On September 17, 2020, President Donald Trump announced he was creating a presidential commission to encourage “patriotic education” named the 1776 Commission. At the same time, across town, education secretary Betsy DeVos heaped praise on a new curriculum developed by conservative think tanks to counter what Trump termed the “twisted web of lies” spread by radicals that “America is a wicked and racist nation.” Earlier this summer, Arkansas senator Tom Cotton announced he was introducing legislation, the Saving American History Act of 2020, that would defund school districts that used the New York Times’ 1619 Project, an essay series that foregrounded the history of slavery and racism in US history.
While the specifics of what the president’s 1776 Commission will consist of have yet to be announced, the commission DeVos praises as “wonderful” — also named for the year of American independence — debuted this week, seemingly in coordination with Trump and DeVos’s culture war speeches. Contributors to 1776 Unites are open that they see the problem with emphasizing the history of slavery and racism as promoting a culture of “victimization” and giving permission to children to blame their failures on racism and capitalism. As one contributor, Dean Nelson, concluded, “We also must avoid rearing kids who see every setback they face through the lens of race and look for opportunities to be offended or outraged.”
According to the 1776 Unites project, the corrective to liberal histories of victimhood is teaching children that America is a land of opportunity, even in spite of the hiccups of its racist past, and that everyone can achieve wealth through hard work and self-uplift. Project essayist John Sibley Butler calls for more historical attention to the “Black Bourgeoisie” and characterizes the 1619 Project as ignoring “the history of my tradition and presents blacks as going from slavery to poverty, with no role models.” Emeritus professor of finance from the University of Tennessee Harold A. Black puts his finger on the real irritant that motivates these conservatives: “It was the War on Poverty’s resultant destruction of the black family that derailed our progress.”
For all the fury about the supposedly historically misleading account of America’s Revolution and Constitution propounded by the liberal New York Times, curiously, the curriculum developed by the Woodson Center, 1776 Unites, and consultants associated with various GOP causes does not deal with issues of America’s founding at all. There is not one word about the Founding Fathers or the American Revolution in any of its lesson plans or presentations. Instead, it is entirely focused on profiling two nineteenth-century “entrepreneurs,” Biddy Mason and Elijah McCoy. Mason and McCoy were selected, apparently, because the lessons to be taught to children are not about the United States at all, but are aimed to convey “resilience, grit, determination, self-reliance, and other positive inner resources and character traits.”
The project makes little pretense at being a serious look at American history. Instead, it’s empty boosterism for American-style free markets.
A Gloss Over the Realities of Slavery
Biddy Mason was born in slavery but lived to become a famed midwife and businesswoman in Los Angeles. Elijah McCoy was born free in Canada to parents who escaped slavery and went on to become a prolific inventor. The lesson plans provided describe McCoy as “a leader and model for Black America in the first generation after Emancipation” and Mason as someone who “became one of the wealthiest African-American women in the nation” because of her “refusal to give into bitterness or resentment.”
Bridget “Biddy” Mason was born in Mississippi in 1818. What it meant to be a female slave in 1818 is glossed over, as the lessons refer to Mason’s life in slavery as a “difficult start” and a “challenging start.” After breezily sweeping past the first thirty years of Mason’s life in the heart of the cotton South, the lesson moves on to what it presents as her real challenge: trekking across the Great Plains with her master’s family. “She walked the entire way (1,700 miles) behind a wagon train.”
1776 Unites glosses over the sexual violence inherent in defining people as personal property. It says blithely, “In the 1840s her owner, Robert Smith, took his family and slaves westward to join his fellow Mormons in Utah.” This construction neatly divides Smith’s “family” from his “slaves,” but in reality, the two were entwined. Absent is the compelling fact that Mason had with her three daughters, Ellen, Ann, and Harriet — ages ten, four, and a nursing infant — when she walked to Utah.
Some of Mason’s own children, and quite likely a number of her sister’s ten children, were fathered by Smith. In Mason’s California trial in which she sued for her freedom, Smith attempted to hold control over her and her sister by arguing that they were “a portion of his family.” Local reporters covering the trial noted the strikingly fair complexions of the Mason children, and the judge conceded that Smith had “a past relation to them as members of his family,” but denied this gave Smith the right to force them to leave the state, as he claimed. Biddy Mason was never allowed to speak in her own hearing, because people of color were barred from testifying against whites in all criminal and civil proceedings.
Just as the lessons gloss over the realities of slavery, they portray American institutions as becoming more progressively open and fair. Mason was not just walking across the country, she was walking forward in time, as equality did. After describing how Mason moved from Utah to California, the lesson makes Mason the beneficiary of justice, or, as the lesson reads: “It was a time when the country was opening up and laws were starting to be changed in ways that allowed her to demand and receive her freedom.”
Freedom! When Smith realized she could sue for freedom, he tried to take her to Texas (a slave state), but the sheriff intervened in her favor. In 1856, she won her freedom in court and Robert Smith was ordered to pay her court costs.
Actually, it was not a “sheriff” who intervened, but young men from Los Angeles’s black community. Charles Owen, who was courting Mason’s daughter Ellen, his father, Robert, a successful rancher and horse merchant, along with Elizabeth Rowan, one of Robert Owen’s business partners, organized a raid on Smith’s Mormon encampment to free Mason and the other people held prisoner. A sheriff came along to serve papers, but the muscle and planning for the raid came from Mason’s friends.
Historian Dolores Hayden notes how Biddy Mason, her sister, and their children threaded a very small needle to arrive at their freedom. Smith likely would have succeeded in retaining them all as his slaves had he appealed the case to a higher state court, but he foreclosed his legal options by hiring a man to kidnap some of the children during the trial and bribing Mason’s lawyer to quit the case. Had Mason’s case been heard one year later, after the Supreme Court had ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford that residence in free states and territories could not deny a slave-owner’s property right to his slave, Mason and her family would have been dragged to Texas in chains and sold apart.
Elijah McCoy is an odd choice for a symbol of entrepreneurial success, and his story only serves the morality tale of hard work and pluck being rewarded, if most of it is left out. In these lessons, McCoy is described as the child of a couple that fled slavery to Canada and then scrimped and saved and sent their son Elijah to Scotland to study to become a machinist. Children who are curious why young Elijah had to go all the way to Scotland to go to school are left hanging.
Instead, they are told simply that, after learning “mechanical engineering,” McCoy settled in Michigan, and that “Despite his education, McCoy faced racial discrimination and was only able to find work as an oilman on the Michigan Central Railroad.” But, undeterred, McCoy invented an automatic oiling system for trains that “allowed trains to lubricate without stopping.”
Here the uplifting story ends, except to note that McCoy went on to file fifty-seven patents, and to sum up McCoy’s life with this Pollyannaish conclusion: “Success!: The superiority of his inventions earned McCoy world-wide recognition and created the phrase, ‘real McCoy’ to describe any instrument or process that is flawless in quality and performance.” We’re also told that “now known internationally, [McCoy] served widely as a consultant for railroads and other industries.”
The truth is far less rosy. Some of McCoy’s most valuable inventions, such as an oiler that cut accidental engine fires by two-thirds, were easily copied. The value of others of McCoy’s inventions were beyond easy calculation, as they vastly improved the efficiency of not only locomotives but all heavy industrial machinery. Had he been able to uphold his patents and sell them for what they were worth, he would have ranked with Harvey Firestone, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford in the size of his fortune. Instead, industries refused to pay fair value for his patents, and he ended up selling most for pennies on the dollar.
McCoy did not go on to become a “consultant” — this is pure fabrication. Rather, he died in comparative poverty. Even the idea that he was the source of the phrase “the real McCoy” was a later imaginative adaptation. Evidence instead points to the boxer Norman Selby, middleweight world champion, who, early in his career, fought under the name “Kid McCoy” and was much better than another boxer by the same name. “All that real McCoy stuff comes back to me, and nobody else but me. What other McCoy did you ever hear of?” asserted Selby in 1939.
Historical Accuracy Isn’t the Point
The 1776 Unites curriculum is riddled with factual errors. Its lesson on Elijah McCoy mistakes his birth year as 1844 (McCoy was born on May 2, 1843). It states that McCoy settled in Michigan in 1947, a puzzling move, as this was eighteen years after McCoy died. It misdates the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 as being passed prior to 1837. After describing how Biddy Mason won her freedom in court in 1856, it asks its student readers, “Do you know what year the rest of the slaves in America were emancipated?” and gives the answer as 1863.
But the point of this curriculum is not historical accuracy, it’s cheerleading for capitalism.
The examples of Mason’s and McCoy’s lives are not used to show the adversity they overcame (this is mostly hidden under a bright, gauzy can-do-ism), but rather to blame those who don’t succeed for their own failures. There is a trumpeting of the message that capitalism rewards effort and intelligence. After being taught about Mason’s investments in Los Angeles lots that paid off richly when the city grew, students are led to think about how the difference between the rich and poor is a matter of self-control:
It has been said that a difference between the rich and the poor is that the rich invest in assets that appreciate and the poor invest in assets that depreciate. What is an asset? What does it mean for an asset to appreciate? (A common example of an asset that typically appreciates is real estate. This is what Biddy Mason invested in.)
They are then asked to engage in a thought experiment: “If you had a million dollars to invest, where would you invest it so that you could ensure that it would grow and increase?” From such musings, the lesson moves to a very specific exercise:
Imagine you are a real estate investor today. Look at the real estate listings in your town to get a sense of what kinds of properties are available and how much they cost. Select 3 properties that you are interested in. These could be houses, business properties, or land. Write down 1 reason why you think each piece of property would make a good investment.
Students are then told to look up and learn the following vocabulary terms from the dictionary:
Judging by its first attempt at producing actual educational materials, it can fairly be said that the 1776 Unites project is little more than boosterism for free-market liberalism. The lessons children are intended to learn are not about American history, American society, or American institutions at all. Rather, the only point is that you can succeed if you want to, and those who don’t just didn’t try hard enough.