The Spirit of 1776

President-elect Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event in Wilmington, Del., July 14, 2020. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Joe Biden went out of his way on his first day in office to cancel Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission.

Established to research and promote patriotic education, the commission was a welcome initiative — while it lasted.

It sought to counterbalance the hostile view of American history advanced by the “1619 Project,” which jumped almost directly from the pages of the New York Times to the curriculum in schools around the country. That project made basic historical errors that it corrected only grudgingly and under pressure from some of the foremost historians in the country, absurdly argued for 1619 — the first year that African slaves were brought to these shores — as the “true” founding of the country (before subsequently editing out this claim without explanation), and distorted the American Revolution, Abraham Lincoln, and the history of slavery, among other things.

Perversely, the Times in effect revived the argument of the likes of John C. Calhoun that the Declaration of Independence was a lie, only from a woke 21st-century perspective.

In the blink of an eye, the 1619 Project re-oriented the discussion about American history.

During its brief life, the 1776 commission tried to re-center it (and attempted to do so, it’s worth noting, simply by providing information to the public, not by interfering in curricular decisions of states and localities).

The contents of the 1776 Commission’s report, released earlier this week, should be uncontroversial. As the authors write in its introduction, its purpose is to “enable a rising generation to understand the history and principles of the founding of the United States in 1776 and to strive to form a more perfect Union.” It starts by outlining in fairly incontrovertible terms the political principles of both the Declaration of Independence and of the Constitution. The report then discusses the obstacles that stood in the way of the Founding vision’s realization and how they were overcome. There is no whitewashing of slavery, nor any suggestion that the moral fabric of the early republic was without hideous stains. The authors merely insist along with Lincoln, whom they quote, that the purpose of the Constitution as ratified in 1787 was “to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.”

Most of the report focuses on recounting how these circumstances were brought about by heroic figures such as Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King. For these men, the words of Jefferson and Madison were the swords and the shields wielded against the enemies of the American creed. To observe the continuity that exists from the victory of 1776 to those of 1865 and 1964 is merely to take great Americans like Douglass and King at their word.

Much of the fire directed at the 1776 report has been directed at the decision to loosely group “Progressivism” and “Identity Politics” alongside “Fascism” and “Communism” in a section titled “Challenges to America’s Principles.” But the report’s discussion correctly states early-20th-century Progressivism’s disregard for the Founding and constitutional government, and regarding identity politics, obviously neither Louis Farrakhan nor David Duke thinks much of the notion that “all men are created equal.”

That President Biden acted so swiftly against the commission is another sign of how desperately we need voices to combat what is rapidly becoming the new orthodoxy about American history.


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