The criticism leveled by journalists and the AHA against the 1776 Commission report is misleading. Here is why.
Long before President Trump established any commission, the divisive 1619 Project had been criticized by black American scholars who decided to start a campaign of their own. The 1776Unites project was launched on February 14, 2020. Its leading figure is Carol Swain, the political scientist who had been expelled from her job after a leftist mob accused this black woman of being a white supremacist. In her essay, she took on identity politics which she correctly identified as a new form of racism. A similar project was started by black authors in the UK. It is called The Equiano Project, and its founder Inaya Folarin Iman also concluded that this fashionable ideology was actually a reversed racism. It was only after these two brave black women voiced their criticism that President Trump established The 1776 Commission in the fall of 2020, which also included Carol Swain as vice president.
In January 2021 the Commission issued a report which argued that civic education should be based on the principles of equal rights and combat ideologies promoting group rights. For some reason, none of the critics of the project has been able to sum up this simple idea, nor admit that the 1619 project has been criticized by black scholars. Instead of summing up the main argument fairly, critics focus on what is convenient for them and denounce the whole project of patriotic education as a racist enterprise of white supremacists. Yes, the report claims that group ideologies included not only pro-slavery apologies, but also present-day identity politics. This claim is actually in tune with the main line of argument of the whole report, which defends equal rights on the basis of the Declaration of Independence.
The journal Politico even falsely accused the 1776 Commission of plagiarism because the list of questions in Appendix IV of the report is borrowed from an article written by one of the Commission members, Thomas Lindsay. Now, if you use what you have written, it is not really a case of plagiarism.
Now look at the unfair summary provided by the Huffington Post. In her article Sarah Ruiz Grossmann is silent about the main argument of the report, and instead of that reduces its contents to two items: “It makes excuses for slavery and the Three-fifths Compromise that declared slaves counted as less than full humans.“
Huffington Post chose not to say that the report actually condemned slavery, and that the three-fifths clause pertained to the method of counting the taxed population. The three-fifths clause in the Constitution, as the report explains, was pushed through in 1787 to prevent southern slaveholders from including their slaves in the population census as whole persons, and thereby increasing their congressional representation.
Huffington Post also claims that the report abuses photos of Martin Luther King Jr while betraying his legacy. The Report actually claims that the leftist appeal to value people “on the basis of their race, sex and sexual orientation” is the opposite of what Martin Luther King Jr wanted. He wished that “his children would live in a nation where ´they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character´.” (p. 16).
While the AP news outlet also gave a voice to Matthew Spalding, the executive director of the Commission, the History News Network did not bother about objectivity. By now, this agency has produced no less than eleven outlets condemning the report as “a racist mess”. None of these condemnations provides a fair summary of the main argument, nor are they correct in their statements about the alleged historical truths. One of them claims that Enlightenment thinkers did not believe in innate rights, but in “environmental causes”.
The last condemnation came on January 30, 2021 from the World Socialist Web Site. Tom Carter argues here that the report uses a quote about ‘a people descended from the same ancestors’ from Federalist 2 to convey a fascist message about the necessary homogeneity of a nation. If you look up the quote on p.3 of the report, you will see that the authors actually argue that the Founders were united on the basis of a principle of justice, and did not intend to create a nation tied by bonds of blood or kinship and ethnicity. They then bring this quote by John Jay as a possible counterargument against their claim. The quote actually appeals also to received qualities, such as principles of government, manners, counsels and shared military experiences.
The AHA Condemnation
The saddest disappointment is, however, the condemnation issued by the American Historical Association on January 20, 2021. It is unsigned, but we may presume that it was authored by either by Alex Liechtenstein, or James Grossman.
Instead of providing a fair summary, he caricatures the contents of the report and accuses Carol Swain and others of wanting to indoctrinate students and spread ignorance about the past. The author of the condemnation requests that Americans should study ‘multiple ways’ in which slavery shaped their nation’s history. Since the author of the AHA condemnation has failed to understand the logical structure of the report, he argues that it consists of two themes – one is a homage to the Founding Fathers, the other a denial of recent scholarship. He also accuses the Founding Fathers of failing to include women in the body politic. This is an obvious anachronism and a denial of recent scholarship.
The AHA condemnation falsely argues that the 1776 report criticized progressivism because of its welfare politics. In fact, the report gave a different reason. They regretted the alleged progressivist belief that governmental functions should be independent of legislation (p. 13). This would take the power from voters to so-called experts, and this is also why the 1776 Commission sees a parallel between progressivism and Mussolini’s fascism. I don’t deny that the whole passage is baffling to me, too, but the Commission gave a different reason from what the AHA condemnation says.
The AHA also defends the ‘defamation of national statues’ that has been going on in the U.S. since the Charlottesville riots of 2017. They claim that the targeted statues were either Southern insurrectionist soldiers or defenders of slavery and white supremacy. This is a staggering claim if you consider that the targeted statues also included the Jefferson monument in Charlottesville, VA, which stood in front of the university which he founded. It was even suggested that the Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC should also be removed. Statues of George Washington have been vandalized across the country. In 2020, a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Portland was toppled, and it was suggested that the Emancipation Memorial in Washington DC should be removed. By the time the AHA issued their condemnation, a special commission in San Francisco was removing Lincoln’s name from public buildings, and his statue there had been vandalized too.
The AHA condemnation also amusingly wonders why the 1776 Commission defends the family. It fails to mention that ‘nuclear family’ has been condemned by Black Lives Matter who propose that black Americans should live in ‘black villages’ where the ‘Western-prescribed nuclear family’ will be eradicated.
The AHA condemnation fails to acknowledge that the 1776 report actually incorporated the criticism leveled by historians of the American Revolution and the Civil War against the 1619 Project. However, Sean Wilentz, the leading critic, is not satisfied with the 1776 report either. The AHA also fails to see what consequences such inflammatory condemnation would have for the authors of the 1776 report, who actually include a black American woman who has already suffered quite a lot under similar attacks.