J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, January 21, 2021

Two Days of the “1776 Report”

On 5 January 2021, the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission (dubbed “The 1776 Commission”) had its first meeting.

The next day, the President egged his fans into storming the Capitol building to disrupt the certification of his big election loss. One police officer and two rioters were killed in the violence, two more people died in the excitement, and two suicides have been linked to the fallout of that day. The President watched on T.V.

On 18 January, less than two weeks after the commissioners’ first meeting, they issued a 40-page document titled “The 1776 Report.” Three pages consisted of the Declaration of Independence. Other passages had been copied without credit from previous writings by a couple of commission members. Most of those members were political scientists, lawyers, and activists, not historians, and all came from the far right.

Predictably, the “1776 Report” was highly political in its analysis of U.S. history and retrograde in those politics. At its core was a pair of contradictory claims: American history education is too close-minded, and there’s only one proper way to present American history. Working historians took issue with how the report described both the national past and the process of teaching. On 20 January the American Historical Association issued a written condemnation joined by more than twenty other scholarly organizations.

At Slate, Rebecca Onion rounded up some of the professional response in an article titled “Trump’s ’1776 Report’ Would Be Funny if It Weren’t So Dangerous” and assessed the document’s argument. Here’s a taste:
The basics: The ideas the country was founded on were Good; in fact, they were, and remain, Perfect, Eternal Truths. Therefore, nobody who really believed in those ideas could do anything wrong! (No racist bones here!) Therefore, the fact that some founders said privately that they believed slavery was evil, yet continued to hold people in bondage, was not evidence of their hypocrisy, but of their inherent righteousness. Therefore, “the foundation of our Republic” (yes, this document is sure to use the word Republic, itself a dog whistle) “planted the seeds of the death of slavery in America.” If it took a few more decades for this “plan” to end slavery gradually to come to fruition, so what?

As for Native history, that’s a simple circle to square: It’s just not in here. Not a word.

The passive voice gets a workout, trying to explain away everything bad in our history. “Despite the determined efforts of the postwar Reconstruction Congress to establish civil equality for freed slaves,” the report intones, “the postbellum South ended up devolving into a system that was hardly better than slavery.” Which parts of the Congress wanted civil equality? Which parts of the government fought against this? Who, in the South, made it “devolve” into this terrible new “system”? These invisible actors just float around, unnamed.
The “1776 Report” basically tries to draw an unbroken, unbent, unknotted line between the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Civil Rights Bill of 1964. After all, both documents talk about equality, right? This sort of analysis is insulting, both to the intelligence of Americans who study the nation’s history at any level and to the many Americans who didn’t enjoy equal treatment.

It’s true that all the talk of ”liberty” in the Revolution produced enough discomfort with slavery in New England and Pennsylvania that those states limited the practice by the end of the eighteenth century. But that certainly wasn’t the case throughout the U.S. of A. Some states actually increased their exploitation of slave labor after the split with Britain, as changes in their populations and laws show. The issue was so divisive that the national government formally shut down debates over it in several ways. And of course ending slavery in the U.S. turned out to require a great big war.

That’s not even getting into how the end of slavery didn’t produce true equality, freedom, or legal protection for all, either in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, or in most of the twentieth, or by some practical measures in the twenty-first. That level of historic factual detail would mess up the report’s tidy, reassuring, and complacent narrative.

The “1776 Report” was on the White House website for two days. With the handover to a new administration, that website is being completely revamped. The old version was removed to an archival site maintained by the National Archives alongside other administrations’ websites. All 18 January links to the “1776 Report” were therefore broken, but the document remains available through the government and numerous other sources, such as archive.org. The new President dissolved the “1776 Commission,” so there will be no second report from it.


Aethelred the Unready said...

A dangerous document, yes, but also useful, in that it provides an excellent (and official!) demonstration of how intellectually dishonest these people are.

Joshua Horn said...

It's hard to take anyone seriously who asserts that using the word "republic" is a dog whistle.

J. L. Bell said...

Easier than taking seriously the people who repeat, "This is a republic, not a democracy."

Dean Slone said...

This historical blog is enjoyable and informative when political opinions and leanings of the author and commentators remain unspoken and unwritten.

David Churchill Barrow said...

It has been my experience that people who draw such an oversimplified distinction between a republic and a democracy do so in order to express a reservation about some strain of populism, whether that be of the right; e.g. Teaparty, or of the left; e.g. Antifa or BLM. The Federalist papers express such reservations, and so argued that populism of any faction should be channeled, filtered and moderated. Progressives argue that we have outgrown the need for such mechanisms. Conservatives argue otherwise. That is where the debate should be had.

J. L. Bell said...

The problem with the republic/democracy distinction is that there really isn’t one. They’re Latin and Greek terms for a range of government forms that derive their authority from the broad base of the population.

“Democracy” encompasses “direct democracy,” “representative democracy,” “parliamentary democracy,” and so on. It includes structures that provide explicit rights and protections for minorities and individuals.

There’s nothing left for a “republic” to be except “government which includes a lot of democratic elements but sometimes produces non-democratic results that I support.” I’ve only heard Americans on the political right try to make that claim. (In other words, I can’t think of anyone with reservations about the erstwhile “Tea Party” respond, “This is a republic, not a democracy.”)

Once we get beyond that semantic distraction, we can indeed discuss how to balance the power of the majority and the rights of the minority, short-term benefits and long-term needs, policy innovations versus playing it safe, and so on. But the avenues for resolving those questions must be democratic.

J. L. Bell said...

This blog is about a political revolution that led to the government we Americans still use. Basic political principles and the use of history in modern politics are therefore not only relevant but sometimes unavoidable.

In my experience, people who voice objections to my occasional observations on modern politic controversies are upset not at seeing any political views but at seeing political views they disagree with.