The Best And Worst Of The 1776 Report

(Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Dylan Housman Deputy News Editor
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The White House has released its 1776 Report, a document produced by President Donald Trump’s Advisory 1776 Commission 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.” 

The commission was formed as a response to the 1619 Project, a work of the New York Times that centers American history around the experience of black slaves and their descendants, beginning with the arrival of slaves to Virginia in 1619. The 1776 Report seeks to counter the NYT narrative with a “patriotic” educational curriculum that casts American history in a more positive light.

Here are both the best, and the most criticized, parts of the 1776 Report: 

The Report Makes An Affirmative Defense Of America’s Founding Principles

The underlying theme present throughout the entire 1776 Report is that America’s founding principles of equality under the law and liberty for all are inherently good and worth defending. “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,” the report states on its first page. 

The report must, of course, address the fact that America did not initially live up to those principles. It does so, presenting various quotes and acts undertaken by the founding fathers in which they express their opposition to slavery, despite not ending the institution at the time of the founding. 

“The foundation of our Republic planted the seeds of the death of slavery in America.”

The Report Stresses The Importance Of National Unity And The Uniqueness Of The American System

Also on its first page, the report states: “A rediscovery of our shared identity rooted in our founding principles is the path to a renewed American unity and a confident American future.” The authors stress that the United States was founded to be an exceptional country, in the sense that it was founded upon shared principles and values, not a purely ethnic or territorial basis. 

It also emphasizes the rarity of successful republican government up to the point of America’s founding: “Contemporary Americans tend to forget how historically rare republicanism has been, in part because of the success of republicanism in our time, which is derived in no small part from the very example and success of America.”

A key opening argument of the report is that America isn’t just about a shared idea, though: “Jay lists six factors binding the American people together, of which principle is only one – the most important or decisive one, but still only one, and insufficient by itself. The American founders understood that, for republicanism to function and endure, a republican people must share a large measure of commonality in manners, customs, language, and dedication to the common good.”

The Report Contextualizes The Meaning Of America’s Founding Principles

“The assertion that ‘all men are created equal’ must also be properly understood. It does not mean that all human beings are equal in wisdom, courage, or any of the other virtues and talents that God and nature distribute unevenly among the human race. It means rather that human beings are equal in the sense that they are not by nature divided into castes, with natural rulers and ruled.”

There Are Times When The Report Seems To Contradict Itself

The report argues that America’s founding was a guiding light for other would-be democracies around the world. It also affirms that the rights granted in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution are universal, aren’t limited to any particular government or jurisdiction, and apply forever and always to all mankind.

Yet, the authors seemingly dismiss the idea that the founders were acting on behalf of all men: “These principles apply to all men, but the founders acted to secure only Americans’ rights, not those of all mankind. The world is still – and will always be – divided into nations, not all of which respect the rights of their people, though they should.” 

The report also spends a substantial amount of time arguing the exceptional nature of America’s founding. It is said that the United States is the first government of its kind, that it rises above other nations and shatters the old standards that justify tyrannical rule.

Then, when discussing the issue of slavery, the authors argue that America should be viewed relative to the rest of the world: “Many Americans labor under the illusion that slavery was somehow a uniquely American evil.”

Later on, the report says that the morality of principles transcends history, which seemingly contradicts the earlier defense of the founders as men of their time. “It is wrong to think of history by itself as the standard for judgement. The standard is set by unchanging principles that transcend history.”

There Is Little Input From Trained Historians And A Lack Of Citations Included In The Publication

The commission offers this document as a “definitive chronicle of the American founding.” In other words, it is meant to be a historical document. None of the key contributors to the report are American historians, though, and the paper contains no footnotes or citations referring back to historical scholarship or literature. 

There have been a number of respected historians who have criticized the 1619 Project as misleading, historically inaccurate, or missing key context. The rebuttal to that publication could be bolstered by the citation of historians of its own. 

The Document Spends A Significant Amount Of Time On Contemporary Political Issues

The 1776 Commission has presented their report as an objective, historical document to be used for educational purposes. For that reason, it is notable how much time the report spends on contemporary political issues like identity politics and social justice. 

The report attempts to debunk a number of political movements it deems to be “un-American,” including communism, progressivism, and social justice politics. It makes a comparison between progressives and fascists, says the civil rights movement “evolved” into a movement for group rights and identity politics, and says today’s “woke” left is reminiscent of historical racists like Vice President John C. Calhoun. 

The merits of these claims are subjective, but for them to appear in what is purported to be an objective, historical document comes across as odd. Alongside those claims are arguments for the preservation of the free market, limited government, and the righteousness of the pro-life movement

Again, these positions are more than justifiable and mainstream within the modern American political discourse. However, they stick out in a document that also says “political activism has no place in formal education.”

The Report Offers Little In Terms Of Actionable Educational Reforms

There is a section of the report which includes prompts for classroom discussion of America’s founding principles, such as “Why did the founders opt for representative democracy over the ‘pure’ version of democracy practiced in ancient Athens?” There are also recommended readings for teachers and parents to give students that can foster a love and understanding of the country rooted in historical reality.

The report says little else, though, in terms of actionable strategies for implementing this vision in the real world. Perhaps that will come later, but the 1619 Project has taken more steps to make its way into schools than the 1776 Commission appears to be doing.