Joe Biden cancels the 1776 Commission in favor of the outrageously flawed 1619 Project, but the genius of the American founding and system of government is universal and will not be denied. Freedom today remains as important as it ever was.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And so the American Revolution officially begins with some of the most world-altering words ever written in the entire history of humanity. It’s almost impossible to imagine how important a single statement can be, but we can try.
First, the world of 1776 was not the world of 2021.
When the Declaration of Independence was signed, no one was free anywhere in the world, no one had rights as we understand them today, and no government had ever been founded on the idea of equality. Quite the contrary, France didn’t become a true Republic until 1870. Germany and Austria didn’t become Republics until after World War I. Russia still isn’t a Republic. Even in more liberal England, a hereditary House of Lords maintained significant power over elected representatives in the House of Commons until 1909.
Likewise, slavery persisted in England until 1833. It wasn’t fully abolished in France until 1848. Austria didn’t abolish serfdom until the same year. There are tens of millions of slaves in the world today. Nor was America behind the curve on women’s issues: Women didn’t receive the right to vote in Germany until 1918; in England until 1928, 8 years after America; in France, women couldn’t vote until 1944. In many countries today, women are still denied equal rights.
I don’t recount these facts here to excuse the sins of the past, only to place them in context with the world at the time: Humanity has always been burdened with racism and sexism along with a host of other unspeakable horrors, but the United States was the first country in the world to provide a philosophical and then political foundation to end these ills permanently.
The Declaration served as philosophy. Eight decades later, Abraham Lincoln described its importance, “All honor to Jefferson, to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men at all times, and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.”
The Constitution provided the necessary politics and government structures. Together, they created a beacon and clarion call for freedom heard around the world to this day.
Few people in history understood this better than Frederick Douglass. Douglass was born a slave only to escape and become a key proponent of abolition, personally meeting with Abraham Lincoln and other leaders. In his early years, he condemned the Constitution and the country itself, but after studying its history, he would proclaim it was a “glorious liberty document” and the Declaration “the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny.”
Speaking in Glasgow, Scotland in 1860, Douglass explained why the Constitution didn’t support slavery and was in fact a document written for the freedom of all men and women regardless of whether or not some of the Founders were slaveowners. “The American Constitution is a written instrument full and complete in itself. No Court in America, no Congress, no President, can add a single word thereto, or take a single word thereto. It is a great national enactment done by the people, and can only be altered, amended, or added to by the people…What will the people of America a hundred years hence care about the intentions of the scriveners who wrote the Constitution? These men are already gone from us, and in the course of nature were expected to go from us. They were for a generation, but the Constitution is for ages.”
Douglass, a rare speaker who combined eloquence with precision, then proceeded to thoroughly dismantle the notion that the Constitution was written to guarantee slavery and oppression. “After all, the fact that men go out of the Constitution to prove it pro-slavery, whether that going out is to the practice of the Government, or to the secret intentions of the writers of the paper, the fact that they do go out is very significant. It is a powerful argument on my side. It is an admission that the thing for which they are looking is not to be found where only it ought to be found, and that is in the Constitution itself. If it is not there, it is nothing to the purpose, be it wheresoever else it may be.”
Along the way, Douglass made a point we would do well to remember today: “A wise man has said that few people have been found better than their laws, but many have been found worse…Shall we condemn the righteous law because wicked men twist it to the support of wickedness? Is that the way to deal with good and evil? Shall we blot out all distinction between them, and hand over to slavery all that slavery may claim on the score of long practice?”
Over a hundred years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. leveraged the same themes in the continual march for equal rights. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men and well as white men, would be guaranteed the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Nor were black civil rights leaders the only progressives that found freedom enshrined in America’s founding documents. Susan B. Anthony, a leading proponent of women’s suffrage, was arrested in November 1872 for voting illegally in the presidential election. Her defense? The Constitution itself.
“I stand before you tonight under indictment for the alleged crime of having voted at the last presidential election, without having a lawful right to vote…I simply exercised my citizen’s rights, guaranteed to me and all United States citizens by the National Constitution, beyond the power of any state to deny…It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people – women as well as men.”
She concluded, “Are women persons? And I hardly believe any of our opponents will have the hardihood to say they are not. Being persons, then, women are citizens; and no state has a right to make any law, or to enforce any old law, that shall abridge their privileges or immunities. Hence, every discrimination against women in the constitutions and laws of the several states is today null and void…”
Today, however, this amazing legacy and the values enshrined for all time are under attack by the President of the United States himself no less.
Almost two years ago, The New York Times launched The 1619 Project, claiming that the “true founding” of the United States was the year the first slave arrived on US soil. Instead of 1776, our real history began in 1619. The arrival of the first slave “is the country’s very origin.” America literally grew “out of slavery—and the anti‐black racism it required” and that “nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional” is the result of slavery.
These claims were so outrageous they were disputed almost immediately.
A group of eminent historians wrote an open letter to the New York Times describing the many factual inaccuracies included in the project. “Our concern is that The 1619 Project offers a historically-limited view of slavery, especially since slavery was not just (or even exclusively) an American malady, and grew up in a larger context of forced labor and race. Moreover, the breadth of 400 years and 300 million people cannot be compressed into single-size interpretations; yet, The 1619 Project asserts that every aspect of American life has only one lens for viewing, that of slavery and its fall-out. ‘America Wasn’t a Democracy Until Black Americans Made It One,’ insists the lead essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones; ‘American Capitalism Is Brutal. You Can Trace That to the Plantation,’ asserts another by Matthew Desmond. In some cases, history is reduced to metaphor: ‘How Segregation Caused Your Traffic Jam.’”
They concluded, “We are also troubled that these materials are now to become the basis of school curriculums, with the imprimatur of the New York Times. The remedy for past historical oversights is not their replacement by modern oversights. We therefore respectfully ask the New York Times to withhold any steps to publish and distribute The 1619 Project until these concerns can be addressed in a thorough and open fashion.”
The New York Times responded by stealth editing portions of The 1619 Project, that is making edits to the publication without informing anyone the material was changed, contrary to any standard journalistic practice. When confronted with these sudden changes and obvious ethical concerns, the Times responded that they weren’t important because the claims of the “true founding” weren’t meant to be taken literally. It was “always a metaphoric argument,” but the “core premises remain unshaken.”
These core premises are now part of the curriculum in many schools. The Pulitzer Center hosts a Lesson Plan Grouping on the project, “The 1619 Project, inaugurated with a special issue of The New York Times Magazine, challenges us to reframe U.S. history by marking the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived on Virginia soil as our nation’s foundational date. Here you will find reading guides, activities, and other resources to bring The 1619 Project into your classroom.”
In response, the Trump Administration started The 1776 Commission, chaired by Hillsdale College President Dr. Larry P. Arnn. The group issued a report this past Monday on how to ground American education in the true legacy of the founders. The legacy I have described above. The report covers the meaning of the declaration and the constitutional principles, but also includes detailed sections on the challenges to American principles including slavery, progressivism, facism, and communism. It concludes with the task of renewing American faith in these core principles.
The negative reaction from mainstream media was swift: Though the flawed, stealth-edited, obviously false history contained in The 1619 Project earned a Pulitzer Prize and is now taught in schools, a more positive view of history, rooted in what civil rights leaders in the 19th and 20th century believed, was too much. “Experts” called it a “puerile, politically reactionary document.” David Blight, author of the biography Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom tweeted, “It doesn’t really use evidence except to employ founding documents and too many quotations out of context.”
This from the same crowd that lauded pieces like “How Segregation Caused Your Traffic Jam.” Upon taking office the Biden Administration immediately rescinded The 1776 Commission and removed the report from the White House website, leaving little doubt where they stand on the founding of America and the importance of American principles. They are firmly in The 1619 Project camp and, to paraphrase Biden himself, the battle for the soul of America continues.
Fortunately, not everyone was so nonplussed. The English author and lecturer James Delingpole noted, “The 1776 Report – produced by President Trump’s Advisory 1776 Commission — is a thing of such beauty, dignity, and scholarship that it makes me wish I were American, not British.”
Which side are you on? Another question you should ask yourself is: Why is there a current cultural obsession, supported by the President of the United States himself, to promulgate outright lies about the founding of America, making our country seem less than it is?
This debate is not entirely historical or theoretical. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights enshrines practical freedoms in our day to day lives, from what restrictions the government can place on your movement in a pandemic to Big Tech infringing speech to increased government surveillance. These issues matter perhaps now more than ever.
As Delingpole explains, the “U.S. has an inbuilt reset button which it can press any time. ‘What are our values? What makes us great?’ it can ask. And instead of producing the nebulous guff that a British parliamentary sub-committee or lefty-think-tank or designated Quango might come up with, the U.S. can go back to the first principles established by the Founding Fathers.”
Perhaps, it’s time to press that reset button now.