The 1776 Commission, created by President Donald Trump in 2020 to “restore understanding of the greatness of the American founding” and combat anti-Americanism in history classrooms, just released its first report. Though there are some bright spots, especially when it comes to the philosophical basis of the founding, it has a attracted a fair amount of criticism as well.
“It’s a hack job. It’s not a work of history,” American Historical Association executive director James Grossman told The Washington Post. “It’s a work of contentious politics designed to stoke culture wars.”
However, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro voiced his initial support, tweeting, “This is excellent.”
The 45-page report starts off strong, providing readers with the philosophical foundations of the country.
It begins, “The Commission’s first responsibility is to produce a report summarizing the principles of the American founding and how those principles have shaped our country.
“The principles of the American founding can be learned by studying the abundant documents contained in the record. Read fully and carefully, they show how the American people have ever pursued freedom and justice, which are the political conditions for living well. To learn this history is to become a better person, a better citizen, and a better partner in the American experiment of self-government.”
All reputable historians go back to the source material and read it within the context of that period of time in history. It doesn’t happen as much in the field anymore has narrative so often replaces fact.
The Commission’s report continues, “Comprising actions by imperfect human beings, the American story has its share of missteps, errors, contradictions, and wrongs. These wrongs have always met resistance from the clear principles of the nation, and therefore our history is far more one of self-sacrifice, courage, and nobility. America’s principles are named at the outset to be both universal—applying to everyone—and eternal: existing for all time. The remarkable American story unfolds under and because of these great principles.”
Some critics of the 1776 Commission Report acknowledge that while the work addresses the philosophical foundations of this country in great detail, it seems to gloss over the country’s more problematic aspects, most notably slavery and the country’s overly aggressive actions against suspected communist sympathizers, and lean more on patriotism.
For example, the section on slavery deals with the Founders’ philosophical debate about the issue and addressed the reason why certain decisions were made about the Three-Fifths Compromise, that counted African slaves as only three-fifths of a person, when drafting the Constitution.
Though there was a mechanism built into the Constitution that foresaw the end of slavery, it doesn’t diminish the reality that the practice of keeping slaves was able to continue after the Founding Fathers sent the Declaration of Independence, which argued that “All men are created equal.”
On the subject of communism, the Commission wrote, “Led by the Soviet Union, Communism even threatened, or aspired to threaten, our liberties here at home. What it could not achieve through force of arms, it attempted through subversion. Communism did not succeed in fomenting revolution in America. But Communism’s relentless anti-American, anti-Western, and atheistic propaganda did inspire thousands, and perhaps millions, to reject and despise the principles of our founding and our government.”
This reality resulted in what’s known as the Red Scare. Though the U.S. won the Cold War 1989, in the 1950s lives were both ruined and ended as certain government officials hunted for communist sympathizers. The most poignant example is the controversial execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on charges of espionage. Both maintained their innocence until death.
In the end, critics suggest the glaring flaw of the 1776 Commission is that it failed to deal with the fundamental challenge of teaching American history—how do you balance all the good and fantastic principles designed by the Founding Fathers and included in the Constitution with the treatment of African slaves?
The explanation of the reasons why the country was founded, how it was were incredibly detailed, philosophical and should remain part of American education, but that fundamental problem remains.
Is that what’s currently missing in history education in the U.S? Can there be a delicate balance of praising, where praise is due, and condemning as necessary as well, which has been lost in a wave of anti-American rhetoric? After all, no person, historical or current, is perfect. As we have been given grace, can it not be extended to the historical figures and times we study as well?
As Paul stated in a letter to the Romans, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23, ESV).
History and people are made up of a variety of contradictions. The United States is a fantastic example. It’s a nation that inspired so many others to freedom, while historically forcing a single group of people into slavery and continuing with institutional racism in certain states for nearly 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
The question we must ask ourselves is how do we address this sensitive topic, which has impacted so many Americans, while providing context, clarity and insight into the people who made this country great?
Photo from The White House