by William Trollinger
The 1619 Project – the Pulitzer Prize-winning project from The New York Times Magazine that “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative” – has certainly infuriated some white conservatives.
Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton had a fit over it, in part because the 1619 Project fails to take into account the obvious point that slavery was a “necessary evil” that gave America the opportunity to be the fabulous nation that it is today.
(Interestingly, Cotton may be getting his way, and more, in his home state of Arkansas. The state is currently considering legislation that “would ban the teaching” of the 1619 Project in its public schools, as part of an effort to “prohibit courses from touching on race, social class, and gender due to concern that it would cause division.”)
President Donald Trump blasted the 1619 Project, along with critical race theory, as “toxic propaganda, ideological poison that if not removed will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together.” In response, he created the 1776 Commission in an effort to re-establish patriotic education in America’s schools.
The Commission issued its report on (not coincidentally) Martin Luther King Day, just before it was dissolved by the incoming Biden Administration. Interestingly for a group with the goal of telling the “true history” of America’s past, it did not include one single historian whose work focuses on U.S. history. On the other hand, the Commission was chaired by the president of the very conservative Hillsdale College. It also included in its ranks College of the Ozarks president Jerry Davis. Davis, who arrived on campus the very week I left to take another teaching position, has made the school (rated the most LGBTQ-unfriendly school in the nation) a hyper-militaristic right-wing bastion.
It turns that a good part of the report is plagiarized from other right-wing publications, without citations to let readers where the material is coming from. More than this, it is poorly written and chock-full of errors and “beliefs without history,” so much so that my old graduate school friend Dave Blight could not “stomach” reading the entire “mess”.
Well, I did suffer my way through the entire report, which (thankfully) is not very long, with twenty pages of text and twenty pages of appendices. The first nine pages consists of a mind-numbing paean to the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, highlighting what the authors see as their “universal principles,” such as “human equality, the requirement for government by consent, and the securing of natural rights” (7).
But it is in the next eleven pages that the authors get down to the task with which they had been charged, that is, to “’enable a rising generation to understand the . . . accurate, honest, unifying, inspiring, and ennobling’” history of the United States (1). Here are a few lowlights from the last half of the report, along with my commentary:
- “The most common charge levelled against the founders. . . is that they were hypocrites who [in their protection of slavery in the Constitution] didn’t believe in their stated principles . . . This charge is untrue, and has done enormous damage, especially in recent years, with a devastating effect on our civic unity and social fabric.” (10)
- Let me get this right. What has damaged America is not its 250 year tradition of enslaving human beings, and not the “long shadow of slavery” that resulted in a pervasive individual and institutional racism that continues to this day (e.g., the January 06 insurrection). Instead, what has really damaged America is noticing and commenting on the huge gap between the founders’ ideals and the institution of slavery. Check.
- “The compromises at the Constitutional Convention were just that: compromises” (11).
- The Constitution – with its fugitive slave clause, and with its provision that the Southern states could count for representation 3/5 of each enslaved person who, of course, had no rights under the law – was simply a document containing necessary compromises. So we Americans should just chill out. Or, at least, we white Americans. The authors do not mention who constituted the compromising parties: white elite males. Black slaves had nothing to say about these compromises (just as their descendants had nothing to say about the thousands of Confederate monuments erected in the late 19th and early 20th century to honor those who fought to keep them enslaved). That is to say, these compromises were erected on the backs of African Americans.
- All of the above fits with the fact that in this document the discussion of slavery is remarkably abstract, as if it were a temporary legal glitch. No mention of family separation, sadism and torture, rape, on and on: not a word here in this “accurate, honest” document about the realities of slavery in America. Instead, what matters is that we focus on the “inspiring and ennobling” notion that slave-owning whites really did hold to the universalist ideals contained in the Declaration and Constitution. Once again, black people vanish.
- In the 1850s South Carolina’s John C. “Calhoun added a new theory in which rights inhere not in every individual by ‘the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God’ but in groups or races according to historical evolution. This new theory was developed to protect slavery” (12).
- Let me see if I understand. Prior to Calhoun promulgating his “group rights” theory there were lots of slaveowners who held to the idea that their black slaves had inherent rights as individual human beings? What is the evidence for this absurd suggestion? Once again, the realities of slavery disappear.
- “This conflict [between Calhoun’s group rights and the Declaration’s individual rights] was resolved, but at a cost of more than 600,000 lives” (12).
- The scholars behind this “accurate, honest” retelling of American history have devoted this one sentence to the Civil War. That’s it. And note the passive voice: “conflict was resolved.” No mention of who was responsible for all these deaths. No mention of the fact that the South was determined, by any means necessary, to maintain slavery as an institution, and so instigated this war. No mention of the fact that the Confederates maintained that they were the ones who were truly loyal to the sentiments of the Declaration and Constitution. No mention of Confederates at all. Only, the “conflict was resolved.”
- In line with Calhoun’s theories, “Progressives believed there were only group rights that are constantly redefined and changed and change with the times . . . Based on this false understanding of rights, the Progressives designed a new system of government” that led to “what amounts to a fourth branch of government called at times the bureaucracy or the administrative state” (13). The four paragraphs devoted to Progressivism are not only badly written (even worse than other sections of the document), but remarkably vague. But in Appendix IV – which includes discussion starters for civics classes — one finds this proposed question regarding the economic views of “progressive presidents” Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt: “In what ways do they differ from the principles and structure of the Constitution?” (39).
- Can we say loaded question? And right: If we could only go back to the 19th century! FDR’s New Deal and the welfare state go against the Constitution. Interesting that they do not make this latter point clear in the main report. Does the fact that we are enduring the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression have anything to do with their reticence in this regard?
- “Like the Progressives, Mussolini sought to centralize power under the management of so-called experts” (13).
- Well, that is clarifying. Progressivism/New Deal = Fascism. Check.
- “Everywhere American troops went [in World War II), they embodied in their own ranks and brought with them the principles of the Declaration, liberating peoples and restoring freedom.” (14)
- Really? Are the authors unaware that the U.S. military was segregated in the Second World War? Or do they understand Jim Crow segregation to comport with the “principles of the Declaration”?
- “Communism’s relentless anti-American, anti-Western, and atheistic propaganda did inspire thousands, and perhaps millions, to reject and despise the principles of our founding and government. While America and its allies eventually won the Cold War, this legacy of anti-Americanism is by no means entirely a memory but still pervades much of academia and the intellectual and cultural spheres. The increasingly accepted economic theory of Socialism, while less violent than Communism, is inspired by the same flawed philosophy and leads down the same dangerous path of allowing the state to seize private property and redistribute wealth as the governing elite see fit.” (14)
- Apparently the only good American is a right-wing free-market ideologue who dreams of dismantling the safety net for the most vulnerable citizens. The rest of us have been poisoned by Communist propaganda, thanks to professors and pop stars!
- “Despite the determined efforts of the postwar Reconstruction Congress to establish civil equality for freed slaves, the postbellum South ended up devolving into a system that was hardly better than slavery.” (15)
- Once again, when it comes to racial oppression, the report moves into the passive voice: “the postbellum South ended up devolving.” No. The postbellum South did not devolve. Instead, white southerners actively “redeemed” (their word) the region by quickly and thoroughly re-establishing their supremacy, with the active support of political, legal, and religious institutions in the South and the North. And the system of racial oppression remained in force for a century after the end of the Civil War. And the folks maintaining and reinforcing this system understood themselves to be acting in keeping with ideals of the Declaration and the Constitution (and the Bible). Is it anti-American to point this out?
- “The Civil Rights Movement culminated in the 1960s with the passage of three major legislative reforms affecting segregation, voting, and housing rights. It presented itself, and was understood by the American people, as consistent with the principles of the founding.” (15)
- The second sentence is, not to put too fine a point on it, ridiculous. Whole swaths of the American public (including my family and my church) hated the movement and hated Martin Luther King, Jr. And there were not just angry words, as the segregationist resistance to the movement involved vicious and violent attacks. Finally, and as Kevin Kruse has pointed out, these furious opponents to civil rights claimed “that it was their resistance that reflected the ‘principles of the founding.’ When Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1957, for instance, he pointedly recited the entire Declaration of Independence to link his act of defiance to the colonists’ acts.”
- “The Civil Rights Movement was almost immediately turned to programs that ran counter to the lofty ideals of the founders . . . Among the distortions was the abandonment of nondiscrimination and equal opportunity in favor of ‘group rights’ not unlike those advanced by Calhoun and his followers. The justification . . . was that past discrimination requires present effort, or affirmative action in the form of preferential treatment, to overcome long-accrued inequalities . . . We have [today] moved toward a system of explicit group privilege that, in the name of ‘social justice, demands equal results and explicitly sorts citizens into ‘protected classes’ based on race and other demographic categories . . . This is the opposite of King’s hope that his children would ‘live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’” (16)
- More of the ridiculous. For one thing, while the authors want (in keeping with many white conservatives) to persuade Americans that the “I Have a Dream” speech is all we need to know about King, the fact (another one of those pesky facts) is that King strongly supported affirmative action – “special treatment” (in Christian terms, “repentance”) in response to the 350 years of slavery and oppression that African Americans had endured. Moreover, to quote Kruse again, “drawing a straight line from the South Carolina politician Calhoun, one of the most infamous defenders of Black enslavement, to the African Americans who advocated affirmative action as a remedy for that very enslavement is, to say the least, an incredible stretch.” Revisionist history, indeed!
- “Colleges peddle resentment and contempt for American principles and history alike, in the process weakening attachment to our shared heritage. In order to build up a healthy, united citizenry, scholars, students, and all Americans must reject false and fashionable ideologies that obscure facts, ignore historical context, and tell America’s story solely as one of oppression and victimhood . . . [This is] historical revisionism that tramples honest scholarship and historical truth.” (18)
- This is an exercise in projection on the part of the authors, as their resentment and contempt for the academy in general and historians in particular is not in the least subtle. And when it comes to obscuring facts, ignoring historical context, and engaging in “historical revisionism that tramples honest scholarship and historical truth,” all I can say is: Look in the mirror. This document resembles nothing so much as the Lost Cause historiography after the Civil War, in its blatant historical inaccuracies and in its nostalgia for an America that never existed.
- This sort of “deliberately destructive scholarship . . . is the intellectual force behind so much of the violence in our cities, suppression of free speech in our universities, and defamation of our treasured national statues and symbols.” (18)
- “Defamation of our treasured national statues and symbols.” What “statues” are being defamed, other than a few Confederate monuments? Is that what is upsetting the authors – the fact that some folks (particularly, but not only, people of color) do not want to honor the leaders and soldiers who fought against the Union in behalf of slavery?
- Just as striking: This report came out two weeks after the “insurrection,” when the U.S. Capitol was violently breached and defamed by right-wing protestors who threatened democratically elected representatives. To understate the point, the folks who attacked the Capitol were not inspired by “leftist” or “liberal” academic historians to perpetrate these violent acts, but, instead, by a commitment to racism and white supremacy, and by a commitment to the president who commissioned this dreadful report.
We need more, not less, historical scholarship that honestly and straight-forwardly addresses the racism that has permeated American history for five centuries. This is not anti-Americanism, but, instead, the best means by which we can create a more just America. Instead of the 1776 Report, I wish that we would heed the wise words of W. E. B. DuBois:
Nations reel and stagger on their way; they make hideous mistakes; they commit frightful wrongs; they do great and beautiful things . . . And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this, so far as the truth is ascertainable?” (Black Reconstruction, 1935)
Read this essay slowly in order to experience an actual historian writing actual history. All the senses are alerted to this banquet of reality and fact. Dr. Trollinger is the master chef with a five star rating.