The report, whose main authors are Matthew Spalding and Carol Swain, does not justify slavery, as Huffington Post wrongly argues; it defends equal rights against group separatism. After the commission was revoked by Biden, the implementation of The 1619 Project in U.S. schools will continue. Seeing that there is a growing campaign against the 1776 Commission’s report – even a defamatory Wikibook is planned – I would like to say a few words on both projects from the point of view of an Eastern European historian of the Enlightenment.
The Fight for Rights?
I don’t think that the 1619 Project is a correct cure for the alleged inadequacies of U.S. historiography. Its basic assumption is that there is a logical contradiction: the founding fathers created a culture of rights and it was denied to black slaves. Hence there was no culture of rights. But in fact, it was still there. Without the culture of rights, the African-Americans would have nothing to fight for. Historiography is about factual statements, and they do not exclude each other in the same way as logical propositions do.
The 1619 Project condemned the founders of U.S. democracy as racists in an unfair trial in which their own voices were not heard. Who will tell the pupils that the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which preceded the Declaration of Independence, was attacked by one Robert Carter Nicholas who demanded that the ‘equal rights’ clause should be racially restricted? Mason and Jefferson knew about this racist option, but chose to reject it. Jefferson did so, even though he was himself racially prejudiced against the black Americans. Who will tell the pupils that Samuel Hopkins, Benjamin Rush or William Gordon were aware of the injustice done to black Americans? Who will tell the pupils about Benjamin Franklin’s and John Jay’s involvement in the abolitionist societies? Who will tell them about the Constitution of Vermont and the antislavery legal measures in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts?
Who will tell them about the pessimistic views of human of nature that were shared by John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and the theologian John Witherspoon? Their truly antiracist belief in human depravity and corruption did not except even their white fellow-men.
The essay by Nikole Hannah Jones implies that a new culture should be created, in which justice would be guaranteed by the racial origin of its representatives. The scary moment of her way of thinking is that she fails to see that all these ideas had to be thought out first and then put into practice. In her narrative, the fight, resistance and protest appear as magical remedies, and once the fight is won, a system of rights would come out of nowhere. The fight for rights appears to be more important than the rights themselves.
This delusional thinking has been propagated in the U.S. for a long time. If you visit the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, GA, you will notice that civil rights are presented there as the result of fighting and not of thinking. Whereas Milton Konvitz, the civil rights thinker, is not even mentioned there, the fighters for civil rights are presented by a number of disturbing quotes. There is not only Martin Luther King´s statement about riots, but also phrases such as: H. Rap Brown, ‘If America does not come along, we´re going to burn it down.’ Or Malcom X, ‘The price of freedom is death.‘ Imagine what these lessons of wisdom would have done in new democracies which were trying to avoid violence and find a way for a peaceful transition. Czechoslovakia, my country, split up without a civil war, but if we were listening to this incitement, we would have ended miserably.
Equality versus Group Rights
The 1776 Commission chose a different approach, which draws on Matthew Spalding’s political philosophy. They were not seeking compelling stories like the NYT journalists; they tried to find honest principles that would preserve social cohesion. They identify these principles, and then also the challenges that have threatened these principles in modern history. The bottom line is that the republic was based on the assumption of equal rights, and this principle has been violated by ideologies that wished to fragment the society of equals into groups of varying value. These were first of all slavery, then progressivism, then the global movements of Fascism and Communism, and finally identity politics. They also believe that social cohesion in America has been maintained with the help of religion, civic manners and compromises.
The team may be criticized for implying that America was exceptional in its stress on equality. American legislators had important forerunners, such as the Jesuit Francisco Suarez, who elucidated the difference between privileges and laws, and the natural law theorists of Pufendorf’s school. But the team is right in saying that the U. S. was a unique republican experiment. The Commission report is perhaps embellishing the U.S. law when it highlights the Constitution and the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1964 and does not discuss the disadvantages of case law. Anyway, the 1776 Commission answers the question of how to secure equality after the fight. This is something the 1619 Project is not doing.
The commission also makes the bold statement that Calhoun’s pro-slavery ideology and present-day identity politics have something in common. Both of these ideologies replace equal rights with group rights, and both root them in race. This is again in tune with the underlying idea that equality is at odds with group rights.
In combating the new challenge, the 1776 Commission proposes what they call Authentic Education. It should provide kids with unbiased knowledge of fundamental ideas on the basis of original documents. The aim of this approach is to bypass biased narratives, but I am afraid that this will not work if teachers do not come along. I am also afraid that kids are not patient enough to read complete legal documents. The kids should also be told that the noble words of the Declaration of Independence have been abused by opponents of universal suffrage and civil rights.
In conclusion, let me tell you this. When this project was announced in the fall of 2020, I engaged in a conversation on President Trump’s twitter account. Lots of U.S. citizens were shouting there that the program was aiming at teaching Nazism, emulating China and Putin’s Russia. They were misled by the term ‘patriotic,’ which they related to traditions of completely different countries. Paradoxically, they believed that they were combating German Nazism, while they were defaming American democracy. The U.S. citizens have had their own past replaced by false memories, and the new plans of the Biden administration will only aggravate the situation. In spite of all its inadequacies, the 1776 Project was a step in the right direction. It deserves to be called ‘Common Sense Number Two’.