In August 2019, The New York Times launched its “1619 Project,” a subversive attempt to redefine America’s history and present by placing race-based slavery at the center of absolutely everything. The project launched on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of some pirates who traded black human beings to the governor of Jamestown for some supplies, then strained to connect that obscure event with slavery. Yet the far more consequential 400th anniversary comes today, the anniversary of the Mayflower’s final arrival at Provincetown Harbor.
While onboard the Mayflower, a group of religious “Separatists” (today known as Pilgrims) and nonreligious “Strangers” signed the Mayflower Compact, a barebones document focused on self-governance that arguably became a precursor to America’s true founding, the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.
These Pilgrims settled on American soil on November 21, 1620, four hundred years ago today. Their arrival marks a far more consequential date in American history than August 20, 1619.
Unlike the Declaration of Independence, the Mayflower Compact is mercifully short. Also unlike the declaration, it explicitly acknowledges England’s control over the future colony. However, the document lays down a crucial framework for self-government.
In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, etc.
Having undertaken for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the First Colony in the Northern Parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together in a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini 1620.
As Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars (NAS), notes in his book 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project, “only a minority of those aboard the Mayflower were religious pilgrims — 37 of the 201. The nonreligious passengers (the Separatists called them ‘Strangers’) quickly asserted that the charter they had signed back in England was void. And some of the Strangers, such as Stephen Hopkins, were rough customers.”
Hopkins had been convicted of mutiny at Jamestown in 1610 and sentenced to death. After his sentence was commuted, he ran an alehouse in England. The London Merchant Adventurers recruited him for the Mayflower. Hopkins had multiple servants on board the ship and any lasting disagreement with such men could have doomed the Pilgrims’ project.
The real meat of the Mayflower Compact comes down to the phrase “civil body politic.” As Wood explains, the term simply refers to “a group of people who agree to govern themselves by common rules to be created through peaceful deliberation. That means it isn’t a tribe, a dictatorship, or an aristocracy. It offers an ordered public life under the rule of law.”
The Mayflower Compact is a barebones document aimed at keeping a small but diverse group of people together. The Declaration of Independence, by contrast, uses soaring rhetoric to convince the British crown and people across the world of the justice of the Americans’ cause. Even so, as Rebecca Fraser put it in The Mayflower: The Families, the Voyage, and the Founding of America, “the Mayflower Compact has a whisper of the contractual government enunciated in the 4 July 1776 Declaration of Independence, that governments derive their just power ‘from the consent of the governed.'”
“Both documents are attempts to forge a new unity — ‘a civil body politic’ — out of disparate people who have conflicting interests,” Wood explains. “Both call into existence a new government, and both justify that government as needed for safety, good order, and justice. Above all, both project the ideal of self-government as the only way to achieve the ‘general good.'”
Wood argues that the Mayflower Compact was not America’s “true founding” — and neither was August 20, 1619 — but it was a “crucial pre-founding, informing the beginning of the American republic.” On the Mayflower, “an idea of true self-government began to take root.”
What of 1619?
The New York Times‘ “1619 Project” argued that America’s “true founding” came fifteen months before the Mayflower’s arrival. English pirates landed with some twenty to thirty African captives at Jamestown, Virginia, on August 20, 1619. According to the Times, this marked the tragic beginning of more than 200 years of race-based slavery in America.
There are numerous problems with this interpretation. First, this moment certainly did not mark the first time black slaves set foot on what would later become the United States. The Spanish brought slaves to present-day South Carolina in 1526, almost 100 years before the project’s date.
More critically, there is no conclusive evidence that the black men and women who arrived at Jamestown in August 1619 actually became slaves in the same sense as slaves in the antebellum South.
As Wood notes, “The exact status of these captives is unclear. It is likely that they were considered slaves on board the pirate ship, but because slavery was not recognized by English common law, once the captives landed their status became fuzzy. In Bermuda, also founded by the Virginia Company, slaves brought by outsiders were considered to be indentures with a life tenure of service. In Virginia, the records show that many of the captives were, after a term of indenture, set free. None were recorded as slaves.”
Wood argues that “the status of these African captives appears to have fallen into a vaguely defined middle ground” between freedom and slavery.
While the situation of these Africans is lamentable, the 1619 Project is not on solid ground in claiming that this obscure event somehow deserves to be remembered as the centerpiece of American history.
Why does it matter?
As Nikole Hannah-Jones, the 1619 Project’s founder, argued, the project aims to change America’s national memory. It is “not a history” but a fight to “control the narrative,” she admitted.
While some of the 1619 Project’s goals are noble — the project rightly aims to tell the stories of black Americans who have not received the attention they deserve — its heart and soul focuses on subverting America’s view of itself as a force of good and freedom in the world.
The project’s initial installment condemned many aspects of American society — including capitalism and Americans’ preference for sugar — as rooted in racial oppression. This echoes — and is arguably built upon — Marxist critical race theory, which encourages people to find hidden oppression behind various aspects of society.
Portland activist Lilith Sinclair provided a chilling example of Marxist critical race theory and its ability to inspire an aimless revolution. “There’s still a lot of work to undo the harm of colonized thought that has been pushed onto Black and indigenous communities,” she said. As examples of “colonized thought,” she mentioned Christianity and the “gender binary.” She said she organizes for “the abolition of … the “United States as we know it.”
When vandals toppled a statue of George Washington in Portland, they spray-painted “1619” on the statue. When Claremont’s Charles Kesler wrote in The New York Post, “Call them the 1619 riots,” 1619 Project Founder Nikole Hannah-Jones responded (in a since-deleted tweet) that “it would be an honor” to claim responsibility for the destructive riots. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) called for the “dismantling” of America’s “economy and political system,” in order to root out supposed racist oppression.
The riots have proved the most destructive (in terms of insurance claims) in U.S. history. While leftists repeat claims of “institutional racism,” the riots have victimized the black community. The destruction disproportionately hit black communities in Kenosha, Wisc., Minneapolis, and Chicago. The riots destroyed black lives, black livelihoods, and black monuments. At least 26 Americans have died in the riots, most of them black.
For these and other reasons, many black leaders have denounced the official Black Lives Matter movement, the founders of which have described themselves as “trained Marxists.” Over 100 black pastors recently condemned the Black Lives Matter movement and urged Nike to distance itself from it.
Last month, Wood led a group of 21 scholars in condemning the 1619 Project and urging the Pulitzer Prize Board to rescind the Pulitzer Prize it had awarded to Hannah-Jones. Among other things, the scholars noted the project’s many errors and stealth revisions.
The 1619 Project originally claimed that the patriots in the American Revolutionary War fought in part to defend slavery — a completely baseless accusation the Times ultimately softened after facing scholars’ rebukes. In September, the project deep-sixed its fundamental claim that 1619 represented America’s “true founding.” Hannah-Jones then proceeded to act as though she had never claimed such a thing.
As the scholars wrote to the Pulitzer board, “the false claims were erased or altered with no explanation, and Hannah-Jones then proceeded to claim that she had never said or written what in fact she has said and written repeatedly, assertions that the Project materials also made.”
“The duplicity of attempting to alter the historical record in a manner intended to deceive the public is as serious an infraction against professional ethics as a journalist can commit. A ‘sweeping, deeply reported and personal essay,’ as the Pulitzer Prize Board called it, does not have the license to sweep its own errors into obscurity or the remit to publish ‘deeply reported’ falsehoods,” the scholars wrote.
The 1619 Project may do America some good at the margins by telling the overlooked stories of black Americans, but its subversive aspects are dangerous and need to be rebuked. At the very least, The New York Times should publicly apologize for falsely claiming that 1619 was America’s “true founding.”
The signing of the Declaration of Independence rightly deserves that distinction, and the Mayflower Compact is an important precursor to it. America has long struggled to live up to the ideals of the declaration, but that does not mean it is an inherently racist or oppressive country. The United States has taken tremendous strides toward justice and equality, and its ideals are sound. The New York Times should be working to uphold those noble ideals, not to undermine America’s foundations.
Contrary to Hannah-Jones’ protestations, America’s memory is sound, and Americans are right to celebrate the Mayflower on its 400th anniversary.
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Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.