When history and government Meet: The 1776 Commission
Conor Kelly (TheLorian)
A controversy exploded within the history profession last Monday when the late Trump administration released its controversial 1776 commission report. This commission, dedicated to what former President Trump called ‘patriot education,’ has long been a contentious point among historians. No less because President Trump has denounced recent academic efforts to address racial injustice within the historical narrative, Trump referred to such efforts as “child abuse” and a “twisted web of lies” in September of last year. Indeed, the 1776 commission was a long time coming for many conservatives who view recent shifts in historiography as attacks on the country itself. This attitude has provoked controversy that is unlikely to dissipate any time soon.
From its inception, the commission was bound for controversy. A direct response to the New York Times’ 1619 project, the commission was firmly embedded in the partisan atmosphere compounded with a presidential election year’s intensity. Trump and his supporters promised to promote “American exceptionalism” and “common American values.”
More than that, it is deeply sensitive to many historians who see such an approach as inadequate. The executive director for the American Historical Association, James Grossman, referred to it as a “hack job” and said it was not a historical work. Others have questioned the original nature of the work. White House reporter for Politico, Tina Nguyen, noted that sections of the report were seemingly pulled verbatim from a 2008 article in Inside Higher Ed by one of the commission’s members, Thomas Lindsay.
Far from a few complicating incidents, the 1776 commission has been almost uniformly condemned by historical associations across the country. The Organization of American Historians denounced the reports allegedly cavalier attitude towards slavery, saying, “The history we teach must investigate the core conflict between a nation founded on radical notions of liberty, freedom, and equality, and a nation built on slavery,” and noted that no professional historian of American history was included on the commission. The American Historical Association, along with 37 other historical organizations, also denounced the commission for its triumphant narrative surrounding the founders and their story, arguing that “To purge history of its unsavory elements and full complexity would be a disservice to history as a discipline and the nation, and in the process would render a rich, fascinating story dull and uninspiring.” Overall, the commission was not well-received by the historical profession.
Indeed, the Trump Administration’s decision to create the commission seems to stem from a hostile relationship with modern academia and historical criticism more generally. And this is reflected even on Loras College’s campus. In an interview with the Lorian, Dr. Kristen Anderson-Bricker, a noted professor of history at Loras, explained that “The vast reject the categorization that a mythical representation of history is good for the country…” She noted that American history has traditionally neglected other groups while elevating the power of the white, elite populace. In doing so, previous historians failed to fully represent the wide array of Americans who have made the country as it evolved. Key to Anderson-Bricker’s critique is the idea that history can be used to empower and that by seeing how America has increasingly democratized, modern Americans can see how democracy has grown stronger.
Central to the debate between contemporary historians and the Trump Administration’s report is what history is and what it seeks to do. On the one hand, the now removed Trump administration would seek to promote a version of history that inspires pride. But on the other end, historians such Anderson-Bricker have a very different idea of what history is meant to do. Upon being questioned about the nature of history, Anderson-Bricker noted that history “provides context…. It allows us to understand how people in the past are different from us today.” According to Anderson-Bricker, the purpose of history is not to inform anyone’s view or create a form of pride, but to explain why things are the way they are—to inform.
The commission’s effects are likely to dissipate in the coming days, as the newly-inaugurated Biden Administration has since rescinded the 1776 commission, and its only source of written support has come from classicist historian Dr. Victor Hanson. And with Trump’s increasing absence, it is unlikely that there will be another commission quite like it. Whatever the case may be, Americans will have to come to terms with these two views on history. And whatever decision they make will set the tone for future generations of Americans for years to come.