Thoughts on the 1776 Commission and Its Report

Visitors view the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., in 2013. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Why the controversy? Yes, America is imperfect. And also great.

The newly formed President’s Advisory 1776 Commission just released its report. The group was chaired by Churchill historian and Hillsdale College president Larry P. Arnn. The vice chair was Carol M. Swain, a retired professor of political science. (Full disclosure: I was a member of the commission.)

The unanimously approved conclusions focused on the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the historical challenges to these founding documents, and the need for civic renewal. The 16-member commission was diverse in the widest sense of the word. It included historians, lawyers, academics, scholars, authors, former elected officials, and former public servants.

Whether because the report was issued by a Donald Trump-appointed commission, or because the conclusions questioned the controversial and flawed New York Times-sponsored 1619 Project, the Left almost immediately criticized it.

Yet in any age other than the divisive present, the report would not be seen as controversial.

First, the commission offered a brief survey of the origins of the Declaration of Independence, published in 1776, and the Constitution, signed in 1787. It emphasized how unusual for the age were the Founders’ commitments to political freedom, personal liberty, and the natural equality endowed by our creator — all the true beginning of the American experiment.

The commission reminded us that the Founders were equally worried about autocracy and chaos. So they drafted checks and balances to protect citizens from authoritarianism, known so well from the British Crown, and also from the frenzy of sometimes wild public excess.

The report repeatedly focuses on the ideals of the American Founding as well as the centuries-long quest to live up to them. It notes the fragility of such a novel experiment in constitutional republicanism, democratic elections, and self-government — especially during the late-18th-century era of war and factionalism.

The report does not whitewash the continuance of many injustices after 1776 and 1787 — in particular chattel slavery concentrated in the South, and voting reserved only for free males.

Indeed, the commission explains why and how these wrongs were inconsistent with the letter and spirit of our founding documents. So it was natural that these disconnects would be addressed throughout our history, even fought over, and continually resolved — often over the opposition of powerful interests who sought to reinvent the Declaration and Constitution, transforming them into something that they were not.

Two of the most widely referenced Americans in the report are Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. Both argued, a century apart, for the moral singularity of the U.S. Constitution. Neither wished to replace the Founders’ visions; both instead demanded that they be fully realized and enforced.

The report details prior ideological and political challenges to the Constitution as we approach America’s 250th birthday. Some were abjectly evil, such as the near-century-long insistence that the enslavement of African Americans was legal — an amorality that eventually led to more than 600,000 Americans being killed during a Civil War to banish slavery.

Some ideologies, such as fascism and communism, were easily identifiable as inimical to our principles. Both occasionally won adherents in times of economic depression and social strife, before they were defeated and discredited abroad.

Perhaps more controversially, the commission identifies other challenges, such as continued racism, progressivism, and contemporary identity politics. The report argues how and why all those who have insisted that race become a basis from which to discriminate against entire groups of people are at odds with the logic of the Declaration.

Historically, progressivism assumed that human nature is malleable. With enough money and power, Americans supposedly can be improved so that they will accept more paternalistic government, usually to be run by technocrats. Often, progressives sought to curb the liberties of the individual, under the guise of modernist progress and greater efficiency.

The commission was no more sympathetic to the current popularity of identity politics or reparatory racial discrimination. It argues that using race, ethnicity, sexual preference, and gender to define who we are — rather than seeing these traits as incidental when compared with our natural and shared humanity — will lead to a dangerous fragmentation of American society.

Finally, the report offers the unifying remedy of renewed civic education. Specifically, it advocates more teaching in our schools of the Declaration, the Constitution, and documents surrounding their creation.

It most certainly does not suggest that civic education and American history should ignore or contextualize past national shortcomings. Again, the report argues that our lapses should be envisioned as obstacles to fulfilling the aspirations of our founding.

With the change of administrations, the commission may be short-lived, given that it was born in the chaos of the divisive present. President Joe Biden already has sought to terminate the commission through an executive order.

But any fair critic can see that the report’s unifying message is that we are a people blessed with a singular government and history, that self-critique and moral improvement are innate to the American Founding and spirit, and that America never had to be perfect to be both good and far better than the alternatives.

(Victor Davis Hanson was a member of the 1776 Commission. His views here are his own and are not necessarily those of other commission members. The report can be read here.)

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