Righting America

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1619 vs. 1776 vs. 1861, or, Whose History is It? | Righting America

by Raymond D. Screws

Raymond D. Screws earned his Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska in 2003.  He also has an MA from Pittsburg State University and a B.A. from School (now College) of the Ozarks, where his advisor was William Trollinger.  Throughout his career, he has been a history professor, museum director, and humanities professional.  He has published articles on immigration and ethnicity as well as a chapter in a book on World War I and Arkansas. He has also co-written a chapter on leadership in America.  Dr. Screws lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is currently the director of a military museum. 

A white male carrying a large Confederate flag over his shoulder while walking across a room decorated with fine art, marble busts, and leather furniture.
Supporters of US President Donald Trump protest in the US Capitol Rotunda on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. – Demonstrators breeched security and entered the Capitol as Congress debated the a 2020 presidential election Electoral Vote Certification. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

On December 19, 2020, I received an email from my alma mater, the College of the Ozarks, a small evangelical liberal arts school nestled in the hills of southern Missouri, announcing that the president of the college, Jerry Davis, was appointed by the White House to serve on the 1776 Commission.  The heading of the email: “Davis to bring perspective from decades-long patriotic program at C of O.”  

The 1776 Commission was created on November 2, 2020, by President Trump’s executive order, as a direct response to the New York Times Magazine 1619 Project that was established in 2019, which was, of course, the 400th anniversary of the first slave brought to British North America.  

Quoting Ronald Reagan – “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction” – Davis explained that “without patriotic education, historic American values will cease to exist in American youth.”  

Whether or not this is true, one has to ask: Is Davis forgetting that a major part of “historic American values” was the forced labor of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children of African descent?  Or is that historical truth just swept under the rug? America has not historically been the land of freedom for all.  Let’s talk about that part of American Exceptionalism.  The 1619 Project attempts to do just that.  I do have issues with the 1619 Project, but the 1776 Commission is not the answer.      

Of course, all of this is not about patriotism per se.  It’s about the Right kind of patriotism.  As articulated by the 1776 Commission, if one agrees with the aims of the 1619 Project, if one is left-of-center politically, if one is a Democrat, then that person is not the correct type of patriot, or more accurately, is not a patriot at all.  

The aim here is an evangelical whitewashed patriotism, an evangelical whitewashed American history and heritage: a pure white America with no warts or scabs, no Indians, Hispanics, or immigrants, and especially no African Americans (except as contented slaves), just a land of great fortune and white harmony. American Exceptionalism.  

In a recent Washington Post article, historian Daniel Immerwahr challenges the American Exceptionalism ideal by suggesting that “Achieving a more perfect union requires confronting dark truths – such as the centrality of slavery to U.S. history.”  I agree!  But the history that conservatives want Americans to learn is “fake history,”  or, at best, “bad” history.  The goal of the 1776 Commission is an attempt to ensure that American children see only a past without ethnicity (other than those of western and northern European descent) and race and oppression.  In other words, the goal is to ensure that American children be indoctrinated in a whitewashed story of the American past.  

Ironically, while conservatives want us to be great patriots, many of them – especially white Southern conservatives – identify with the Confederacy.  In other words, they identify with traitors. 

I have been told many times by Southern conservatives that the Civil War was not about slavery – it was about states’ rights and that their ancestors didn’t fight to protect the institution of slavery.  But that’s not the whole story. States’ rights to maintain slavery was the issue, and their ancestors did fight to keep the antebellum South intact . . . and this includes my Southern ancestors.  I don’t know if my Union military ancestors fought to free slaves, but I do know they fought to preserve the Union – true patriots!  

An African woman, chained at the neck and ankles, holds her baby and reaches out for the chained male in front of her.
Enslaved African men and women in a sculpture by the Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo at the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala.

This white conservative identification with the traitors who fought against the U.S. in the Civil War was on full display on January 6 with the display of Confederate (and Trump) flags inside and outside the U.S. Capitol. 

If these rioters/terrorists/insurrectionists are to be understood as true patriots, as Trump suggested, perhaps the 1776 Commission should be renamed the 1861 Commission.  One rioter, interviewed by CNN, said they should have “yanked our senators out by the hair of the head and drug ’em out and said, ‘No More!’”  That’s true insurrection.  Thankfully, the thousands of neo-Preston Brooks at the Capitol didn’t find their neo-Charles Sumner.  

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes:  “Wednesday was a horrifying and shameful moment in American history. I’ve covered attempted coups in many countries around the world, and now I’m finally covering one in the United States.” And it was an attempted coup in keeping with the ongoing and shameful history of race in America. Kristof observes that while “many of those pro-Trump rioters probably dispute the idea of white privilege,” the “fact that they were allowed to overrun the police and invade the Senate and House chambers was evidence of that privilege,” especially when compared to the way Black Lives Matter protesters were treated in the summer of 2020 at the U.S. Capitol.  

I’m sure that the issues agitating BLM protesters and their supporters are precisely the issues that the 1776 Commissionwant us to forget. Put more strongly, both the insurrection at the Capitol and the creation of the 1776 Commission are driven by the desire for a whitewashed American history. That is to say, the January 6 riot/insurrection was a coup attempt in the name of conservative “patriotism.”

I am an American patriot!  And I probably carry a portion of American Exceptionalism in me.  I am pro-military, and even work for the military, preserving an aspect of its great history and heritage.  I’m grateful for those who have served in our branches of the military, and I respect their service.  I’m named after an uncle who was killed during the Second World War, and another uncle of mine, who I knew, was a Navy pilot in the Pacific.

But I don’t think one can be a good patriot unless that person understands the true history of the United States –  our greatness, yes, but also the warts and scabs (particularly those pertaining to race).  The 1776 Commission’s purpose does not allow for a collective memory of anything other than an idealized American exceptionalism.  

If an individual believes that the ideals of the 1776 Commission are what is required to be an American patriot, so be it.  If the College of the Ozarks (a private institution) wants to inculcate its (overwhelmingly white) students in a very narrow and ahistorical American exceptionalism, so be it.  But if the 1776 Commission’s project gets implemented in public schools, it has the potential of producing whitewashed patriot robots, like those spurred to engage in an act of sedition at the United States Capitol on January 6.  

Let’s hope that when Joe Biden becomes president he will never allow the 1776 Commission to convene.