Forty-eight hours before reluctantly leaving Washington, D.C., President Trump released the final report of the so-called “1776 Commission.” This commission was convened amid last year’s conservative outrage at the New York Times’ 1619 Project and its audacious claims that African Americans might have contributed to moving America closer to its ideals of equality. This report — denying slavery was a structural aspect of America’s founding, accusing the civil rights movement of “immediately” abandoning American principles once it had succeeded, and of modern anti-racism activists of being the moral equivalent of southern slaveholders — was released on Martin Luther King Day.
It’s a nice intellectual pairing to images of white supremacists storming the capitol with a Confederate flag.
Play the Reactionary Hits
In this report, every moldy trope of 1950s fifth-grade civics books are trotted out.
Americans settled a “vast, untamed wilderness.” Americans sailed from Britain to build a shining “city on a hill” an exemplary nation, one that protects the safety and promotes the happiness of its people, as an example to be admired and emulated by nations of the world that wish to steer their government toward greater liberty and justice.” (Winthrop’s puritans certainly believed in justice–they were swift to crop the ears, brand the foreheads, drill the tongues, and burn and strangle heretics and sinners–but they were skeptical of liberty, except their own right to dissent from the Church of England.) Slavery was not the founders’ fault.
Trumpian agendas are evident throughout. In a lengthy discussion of the principles of the Constitution, only three provisions of the Bill of Rights are mentioned: religious liberty, the freedom of speech, and the right to keep guns. These three are questionably described.
In explaining the principles upon which the American republic was founded, a very fringe reading of natural law, clearly inspired by an intolerant desire to define some identities as “natural” and others as “unnatural,” is smuggled in:
Such a justification could only be found in the precepts of nature—specifically human nature—accessible to the human mind but not subject to the human will. Those precepts—whether understood as created by God or simply as eternal—are a given that man did not bring into being and cannot change.
This reactionary view of the world, that most human character is inherited and ancestral, is obsessively repeated: “The assertion that ‘all men are created equal’ must also be properly understood. It does not mean that all human beings are equal in wisdom, courage, or any of the other virtues and talents that God and nature distribute unevenly among the human race.”
In fact, of course, Jefferson and other enlightenment thinkers of his age were highly skeptical of claims that any aspects of human nature were destined by birth but attributed more and more of human behavior to environmental causes. When Jefferson or Madison or others spoke of “natural rights,” they were referring to those rights people had in a state of nature, prior to the rise of organized governments.
There is a reason for the report’s authors slanting this piece of history: their ideological war against “identity politics” requires that they ground character on some unchanging tradition of nature. They cannot accept the insights of cultural anthropology that even Jefferson and his ilk had begun to glimpse: that social and cultural context most strongly influences human behavior. Instead, they want men to be men and women to be women, right and wrong to be absolute and structural oppressions to be ignored.
Just as early church philosophers who first tried to apply reason to faith collided with contradictions they couldn’t overcome and so simply ignored them, the 1776 Commission couldn’t reconcile the grand principles of human equality they lavishly claim the founders embraced in the same way we do, with those patriots’ actions.
So instead of discussing slavery or racial oppression, they simply say the founders, like all humans, were “imperfect” people who made “missteps” and “errors” and falsely claim that these “wrongs have always met resistance from the clear principles of the nation.” Flailing to find some means of excusing the wrongs they don’t dare speak of, they seize upon the cultural relativism they elsewhere condemn: “no nation before America ever dared state those truths as the formal basis for its politics, and none has strived harder, or done more, to achieve them.”
The gyrations required to frame the founders as antiracists can be breathtaking. In order to establish the questionable idea that the founders meant to include all people of all colors in America within their notion of “the people,” the 1776 Report leans on a quote by John Jay (who they identify correctly as being a founder of the New York Manumission Society but conveniently avoid the moral complications of noting he, like many of the members, was also a slave owner at the time).
However, Jay’s passage in Federalist #2 seems on its face to suggest that Jay had a narrower idea of just who the “American people” were. The report quotes Jay writing, “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs.”
Instead of seeing the obvious, that Jay might have been saying that only white Englishmen were really Americans, a possibility richly supported by other facts, such as that several states defined citizens as “white” and the federal government only allowed “whites” to become naturalized citizens (and no “founder” raised any protest against these measures), the report concludes that Americans were defined “on the basis of principle, not blood or kinship or what we today might call ‘ethnicity.’”
Then, rather than confront the obvious historical question of why the founders proclaimed equality and then protected slavery, dispossessed native people, and denied African Americans the most basic rights of citizenship, the Commission asks a startling different and irrelevant question: “if these principles are both eternal and accessible to the human mind, why were they not discovered and acted upon long before 1776?” In other words, why was every society before America so benighted and unjust?
Where the Commission report is not demanding adherence to the “proper” understanding of history, it drifts off into creepy and puzzling tangents. At one point in rhapsodizing founding principles, the report blurts out, “these facts provide necessary — and wise — cautions against unrealistic hopes and checks against pressing partisan claims or utopian agendas too hard or too far.” This interjection is doubly weird as it prefaces a section in which the unrealistic hopes and utopian dreams of the founders are detailed.
Slavery is not mentioned until halfway through report, and then it is minimized by use of the usual racist arguments: “the institution of slavery has been more the rule than the exception throughout human history,” Washington freed his slaves, Jefferson hated slavery, the Continental Congress banned the slave trade and Madison made sure the word “slavery” was kept out of the Constitution, and, in the end, the founders had no choice given the power of slaveholders. “Is it reasonable to believe that slavery could have been abolished sooner had the slave states not been in a union with the free?”
Finally, out of this blunderbuss of rationalizations flies the most Orwellian excuse of them all: “The foundation of our Republic planted the seeds of the death of slavery in America.” The logic of this construction is endlessly elastic. One could just as easily say the foundation of Nazi Germany planted the seeds of the creation of Israel, or Mao’s Long March planted the seeds of the Hong Kong stock market.
History’s true villains were the pro-slavery southerners like John C. Calhoun and the confederate secessionists who “denied the truth at the heart of the founding.” Having finally explained where inequality stemmed from, the bamboozling authors of the report attempt to lash these evildoers to today’s movements for racial equality.
This requires a particular ideological gymnastics that right-wing wonks have been long rehearsing: “the damage done by the denial of core American principles and by the attempted substitution of a theory of group rights in their place proved widespread and long-lasting. These, indeed, are the direct ancestors of some of the destructive theories that today divide our people and tear at the fabric of our country.”
Back to the 1776 Classroom
Throughout the report, there is a studied reluctance to attribute any American reforms to African Americans. Lincoln and the prescient founders ended slavery. Jim Crow was ended not by the courage and sacrifice of black people, but by “a national movement composed of people from different races, ethnicities, nationalities, and religions.”
Worse, the civil rights movement is depicted as a Frankenstein’s monster that rampaged and killed its makers: “The Civil Rights Movement was almost immediately turned to programs that ran counter to the lofty ideals of the founders” by advocating “group rights” such as “affirmative action.” Civil Rights principles were soon perverted into “identity politics” that were the “opposite of [Martin Luther] King’s hope” that only make “it less likely that racial reconciliation and healing can be attained.”
“Identity Politics” are so reviled that they are taken out for an additional flogging in a lengthy appendix. Stuffing the thinnest of straw men, the authors of the report claim proponents of identity politics “reject…the Declaration’s principle of equality” so they can replace them with “racial and sexual identities.” They “wrongly” claim that America has ever been “racist and white supremacist” out of their desire to “punish” the majority “for their sins and those of their ancestors.”
Drawing from Gramsci, their tactic of “creating a counter-culture that subverts and seeks to destroy the established culture” and from Marcuse who “focused not on instigating class conflict but on instigating cultural conflicts around racial identity,” identity activists innovated Critical Race Theory that tries to “impart an oppressor-victim narrative upon generations of Americans,” especially feminists who asserted “that every woman is a victim of oppression by men.” With their “seemingly innocuous campaigns to promote ‘diversity,’” and their “cancel culture,” “this new creed creates new hierarchies as unjust as the old hierarchies of the antebellum South.”
Perhaps because they quickly exhausted all the conservative excuses for slavery and had some space to fill, the report then gratuitiousy dumps on the Progressive reforms of the early 1900s. “Progressives held that truths were not permanent but only relative to their time. They rejected the self-evident truth of the Declaration that all men are created equal… [and instead] believed there were only group rights.”
Once more reflecting the Trump gestalt, the report attacks progressives for believing in science and experts, sneering: “Far from creating an omniscient body of civil servants led only by ‘pragmatism’ or ‘science,’ though, progressives instead created what amounts to a fourth branch of government called at times the bureaucracy.”
Progressivism is lumped in the same section called “Challenges to America’s Principles” as slavery, fascism, communism, and identity politics. Somehow the rise and fall of Hitler’s Third Reich is described without mentioning the Holocaust. Unlike Nazi Germany, the Bolshevik Revolution is described as “bloody” and its “dangerous” communist influence still today “pervades much of academia and the intellectual and cultural spheres.”
Pointy-headed intellectuals come in for much abuse in this report. Universities are “hotbeds of anti-Americanism, libel, and censorship,” “colleges peddle resentment and contempt for American principles and history,” professors pursue “deliberately destructive scholarship” that “shatters the civic bonds that unite all Americans.” Such writing is the “force” behind the “violence in our cities, suppression of free speech in our universities, and defamation of our treasured national statues and symbols.” The “distorted histories of those like Howard Zinn or the journalists behind the ‘1619 Project’” that peddle in “bitterness and judgment” teach students that “truth is an illusion, that hypocrisy is everywhere, and that power is all that matters.”
Unsurprisingly for the product of an incurious administration at war with science and demonstrable facts, the 1776 Commission report views education (which it calls “patriotic,” “authentic,” or “wholesome” education) as a process of spreading dogma rather than teaching students how to think. Its opening statement reads as a warning or maybe a threat: “Americans will never falter in defending the fundamental truths of human liberty proclaimed on July 4, 1776. We will — we must — always hold these truths.”
Sounding like every authoritarian ministry of education ever, the Commission claims the purpose of education is inculcating those “founding principles” that are “inspiring, and ennobling” to build “American unity and a confident American future.” The point of studying history is not to understand the past or its legacies or one’s connection to either, but to “become a better person, a better citizen, and a better partner in the American experiment of self-government.”
The vague hostility to critical thinking that pervades the report surfaces explicitly as a call for a return to the “traditional understanding of education” at its very end. American education needs to return to “conveying a body 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.”
Perhaps the 1776 Commission is actually well named. If American education was organized according to its blueprint it would look strikingly like the schoolrooms common in 1776, complete with rulers used primarily to rap the knuckles of students who answered their questions the wrong way.