If you’ve read any leftist coverage of President Trump’s 1776 Commission, you’d have been surprised to listen in on its first meeting Tuesday. It was brief, orderly, included a wide range of voices and life experiences united by a commitment to American ideals, and commission members repeatedly emphasized their interest in avoiding partisanship and reaching out to Americans of all backgrounds and walks of life.
Their goal is to unite Americans, as Trump’s executive order creating the commission states, in “a rediscovery of a shared identity rooted in our founding principles.” That is quite different from wild claims that the commission seeks to hide America’s sins and indoctrinate Americans with jingoistic, chest-thumping nationalism.
“We have a beautiful heritage. You can’t see its beauty without seeing how often we have fallen short of it,” noted 1776 Commission Chairman Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College (of which this author is a graduate). The meeting was held at the White House, where several commission members and any media joined by phone.
The thing on which commission members were not interested in compromising is their love and respect for their country, despite freely acknowledging and openly discussing its sometimes gross injustices. But they set out to persuade and educate their fellow Americans on this point, not coerce, shame, manipulate, or lie to them.
This is not what the United States’ dominant media and education systems have trained citizens to see in any effort related to Trump, Republicans, or American history and ideals. Despite this heavy social conditioning, however, majorities of Americans still support the original justification for public education that it should include a robust grounding in American founding documents.
Domestic Policy Council acting Director Brooke Rollins noted a September 2020 Rasmussen poll of likely voters that found 57 percent agreed with this Trump statement about the commission’s work: “The only path to unity is to rebuild shared national identity focused on common American values and virtues of which we have plenty. This includes restoring patriotic education in our nation’s schools, where they are trying to change everything that we have learned.”
She also noted Pew research released in January 2020 showing 36 percent of the most recent graduates of U.S. high schools and colleges, Americans ages 18 to 29, agreed that “other countries are better than the U.S.” That age range showed the highest agreement with that statement of all age groups Pew polled.
“Every sin from our past is highlighted, and every triumph is buried,” said Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson in his prepared remarks to the commission Tuesday. “This historical revisionism amounts to nothing more than a coordinated attack on our history, our heroes, and our very inheritance. Unfortunately, these lies are amplified all throughout the country. They permeate our educational system, from grade school to the highest levels of academia, and only serve to create division and anger among our fellow citizens.”
A 2019 YouGov poll found 63 percent of Americans ages 22 to 37 think America is a “racist country.” Another 2019 poll found “just 57 percent of millennials believe the Declaration of Independence ‘better guarantees freedom and equality’ than the Communist Manifesto.”
In all of these polls and others, these negative sentiments about the United States are accompanied by mass public ignorance of American founding documents such as the Bill of Rights in the Constitution. Rollins noted that just one in six eighth-graders is considered proficient on the American history assessments on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Clearly, American education institutions are failing to teach America’s young about their own nation’s history and distinctive principles, against the wishes of many Americans. That is precisely what the 1776 Commission seeks to address.
The commission’s meeting was in itself an education on American history. Its newly installed members referenced and quoted numerous American historical leaders, including Frederick Douglas, Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Harry Truman.
The “1776 principles have led to a tremendously successful country and overcome great national trials,” Rollins noted. They “helped make us more peaceful, more just and more prosperous.” They also unite Americans, she said, a theme taken up by numerous commission members in their discussion of their next two years of work.
“We need to see our function as unifying as much as possible,” said commissioner Charles Kesler, a professor of government at Claremont Graduate University. He noted that numerous academic historians who are politically on the left criticized the errors and false portrayal of American history in The New York Times’s 1619 Project.
That project is taught in thousands of American schools and initially stated its premise as the idea that the United States was founded on the institution of slavery instead of the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Kesler called uniting around accurate U.S. history an “opportunity for political unity.”
Peter Kirsanow, who also serves on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said he has seen in just the past few years a “spike in hostility to American ideas that is accelerating at a remarkable pace,” and an “incredible acceleration in animus against founding fathers and principles and America as it is constituted.” He attributed some of that to the 1619 Project but said it began approximately 40 years ago with the introduction of critical race theory, which claims that all white people are inherently racist and are born with “white privilege.”
“Lincoln brings us to 1776 as the date of America’s true founding: the year the Declaration of Independence was written, and its assertion of equality and man’s God-given, inalienable rights. The Constitution, in Lincoln’s mind, was simply America’s way of enshrining those principles of 1776 to law, and constructing a government limited to securing those rights,” Carson noted.
Commission members discussed other broadly believed falsehoods about American history their work should dispel. These include, said commissioner and Heritage Foundation scholar Mike Gonzalez, the “falsehood that the Declaration [of Independence] did not include the black population,” the case slavery advocate Stephen Douglas made against Lincoln before the Civil War.
Victor Davis Hanson also noted that it was pro-slavery forces in America’s history who opposed the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence because they assumed equality of the races, which the Southern Civil War slave states rejected. He paraphrased a Confederate leader making a parallel case against the Constitution to The New York Times’s 1619 Project.
“Many educated people do not understand the Three-Fifths Clause” and they are miseducating their children and others about it, said Carol Swain, a retired professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University. She also spoke movingly of going from high school dropout to graduate of and professor at some of America’s top universities and now to have been invited by the U.S. president to public service via the commission.
“I have experienced the American dream and I have always believed in America,” she said. “…If Americans understand who we are as a nation and where we have come from, they will better be able to transcend race and other things that divide us.”
According to its authorizing executive order, the commission will fulfill its purpose in two years and then retire. According to the White House, its duties are to “produce a public report on the basic principles of the American founding,” “facilitate the ‘Presidential 1776 Award,’ advise the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission, and advise agencies in ensuring patriotic history is presented and told to the public at parks, battlefields, monuments, and museums and in prioritizing the American founding in Federal grants and initiatives.”