Yesterday, in his final days in the White House, Donald Trump released the results of his 1776 Commission. He describes the report as a “historic and scholarly step to restore understanding of the greatness of the American founding.”
The report is not “historic” or “scholarly.”
It is not “historic” because the document is meaningless. It will not be implemented in any way. Trump leaves office on Wednesday.
It is not “scholarly” because the team who created it does not include a single American historian.
But I imagine that there will be many on the right who will appeal to this document to advance a conservative political agenda. So let’s take a few blog posts to examine it, starting with the “Introduction.”
The 1776 Commission wants to promote an American history that is “accurate, honest, unifying, inspiring, and ennobling.” Were there moments in American history that were “unifying, inspiring, and ennobling?” Of course there were. But an “accurate” and “honest” look at the American past will also require an acknowledgement of where Americans have failed, and failed miserably, to live up to its founding ideals. For conservatives who believe in the limits of human potential and the flawed character of human beings, the authors of this document should understand that any history of the United States must contain the good, the bad, and the ugly. The Introduction references the “imperfect” nature of human beings, but it also seems to assume that Americans have overcome these imperfections. There is a Francis Fukuyama “end of history” feel to the Introduction.
The authors reference America as a shining “city on a hill.” (There is no section in the report on colonial America. This reference to John Winthrop’s words is all we get). I would encourage the authors to read Daniel Rodgers and Abram Van Engen on the original meaning of the phrase “city on a hill.” And by the way, the word “shining” was added to John Winthrop’s words by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
The 1776 Commission report says that the “facts of our founding are not partisan.” But while the founding fathers united around the need for American independence from England, they did not agree on how to apply the principles of their revolution to everyday life. In fact, the history of the American “founding,” if you define the period as the years between 1765 and 1789, was a very partisan and divisive affair. This fierce debate over the meaning of America continued into the 1790s and still continues today.
The statement that “the American people have ever pursued freedom and justice” is just not true.
The rhetoric improves as we get to the end of the Introduction when it says that the story of America is the “struggle” to create a free society. Yes. And the struggle is not over.
My next post will deal with section 2: “The Meaning of the Declaration.”