History, Historians, & Civic Engagement: 1) Impeachment, and 2) "The 1619 Project"

By Robert Shaffer posted 14 days ago


            As social studies teachers and our students return from what for many has been an unusually long winter break, they might get re-energized about the significance of our subject by studying two recent interventions by historians in issues in the public sphere.  The first concerns civic engagement at its most important level: the impeachment of President Donald Trump by the House of Representatives in December 2019.  The second – a letter criticizing certain interpretations presented in the August 18, 2019 special issue of the New York Times Magazine on the 400th anniversary of the introduction of enslaved Africans into the English colony at Jamestown – takes what is on one level a narrow issue and broadens it to a debate over one of the central questions in United States history – racism – and its legacy for the present.

                                                        “A National Civics Lesson”: Historians’ Statement on the Impeachment of President Trump 

            Just days before the House voted to impeach the 45th President, a letter signed by over 750 historians (myself included) was released to the press and circulated among U.S. Congressional representatives.  (More historians – mostly college professors, but also some journalists, secondary school teachers, and writers and film-makers on historical subjects – added their names in subsequent weeks, and as of January 5, 2020 there were over 2000 signatories.) 

            The letter, available at https://medium.com/@historiansonimpeachment/historians-statement-on-the-impeachment-of-president-trump-6e4ed2277b16, is brief – only seven paragraphs – but it addresses the two charges for impeachment advanced by House Democrats.  First, it states that “President Trump’s numerous and flagrant abuses of power are precisely what the Framers had in mind as grounds for impeaching and removing a president,” and, second, it characterizes President Trump’s efforts to prevent the House from obtaining documents or hearing testimony from the president’s advisors as “brazen contempt for representative government.”  The letter goes on to cite arguments by George Mason and Alexander Hamilton from the 1780s and 1790s about the need for and circumstances of impeachment. 

            While by no means an exhaustive analysis of the contentious issues that underlie the impeachment of President Trump, the actions of these historians can be seen as following the procedures of the National Council for the Social Studies’ C3 Framework as recommended for students in our classrooms.  That is to say, these historians: framed an important question (Does the President deserve to be impeached?); utilized disciplinary tools in the investigation (the U.S. Constitution and historical documents from the period of the time of its adoption); weighed the evidence; and communicated its findings (in the form of a letter to the press and to Congress). 

            The letter did, in fact, receive decent press coverage – not only from expected sources such as the New York Times, but also from Forbes and People, among others: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/16/us/politics/impeachment-historians.html,

            News reports of the historians’ letter tended to highlight the more high-profile signers, such as Ron Chernow (author of the biography of Hamilton which served as the basis for the Broadway phenomenon) and the prolific PBS documentarian Ken Burns.  But it is also worth noting that one of the originators of the letter is Brenda Wineapple, author of The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation (2019), which has been widely and favorably reviewed, and which demonstrates that the study of history is often inextricably linked to present concerns.


            Perhaps more importantly for social studies teachers, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, calling the impeachment proceedings “a national civics lesson, though a sad one,” submitted the letter “for the record” and urged students to study it and related condemnations of the President’s actions: https://www.baltimoresun.com/politics/bs-md-pol-pelosi-speech-impeachment-20191219-nwpq75eiezchhh3a5yr7lwrnqq-story.html.

            Of course, President Trump and his Republican defenders have argued that this impeachment investigation and vote is not only wrong but illegitimate, contrary to the intent of the Constitution.  These “spiteful actions” of the House, as Trump wrote in his well-publicized six-page December 17, 2019 letter to Pelosi, “display unfettered contempt for America’s founding and your egregious conduct threatens to destroy that which our Founders pledged their very lives to build.” 

            Social studies teachers who seek to use the present impeachment – and impending trial in the Senate – as “a national civics lesson” on checks and balances, on executive privilege and its limits, and on “high crimes and misdemeanors,” might balance the historians’ statement with Trump’s.  Of course, much of the rhetoric in Trump’s letter is over-the-top, such as the justly-derided assertion that “more due process was afforded to those accused in the Salem Witch Trials” than to Trump – an example of hyperbole which might lead observant students to discount the credibility of much of the rest of his response to the House’s charges and procedures.  Trump’s letter, as released by the White House, is at: https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Letter-from-President-Trump-final.pdf.  The Associated Press, among other news sources, has provided a “fact-checked” account: https://apnews.com/a79178f3676982531c104e11d6041f42.

                Let social studies teachers and students across the country join in this “national civics lesson”!

                                                           “The 1619 Project” and the Debate over Race and Racism in American History 

            The special issue of the New York Times Magazine in August 2019 entitled “The 1619 Project” took the date when the first Africans were brought to an English colony in North America as the literal starting point for the racism and exploitation that, its authors maintained, has characterized the United States ever since.  This periodization displaces as the key moments in American history the universal assertions of equality in the Declaration of Independence and the procedures for representative government (and subsequent amendments regarding individual liberty) established in the Constitution.  Instead, the essays included in the magazine argued both that the stain of racism has been linked to all of the nation’s achievements and that this stain has proven impossible to remove.  The magazine announced that it would produce, in conjunction with the Pulitzer Center, more sobering – and in its view more accurate – curricula for our nation’s schools to supplement more conventional textbooks and content standards. See: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html


            Initial criticisms tended to come from conservatives, echoing in many ways the responses 20+ years ago by Lynne Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, and others to the proposed National Standards for U.S. and World History coordinated by UCLA’s National Center for History in the Schools.  The Republican former House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, for example, called the entire 1619 Project “a lie”; see https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/08/19/newt-gingrich-calls-new-york-times-1619-project-a-lie/2049622001/.

            But the Project also raised the ire of highly esteemed historians who have long studied racism, the American Revolution and the Constitution, the Civil War, and related topics, and they articulated their critiques in a variety of on-line forums in recent months.  Then, the year-end issue of the New York Times Magazine published a scathing indictment of the Project from five of these historians, followed by a rebuttal by the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Jake Silverstein; see https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/20/magazine/letter-to-the-editor-historians-critique-the-1619-project-and-we-respond.html

                Signatories of the critical letter include James McPherson, whose Battle Cry of Freedom is the pre-eminent recent history of the Civil War; Gordon Wood, whose well-known books on the American Revolution maintain that it not only achieved independence from Britain but resulted in radical change within American society; Victoria Bynum, whose book on an interracial band of southerners who challenged the Confederacy during the Civil War became the basis for the 2016 feature film, The Free State of Jones; and Sean Wilentz, a prolific scholar of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and, perhaps not coincidentally, one of the organizers of the historians’ petition for Trump’s impeachment.  While not all historians agree with their interpretations of the events and ideas in dispute, these are formidable scholars whose views cannot simply be dismissed as nostalgia for a heroic American past undisturbed by the complications of race.


                The criticisms which Bynum et al. (their names are listed alphabetically in the published version of the letter) raise might be appropriate for students in Advanced Placement classes to grapple with; much of the debate is at a higher level than most middle school and high school students will be able to appreciate.  But social studies teachers of U.S. history and government would be well-served by reading the letter and the editor’s response, along with sections of the original articles.  I will be assigning the “debate” to my sophomore-level college “historical methods” students this semester, to show how and why scholars argue over seemingly minute aspects of historical “truth.”

            The critics claim that the debate is over errors of fact, not interpretation, but that seems too categorical to me.  For example, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the lead writer for the 1619 Project, stated that a major factor behind the (white) colonists declaring independence was to maintain the system of slavery against British efforts, real and imagined, to free slaves.  I find Silverstein’s defense of Hannah-Jones here to be compelling, given, for example, Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation in 1775 – eight months before the Declaration of Independence – to provide freedom to slaves in Virginia who fled to British lines.  That the Revolution also provided an impetus for some Northern and mid-Atlantic colonies/states to end slavery complicates the issue, to be sure, but makes the issue more about legitimate differences of historical interpretation than about “facts.” 

            There are similar questions about the nature of the Constitution as pro- or anti-slavery, about the importance of slavery in the economic development of the nation as a whole, about Lincoln’s commitment to racial equality, and about whether African Americans have, on the whole, had to fight for their freedom more on their own or with white allies.  There are also questions about whether the New York Times Magazine had consulted adequately with professional historians in its development of the 1619 Project.

            Two thorough and judicious commentaries on the controversy illuminate some of the key issues. Phillip Magness of the American Institute for Economic Research weighs the evidence, at times siding with the historians and at times with the 1619 Project:  https://www.aier.org/article/fact-checking-the-1619-project-and-its-critics/.  Adam Serwer of The Atlantic goes in a different direction, arguing that the debate is not so much about historical “facts” but about the prospects for improving race relations and ending race-based exploitation in American society, with Hannah-Jones and her co-authors adopting a pessimistic view while Bynum et al. are more optimistic: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/12/historians-clash-1619-project/604093/.

                What is certain in this debate is that people are discussing how and why history matters to the ways we see ourselves as a nation and to the ways our nation can overcome its legacy of racial injustice.  These issues constitute, in essence, another type of “national civics lesson,” and they, too, lie at the heart of our work as social studies educators.

Prof. Robert Shaffer, Ph.D.
Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania