1619 or 1776? How Augustine Corrects Two Wrong Approaches to History

In 2019, the New York Times Magazine launched the “1619 Project,” a journalistic initiative that sought to establish 1619 as the year of our nation’s true founding. What happened in 1619? In August of that year, the first slave ship reached the shores of Virginia, and more than twenty enslaved Africans were sold to American colonists.

The New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize for the “1619 Project.” The publication brought much-needed attention to an embarrassing feature of American history that has too often been omitted from our national narratives. As historians like Edward E. Baptist (The Half Has Never Been Told) and Sven Beckert (Empire of Cotton) have recently shown, the economic empire of the Western capitalism was built on the backs of enslaved human beings, and the “1619 Project” has certainly assisted in popularizing important historical discussions that had been previously relegated to the academy.

Many respected American historians, however, have taken issue with the “1619 Project” for its reliance on several factual inaccuracies. The “1619 Project” was not merely concerned with bringing attention to something conveniently ignored; the authors wanted to reframe the entire narrative of America’s founding as inherently racist by arguing that the American Revolution was fought to preserve slavery. 1619 was not a supplement to 1776; it was meant to be its replacement.

In response, then-President Donald Trump authorized the “1776 Commission,” in which a group of eighteen educators (interestingly, without a single historian) drew up a version of America’s founding for the purpose of “patriotic education.” This report whitewashed the founders from wrongdoing regarding slavery and adamantly defended several troubling aspects of the early United States government.

One might assume that the “1619 Project” and the “1776 Commission” represent opposite perspectives on the meaning of history, but that would be a mistaken notion. The problem with both projects has nothing to do with their differences and everything to do with a shared historical worldview. Both efforts make the mistake of believing that history must be blameless for it to be meaningfully appreciated. Advocates from both groups erroneously believe that moral purity can be accomplished through human actions in this world.

The “1619 Project” seeks to purify the world by scapegoating white men for all societal wrongs and upholding marginalized groups as pure and innocent. The “1776 Commission” seeks to purify the world by denying historical wrongdoing despite clear evidence to the contrary. Both hold naïve views about the innocence of human nature and the possibility of atoning for historical wrongs. Both optimistically believe that purity and innocence are possible in this life.

In 413, Augustine, North African bishop of Hippo, began writing the City of God. Interestingly, Augustine too was writing in the context of blame. The pagan elites of Rome were blaming Christianity for Rome’s fall. Obviously, the new religion was a convenient scapegoat for the degradation of society and the wrath of the gods. Augustine responded by presenting a distinctly Christian philosophy of history, one that maintained hope while still accounting for the existence of unrighteousness in the world.

For Augustine, this world consists of two cities—the visible City of Man and the invisible City of God. While all human beings occupy the City of Man, only Christians indwell the City of God. Christians sojourn as pilgrims in the sin-filled City of Man, while they wait for Christ’s return, judgment, and the institution of the reign of righteousness. Love of self characterizes life in the City of Man, while love of God rules the citizens of God’s city. Augustine’s philosophy of history was built upon several key New Testament teachings, namely Philippians 3:20, Hebrews 11:13-16, and 1 Peter 2:11.

But here’s the thing about Augustine’s Christian view of history: It accommodates the present existence of sin by acknowledging that human beings are incapable of purifying the world. Purification and redemption must come from outside. Nothing we do can make things right because we are all stained. According to Augustine, “True justice is found only in that commonwealth whose founder and ruler is Christ” (Book II, Chapter 21). In the meantime, our earthly existence is “interwoven and intermixed” between the two cities (Book I, Chapter 35) as we await the judgement.

American history does not require purity and innocence. One can be filled with patriotic loyalty toward one’s nation without defending every action its heroes have taken. Slavery will forever be a blight on the American story, and no amount of scapegoating will ever be able to make atonement. Redemption from past wrongs comes only from the outside, from Christ. In this intermixed world of righteousness and unrighteousness, we acknowledge that every act in history has been tainted by sin. The justice we long for is supplied by the only human actor who has ever been fully just.

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