The 1776 Commission: A problematic attitude
Conor Kelly (TheLorian)
The 1776 commission was a short-lived but dangerous enterprise by an outgoing administration. The Trump Administration, ever ready to attack academics who criticize it, dedicated the 1776 commission to promote so-called patriotic education. This need for pride in America has been the centerpiece of Trump’s criticism of modern historical analysis and a conservative grievance narrative against universities for a long time. Its end should be celebrated, as it was far from a piece of historical work. More than that, the 1776 Commission is an attack on the intellectual independence of the history profession and academia in general. And it should not surprise anyone that this attack came from the Right.
When Trump first announced the commission to the public, it was based on accusations of supposed Left-wing indoctrination, something that he failed to support with evidence. Trump argued that there was a need to promote the “miracle of American history.” To Trump and the members of the right who supported it, this was the key virtue of history—to promote pride in the nation above all else. Trump was far from the only one holding to this view. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas tried to get the 1619 project, an effort to address the less-understood aspects of American slavery, removed from America’s classrooms. Cotton claimed that the Founders had sought to put America on a path to end slavery’s existence, arguing that the 1619 project was a lie about America’s nature. While it is certainly true that the 1619 project had its historical issues —it was written by journalists, not historians—it did seek to address a forgotten and commonly ignored aspect of our history. Rather than engaging with the work and pointing out its flaws for the sake of historical analysis, Cotton and others like him disregarded it in its entirety because at the center of Cotton’s frustration with the project is its uncomfortable questions about America’s racist past. To Tom Cotton, the subject is the problem.
Indeed, the 1776 commission is the apotheosis of that inclination. To a certain faction on the Right, pride is more important than criticism and nuance. If history does not promote a glorified view of American history, it is a lie unworthy of consideration. Never mind the damage done to historical accuracy and an informed citizenry. To a certain percentage of Americans, and those in the now-former Trump administration, history is about inspiration, not facts. No amount of primary source evidence, no amount of nuance, or historical theories matter. To them, national pride is equivalent to virtue.
I am not a very religious man. But I do believe that there is a piece of scripture that is remarkably pertinent to this issue. In Proverbs 16:18, it is said that “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” America as a country ought not hold onto its pride at the expense of its ability to remain informed about its darker chapters in history. The attacks on the history profession’s independence serve only to promote a pride that is useless to the American people. If Americans want to remain in good faith with their past, they must oppose such attempts with vigorous zeal.