ignored. But Harris also took “detractors of the 1619 Project” to task for “misrepresent[ing] both the historical record and the historical profession,” writing that the “attacks from its critics are much more dangerous” than the Times’ “avoidable mistakes.”
Enter Phillip W. Magness, an economic historian, a research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research, and the author of a new collection of essays on the project. Magness praises aspects of the series but he says that the project’s editor, Nikole Hannah-Jones, is guilty of blurring lines between serious scholarship and partisan advocacy. And he has called for the retraction of an essay in the series by Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond, which was headlined, “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.”
Nick Gillespie spoke with Magness from his office in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, about what the Times gets right and wrong about U.S. history, capitalism and slavery, Abraham Lincoln’s contested legacy, and why our interpretation of American history matters to contemporary society.
Edited by John Osterhoudt.
Photo credit: Associação Brasileira de Jornalismo Investigativo / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/… Raquel Zaldivar/TNS/Newscom