The 1776 Commission was an advisory committee established in September 2020 by then–U.S. President Donald Trump to support what he called "patriotic education". The commission, which included no historians specializing in United States history, released The 1776 Report on January 18, 2021, two days before the end of Trump's term. Historians condemned the report, saying it was "filled with errors and partisan politics". The commission was terminated by President Joe Biden on January 20, 2021.
Trump first spoke of giving students a "patriotic education" on September 2, 2020. He reiterated his intention to establish the commission in a proclamation on October 6, 2020. The commission was conceived partly as a response to The New York Times' 1619 Project, which explores American history through an African-American framing. Various federal laws prohibit the federal government from directly regulating school curricula, which are determined by school districts under rules established by state governments. However, the federal government influences state and local decisions through funding.
Trump announced the new commission in a speech on September 17, 2020, in which he contended that a "twisted web of lies" regarding systemic racism was currently being taught in U.S. schools, calling it "a form of child abuse." On November 2, the day before the 2020 elections, Trump officially established the commission by executive order. Trump appointed the commission's members on December 18, 2020. The commission held its first meeting on January 5, 2021.
Under the executive order, Trump established an 18-member group serving a two-year term appointed by the president, which is to write a report on “core principles of the American founding and how these principles may be understood to further enjoyment of ‘the blessings of liberty’".
According to the executive order establishing the commission, the commission's goal was to end what it calls the "radicalized view of American history" which has "vilified [the United States'] Founders and [its] founding". In response to the work of figures like Howard Zinn and groups like the 1619 Project, the 1776 Commission seeks to increase "patriotic education" via a centralized approach to nationalist curriculum. This effort is linked to Trump's wider attacks on critical race theory.
The commission was also intended to promote these concepts at national parks, landmarks, and monuments among other federal properties; federal agencies were instructed to provide grants and initiatives in a way that prioritized those supporting "the American Founding".
The 18-member commission was composed of conservative activists, politicians and intellectuals; it included no professional historians of the United States. Trump appointed the Commission's members on December 18, 2020. The chair was Larry Arnn, the president of the conservative Hillsdale College and the co-chair was Carol Swain, a conservative former professor at Vanderbilt Law School. Others appointed by Trump include his ex-domestic policy advisor Brooke Rollins; Charles R. Kesler, who edits the conservative Claremont Review of Books; conservative activists Ned Ryun and Charlie Kirk; Phil Bryant, the Republican former governor of Mississippi; classicist Victor Davis Hanson, as well as John Gibbs, Scott McNealy, Peter Kirsanow, Thomas Lindsay, Michael Farris, and Bob McEwen.
The 1776 Report
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The commission released the 41-page "The 1776 Report" on January 18, 2021, two days before the end of Trump's term and the inauguration of Joe Biden. The report does not include citations or footnotes, and does not identify its main authors.
Among other things, the document identifies "progressivism" and "racism and identity politics" as "challenges to America's principles" and likens them to "communism," "slavery," and "fascism." It refers to John C. Calhoun as "the leading forerunner of identity politics" and criticizes some aspects of the civil rights movement. The document also describes American universities as "hotbeds of anti-Americanism, libel, and censorship" and criticizes feminist movements. It concludes with recommendations to promote positive stories and images of the country's founders at home, in schools, and in the arts, among other things.
Historians condemned the report, saying it was "filled with errors and partisan politics" and identified factual inaccuracies and a lack of scholarship. The American Historical Association (AHA), in a statement cosigned by 33 other historical societies, stated that the report was completed "without any consultation with professional historians of the United States." On 19 January 2021, the Association of University Presses released a statement: "While we leave it to historians to offer a detailed rebuttal of the document’s inaccuracies – if any should choose to do so – we note that it is plagued by procedural deficiencies that would render it unpublishable as a serious work of scholarship."
James Grossman, the executive director of the AHA, criticized Trump's push for so-called "patriotic education," writing that genuinely patriotic history is a rigorous effort to study the past honestly and acknowledge complexity, rather than "cheerleading"; "nationalist propaganda"; or "simplistic and inaccurate narrative of unique virtue and perpetual progress." Grossman described the 1776 Commission's report as "a hack job" that was "not a work of history," but of "cynical politics." Grossman said, "This report skillfully weaves together myths, distortions, deliberate silences, and both blatant and subtle misreading of evidence to create a narrative and an argument that few respectable professional historians, even across a wide interpretive spectrum, would consider plausible, never mind convincing."
Historian Timothy Messer-Kruse likened the content of the report to "every moldy trope of 1950s fifth-grade civics books" and wrote that it misrepresented the beliefs of founding father John Jay as expressed in Federalist No. 2. Historian Eric Rauchway criticized the report for misreading John Winthrop's "City upon a Hill" speech and for the report's claims regarding the civil rights movement. Historian Alexis Coe, a biographer of George Washington, said the report was riddled with "errors, distortions, and outright lies" and mischaracterized Washington's involvement with slavery. Kevin M. Kruse and other historians criticized the report for suggesting that Martin Luther King, Jr. would have opposed affirmative action, noting that King in fact endorsed affirmative action during his life. Even historians who were critical of the 1619 Project, such as Sean Wilentz of Princeton University, criticized the report of the 1776 Commission. Wilentz described the report as "the flip side of those polemics" and "basically a political document" that "reduces history to hero worship."
Historians also noted that portions of the report had been copied without attribution from earlier writings by its authors (including a 2008 op-ed by Thomas Lindsay published in Inside Higher Ed and a 2002 Heritage Foundation essay and Intercollegiate Studies Institute essay written by Matthew Spalding, the commission's executive director).
Commentator Eugene Scott criticized the commission's report for suggesting "that identity politics is something unique to those outside of the Trump administration"; Scott writes that Trump's rhetoric and Trumpism "has been rooted in identity politics": specifically, a prioritization of demographic groups that are "largely White, Christian and appealing to traditional gender norms." Writing for Slate, Rebecca Onion described the report as "a screed forwarded by a Fox-poisoned aunt, one that might best be politely ignored" and noted historian Diana Butler Bass's fear that the report was "'a huge gift' to white evangelical Trump supporters, who have long taught this vision of history to children who are enrolled in Christian schools or home-schooled."
Commission members Victor Davis Hanson and Mike Gonzalez defended the report. Hanson asserted that the report did not "whitewash the continuance of many injustices" in U.S. history and defended the report's claim that "progressivism" was at odds with American values, while Gonzalez, a senior fellow of the Heritage Foundation, criticized media coverage of the report and argued that Biden's disbanding of the commission was an outcome of "the woke left" waging a "war on U.S. history."
On January 20, 2021, hours after he was inaugurated as Trump's successor, President Joe Biden issued an executive order dissolving the 1776 Commission. The report was removed from the White House website, although the National Archives and Records Administration archived the report, along with the entire Trump White House website.
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Despite King's vocal advocacy for affirmative action, the 1776 report bizarrely holds him up as the antithesis of those programs and "identity politics" writ large.
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