Harvey Graff

Historians know well that the past is always a battleground. It never stands by itself. History as practiced, studied, and taught is inescapably part of the contest to control the present and promote alternative visions of the future. That needs no argument or documentation. (For a good recent statement, see Jake Silverman, “The 1619 Project and the Long Battle Over U.S. History.”)

Today is different. The uneven and unequal contest between fact and truth on one hand, and fiction, fabrication, and lies, on the other, is uniquely exacerbated and challenging to our historical moment.

Competing projects

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

I underscore the repeated declarations of “project.” Despite many misrepresentations, the 1619 is a specific proposal to reorient American history by the systematic inclusion of peoples of color whose first constituents arrived as enslaved persons in Virginia in that year. Documented articles, lesson plans, and historical sources accompany it. In contrast to the other projects, the creators of 1619 readily admitted to errors of fact and emphasis when presented with credible evidence and arguments. They made corrections and revisions.

Despite continuing distortions, the 1619 Project never claimed to date all of American history from that year. It is committed to underscoring the often unacknowledged but singularly important symbolic date for any fundamental understanding of American history. For obvious reasons, the Project is subjected to intense, often unwarranted scrutiny including entire books and trivial “fact-checking.” It is called “racist” and “un-American,” when its foundations are the opposite—a sad sign of our times. (See Peter Wood’s 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project [Encounter Books, 2020]; 1776 Project; and “1776 Commission Takes Historic and Scholarly Step to Restore Understanding of the Greatness of the American Founding.” See also for commentary, Adam Serwer, “The fight over the 1619 Project is not about the facts”; Jelani Cobb, “The Republican Party, racial hypocrisy, and the 1619 Project”; and Konstantin McKenna,“The 1776 Project Is a Desperate Search for the Right Enemies.”)

By contrast, without acknowledging each other, the competing “projects” immediately claim the status of new or substitute gospels. They presume to account for all of American history notwithstanding their almost complete exclusion of racial and minority groups, most immigrants, women, and young people. To the best of my knowledge, none admit to any need for revision or reconceptualization.

The 1619 Project included professional historians as well as veteran journalists, but the “alternatives” only rarely involved trained scholars. There are claims but no record of contributors for the 1776 Project, for example. The only exception among the alternative projects is noted historian of Southern slavery, Peter Wood of Duke University. But the contents of Wood’s 1620 are significantly less than the title implies.

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

The Trump-endorsed 1776 Project is faux history with gaping holes, the rotten Swiss cheese of U.S. history. Ordered by the former president to be the national curriculum, it was literally laughed off the desk, not least because the federal government lacks the power to establish a curriculum for the nation’s schools. Trump did not know that.

Favorite of right-wing media and financially supported by the Heritage Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, and Robert Gates, all of whom heavily invest in the assault on teaching about race, 1776 begins American history only with the Revolution. It erases race, gender, and most conflict in favor of the relentless march for certain forms of overwhelmingly white, male “freedom.” Its brand of patriotism is narrow, highly selective, and sanitized. It is a bare shadow of a factual, inclusive history—but comforting to some right-wing people.

The Texas legislature- and governor-endorsed 1836 Projectis the most idiosyncratic of these “projects.” (See also Heidi Pérez-Moreno, “Texas’ 1836 Project aims to promote ‘patriotic education,’ but critics worry it will gloss over state’s history of racism.”) Ignoring most of Texas’ past and excluding Mexicans, Spaniards, Indigenous Peoples, and non-white, native-born Americans, it celebrates not Texas’ statehood but a distorted version of the Battle of the Alamo. In this fabrication, the Alamo created Texas and modern America as well. This fiction memorializes a less-than-successful battle fought by those who opposed remaining under Mexican authority, because that nation abolished slavery, an action untenable to many white Texans.

This project not only commemorates a questionable victory, but it rewrites the history of the Alamo to erase the presence of Mexicans. Related Texas laws limit signage and exhibits at the Alamo only to Texas patriots. The Texas secretary of state blocks events based on reputable books that present a different version of this history.

Collectively, these “projects” abolish from the pages of documented and instructional history Indigenous Peoples, the true Native Americans; Spanish colonists; Mexicans; blacks; Catholics and other non-Protestants (despite the prominence of the Mission Trail in San Antonio and the Spanish settlements in Florida and California); non-British immigrants; and most women and children. Only a limited range of conflicts inseparably tied to “Patriotic victories” are allowed into these annals. Very few disputed or unsavory events are permitted to interfere with the slimmed-down and controversy-free narratives dedicated to exclusion.

An application

The quintessential, distorted version of these exercises in undocumentable historical fiction comes from the radical right-wing and evangelical Faith and Freedom Coalition. Led by “Dr. Ralph Reed, PhD,” this self-proclaimed Christian and uncritically pro-American group has a singular vision of the past. Promoted aggressively, the presentation of the Coalition is un-Christian in its vicious, uncharitable attacks on those whom it opposes and in its fundamental dishonesty. It is also un-American, undemocratic and unpatriotic with respect to those whom it includes and excludes in its “history” and in its simplistic visions that exclude most Americans. (The following quotations come from a mailing to my wife requesting her financial support and include a fake opinion survey.) Seeking donations, they send hate mail.

The Coalition’s “National Campaign” aims “To Teach Millions of Young Americans What Made America Great and Train the Next Generation of Patriotic Leaders for America.” Its pitch letter addresses “Dear American Patriot,” as if she had fought at Bunker Hill or crossed the Delaware with George Washington. It continues, “America is under siege by the Left. America’s history is being erased and rewritten by America’s schools, colleges, and universities, the media, Big Tech companies and the Cancel Culture. Leftist rioters are tearing down statues and monuments of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and the great heroes who built America.” (Bold in original.)

This laughable set of contortions goes on, claiming falsely that “Polls now show that college students today overwhelming favor socialism over capitalism,” and that “the radical Left [is] really Communist.” They feel no need to present even a shred of evidence because rational persuasion is not the issue. Preaching to the converted is the game, and a guarantee of failure beyond the flock.

More to the main point is the substitution, with no documentation, of a fabricated alternative American history. “Our freedoms and rights … come from God … who granted … our rights and freedoms,” including equality for all under the law. Furthermore, “Slavery was quickly abolished in most of the United States soon after the American Revolution,” and the Civil War was fought “to end slavery in the few states that were still holding on to slavery.” To my professional historian’s surprise, “slavery was the norm throughout the world until America was founded. We set the example for the rest of the civilized world to end slavery.”

This bizarre set of statements is signed, “My name is Dr. Ralph Reed. I received my PhD in American history from Emory University and have written a number of books on America’s history and politics…. We founded FAITH & FREEDOM in 2009 to defend and promote the principles that made American great—with a special focus on America’s Christian origins.”

The letter ends with an appeal for financial contributions to “train the next generation of leaders” with online learning; in-person conferences, workshops and schools; leadership internships; and “world class faculty” including Dinesh D’Souza, Ted Cruz, Newt Gingrich, Marsha Blackburn, Judge Jeanine Pirro, Marco Rubio, “and many others,” including Reed (he mentions, “I have a PhD in American history” repeatedly). None of these well-known, right-wing writers, celebrities, or politicians qualifies as an authority in history.

Promoting the alternative “projects”

The alternative 1620, 1776, and 1836 “projects,” and their crowning distillation by Reed’s Coalition, do not stand alone. They are promoted nationally by an unprecedented, national campaign with major funding from the Koch brothers, the Bradley Foundation, Robert Gates, and the Heritage Foundation. These lies about American history are broadcast widely and wildly in the form of books on various reader levels and sermons across media. Among the major vehicles are the “handbooks” and “toolkits” on the websites of Heritage Action, 1776 Project, and Citizens for American Renewal and their affiliates. (See their websites.) Former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee peddles a line of companion books for youngsters.

Based on these warped visions, more than a dozen attorneys general from Republican-controlled states have joined together to demand that the U.S. Department of Education refuse to endorse teaching the 1619 Project. State Boards of Education heatedly debate bans versus endorsement of teaching accurate and equitable history and civics. (See my “Assault on critical race theory is an attack on democracy itself” and “Dave Yost vs. American history.”)

1619 vs. 1620, 1776, and 1836: How many “projects” does it take to obstruct a truly American history?


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History and Ohio Eminent Scholar, The Ohio State University. He is the author of many books on social history. He writes and speaks widely on critical race theory and related issues. His essays on critical race theory have appeared in the Columbus Dispatch, Inside Higher Education, Washington Monthly, Academe Blog, and Publishers Weekly. He has presented to a forum to the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University and spoken on NPR stations.