National Ideals and the 1776 Commission Report: an Analysis

Image Source: 1776 Commission Takes Historic and Scholarly Step to Restore Understanding of the Greatness of the American Founding – Public Domain

One of Donald Trump’s efforts to restructure, or maybe de-structure, the U.S. was the establishment of a 1776 Commission. Its job was to recast American history in an extravagantly patriotic fashion so as to assert U.S. exceptionalism. There is a Platonic correlate to this: the ideal is more real than the actual. Thus, ideals laid down in the nation’s founding documents are presented as more real, more instructive, than actual policies of U.S. national and state governments, and the behavior of their citizens.

The actual Donald Trump, of course, does not care about history, of which he knows little. Maybe that is why he did not bother to put any professional historians of U.S. history on the commission. But as president, he knew who his allies were, and if they wanted to prioritize myth and canonize ideals, it was all right with him. And so the major premise of the 1776 Report is that the United States was founded upon, and remains an expression of, “universal and eternal principles.” For instance, the Declaration of Independence’s assertion “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” would be one such.

As far as the report’s authors are concerned, these basic yet universal “founding principles” of the nation should be front and center in the teaching of national history. The authors are angered by the fact that, in their eyes, this is not being done. Quite the opposite. They believe that what is being taught are the shortfalls from such eternal ideals. How is that a problem? Well, to dwell on the actual, inequitable and often unjust national behavior of Americans is to undermine the unity of the nation and bring low its image. And, for the 1776 Report authors, that is not what education is all about.

Education 

The authors of the 1776 Report believe that “the primary duties of schools are twofold: 1. teach students “practical wisdom.” That is, teach “the basic skills needed to function in society, such as reading, writing, and mathematics.” In other words, education should prepare the student for the job market. This has actually been a recognized goal of schooling since children ceased following in the careers of their parents and home-learned skills consequently no longer sufficed.

Then there is the other “essential” goal of schools: 2. the passing on of “transcendent knowledge.” This too is a  long-recognized goal which, the report says, was endorsed by the founding fathers of the nation. “Educators must convey a sense of enlightened patriotism that equips each generation with a knowledge of America’s founding principles, a deep reverence for their liberties, and a profound love of their country.” Put the two educational goals together and you get the transmission of “transcendent knowledge and practical wisdom that had been passed down for generations and which aimed to develop the character and intellect of the student.”

For the authors, all of this sums to nothing less than “teaching the truth about America.” To be clear, the authors of the report do not want us to so much ignore “the faults of our past” as to “stand up to the petty tyrants in every sphere who demand that we speak only of America’s sins while denying her greatness.” It should be noted that the authors do not address the problem that for those born and bred in poverty, say either in Harlem or Appalachia, the nation’s greatness might not be so real.

Universal and Eternal Tenets?

The report’s repeated use of the words “universal and eternal,” along with “transcendent,” in describing the founding documents of the United States, transforms those documents into sacred texts existing beyond critique. To use such “eternal” references as teaching points—as necessary attributes of what is really “true” about the United States—is to trade history for a semi-religious faith. Granted, this sort of substitution is not original to American conservatives. However, in this case, one gets a strong impression upon reading the 1776 Report that the hidden message is the cultural and religious superiority of a white Christian version of America.

You don’t have to be a professional historian to recognize that there is no perfection in human history, America’s or anybody else’s. There are no eternal and universal tenets, either, when seen in the light of actual historical events. For example, the alleged “eternal and universal” rights to “liberty and happiness” had not been recognized, at least not formally, in thousands of years of human history prior to 1776, and even then, in the emerging United States, they proved immediately unachievable.

As the report concedes, the “eternal” principle cited above from the Declaration of Independence had to be set aside in 1776 just to keep the thirteen confederated American states together. That was done specifically in reference to slavery. The founding fathers were able to find the necessary escape clause in another, more pragmatic, but still semi-sacred principle that the government should be based on the consent of the governed. It turned out that a lot of the (white) governed favored slavery.

It is in this way that the 1776 Report gets off on an illogical and ahistorical foot. Its authors confuse “transcendent” things wished for with things as they have historically been and continue to be. They can do this because, in the end, they believe in the following Platonic-like maxim: “We must first avoid an all-too-common mistake. It is wrong to think of history by itself as the standard for judgment. The standard is set by focusing on unchanging principles that transcend history.”

Progressive Enemies

Who actually believes that we should make judgments on the basis of actual history while ignoring the “the unchanging principles” that supposedly “transcend history”? It turns to be the same “petty tyrants” who “speak only of America’s sins while denying her greatness.” Specifically, the 1776 Report points to “progressive reformers” who are also mixed together with “activists of identity politics.” But aren’t these the folks who demand change so that the United States might more closely conform to its ideals? Not according to those who say history is not a good standard for judgment.

For the report’s authors the progressive reformers’ approach is just a hunt for someone to blame for social ills. And the hunt divides Americans into “oppressed and oppressor groups.” As an aside, one might point out that long-term injustice resulting from institutionalized social ills inevitably does the same thing. The report claims that the real aim of the progressives is to make the original oppressed into new oppressors, and the former oppressors into new oppressed. While one can imagine such a flip taking place against the backdrop of revolutionary upheaval, to assign such a reversal to “progressive reformers,” most of whom seek not revolution but rather policy reforms, is gross exaggeration.

If the report’s authors are afraid of reform, what do they have to offer in its place? As best I can make out, they want us all to be patient and nice to each other because the “American people have ever pursued freedom and justice, though not perfectly.” If we really have faith in the nation’s “eternal and universal” ideals, things should work out in the end. What if this seems to take forever? Well, it might be that the imperfection has no real cure and so it must be accepted and lived with lest attempts at reform lead to the destruction of society—echos of Edmund Burke.

Other Problems

There are other problems with the report. Here are just some of them:

+ The report tells us that for a republic to endure, the people must “share a commonality in manners, customs, language and dedication to the common good.” But, of course, the United States has never been such a place. It has always been a land of immigrants with a constant underpinning of many manners, customs and languages. As for the common good, there has never been any agreement on that. While the report claims that “the Constitution has proven sturdy against narrow interest groups,” this is simply inaccurate. The nation’s governing practices rest on a longstanding, if often corrupt, foundation of interest group politics.

+ The report’s authors make the common historical mistake of pointing fingers at the British crown, that is,  King George III, for the “tyranny” to which the colonies were allegedly subjected. But in 1776, for all practical purposes, the king did not make policy for the British Empire. Parliament did that. The founding fathers decided it would be too awkward to blame a representative body, somewhat similar to the one they were going to create, of the crime of “tyranny.” So they blamed the monarch.

+ Then there is the ahistorical assertion that “the world is still and always will be divided into nations.” Gee whizz! What about all those multicultural empires both of the past and present? What of the constant fluctuation of boundaries? Look at all the peoples once encapsulated within the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires, or more recently the Soviet Union and China.

+ Finally, there is the problematic statement, “the right to keep and bear arms is required by the natural and fundamental right to life.” Well, perhaps, if we were all living in a Hobbesian jungle. This, along with praise for the anti-abortion cause, certainly confirms where on the political spectrum the authors of the 1776 Report are coming from.

Conclusion

There has been much criticism of the 1776 Commission and its conclusions. Newly elected President Joe Biden did away with the commission on his first day in office and removed its report from government websites. His spokesperson observed that it “erased” America’s history of racial injustice. Well, perhaps it hadn’t erase it, but it certainly equivocated about it.

It should be noted that some of this criticism was nearly as naive as the report’s conclusions. For instance, David Blight, a Civil War historian from Yale, said that the report was “an insult to the whole enterprise of education” which “is supposed to help young people to learn to think critically.” Perhaps that is Professor Blight’s educational purpose, and all the more power to him. However, both historically and contemporaneously, the “enterprise of education” has never given more than lip-service to such a goal. Maybe this is because independent and critically thinking kids scare their parents.

Finally, as an indicator of the nation’s deep divide, both supporters and opponents of the report accused the other of coming from “ideologically driven positions” and aiming at producing “political propaganda.” Such mutual recriminations are by now part and parcel of a larger social civil war.

Do the two sides agree on anything? Perhaps. In his famous novel 1984, George Orwell proposed that “he who controls the past, controls the future.” That is probably the only thing supporters and opponents of the 1776 Report seem to agree on.

 

Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.