By Rev. Ben Johnson*
While I was reading The 1776 Report, it disappeared. The publication commissioned to “enable a rising generation to understand the history and principles of the founding of the United States,” which found itself memory-holed by one of the initial executive orders President Joe Biden signed during his first day in office, expertly explains the American philosophy of liberty and applies it to the most threatening modern-day crises. For that reason, I’m giving an overview of its most significant points and posting the full text of the document.
The 1776 Report serves as an eloquent rebuttal to the New York Times’ 1619 Project, especially its foremost contention that slavery and oppression form the warp and woof of American history – and more specifically, that chattel slavery so defines the U.S. that the nation’s true genesis coincides with the arrival of the first slave on American soil. “The United States of America … has a definite birthday: July 4th, 1776,” the report, released on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, states. “There was no United States of America before July 4th, 1776.” The colonies consisted merely of “two-and-a-half million subjects of a distant king” who founded their new country on principles that are “true and universal, ‘applicable to all men and all times’ … not blood or kinship or what we today might call ‘ethnicity.’”
This evisceration of the 1619 Project alone explains the need for its obliteration. The incoming administration has announced its intention to replace racial equality with “equity,” a policy that rests precariously upon the foundation of critical theory and intersectionality. Any history that undermines this narrative threatens the unifying ideology of the progressive movement.
Were this the report’s only virtue, it would be enough. However, its authors plumb the Founding Fathers’ belief in human dignity, unalienable rights, and personal autonomy before turning to past and present challenges to America’s principles: slavery, progressivism, fascism, Communism, and racism/identity politics. The 1776 Report packs a plethora of healing balm into its 41 pages. I’ve highlighted six of the most striking passages, before including the full text of the report.
A nation founded on reason and revelation:
The Founding Fathers’ notion that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights represents the flower of Western civilization. It grew from the Christian Bible, but also from English tradition and Western philosophy. Sounding themes explored by the Acton Institute’s Samuel Gregg in his book Reason, faith, and the struggle for Western Civilization, the report notes:
[T]he Declaration speaks of both “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”—it appeals to both reason and revelation—as the foundation of the underlying truth of the document’s claims, and for the legitimacy of this new nation.
The core assertion of the Declaration, and the basis of the founders’ political thought, is that “all men are created equal.” From the principle of equality, the requirement for consent naturally follows: if all men are equal, then none may by right rule another without his consent. … But it is almost impossible to hold to this creed—which describes what and who we are—without reference to the Creator as the ultimate source of human equality and natural rights.
The importance of a “shared morality”:
Human dignity requires religious freedom. While the Founders left matters of faith up to the individual conscience, they expected religion to serve the national interest in at least two ways. They believed faith should inform the policies enacted by politicians, to assure the state rests on the solid rock of wisdom. And they observed from history that only a moral and religious people, guided by the Ten Commandments, could create a free and virtuous society. This common code is necessary for limited government to flourish:
The shared morality of faithful citizens would sustain a republican culture that would foster stable family relationships and encourage important virtues like fortitude to defend the nation in war, self-restraint over physical appetites or lust for wealth, compassion toward neighbors and strangers in need, self-disciplined labor, intellectual integrity, independence from long-term reliance on private or public benefits, justice in all relationships, prudence in judging the common good, courage to defend their rights and liberties, and finally, piety towards the Creator whose favor determines the well-being of society.
Some have criticized the report for giving short shrift to the tragic moments of U.S. history. This stands in contradistinction from the average public school curriculum, which presents U.S. history as a never-ending Trail of Tears. Yet the report deals forthrightly with the ways slavery transgressed our founding principles. It briskly presents an overview of the transatlantic slave trade, the Three-Fifths Compromise, and Frederick Douglass’ embrace of the Constitution as a “glorious liberty document.” Contra the 1619 Project, these scholars understand that these flaws came in spite of American ideals, not because of them:
The foundation of our Republic planted the seeds of the death of slavery in America. The Declaration’s unqualified proclamation of human equality flatly contradicted the existence of human bondage and, along with the Constitution’s compromises understood in light of that proposition, set the stage for abolition. Indeed, the movement to abolish slavery that first began in the United States led the way in bringing about the end of legal slavery.
The “tragic” view of U.S. history forms the basis of critical theory, which actualizes in identity politics. The report contains an appendix decimating critical theory and dedicates one whole subsection to explaining “The Incompatibility of Identity Politics with American Principles.” The report summarizes:
Proponents of identity politics rearrange Americans by group identities, rank them by how much oppression they have experienced at the hands of the majority culture, and then sow division among them. While not as barbaric or dehumanizing, this new creed creates new hierarchies as unjust as the old hierarchies of the antebellum South, making a mockery of equality with an ever-changing scale of special privileges on the basis of racial and sexual identities. The very idea of equality under the law—of one nation sharing King’s “solid rock of brotherhood”—is not possible and, according to this argument, probably not even desirable.
All Americans, and especially all educators, should understand identity politics for what it is: rejection of the principle of equality proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. As a nation, we should oppose such efforts to divide us and reaffirm our common faith in the fundamental equal right of every individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
On the administrative state:
The rising threat of ethnic enmity is not the only threat presently facing American governance. The tyranny of experts, most pointed during this era of COVID-19 lockdowns, flows from the creation of the administrative state. What progressives like Woodrow Wilson envisioned as a technocratic rule of the best and brightest has created an army of unelected, middling, meddling mediocrities whose ever-growing power has gutted our republic:
Far from creating an omniscient body of civil servants led only by “pragmatism” or “science,” though, progressives instead created what amounts to a fourth branch of government called at times the bureaucracy or the administrative state. This shadow government never faces elections and today operates largely without checks and balances. The founders always opposed government unaccountable to the people and without constitutional restraint, yet it continues to grow around us.
On teaching American history:
The report concludes with a word to America’s educators, many of whom have had a curriculum drawn from the 1619 Project foisted on them. It includes sample questions for readers to answer. And it answers the charge that its report represents unvarnished celebration of all U.S. history. Instead, it properly defines “true patriotism” as honestly judging every action by its compatibility with America’s founding documents:
A healthy attachment to this country—true patriotism—is neither blind to its flaws nor fanatical in believing that America is the source of all good. Rather, the right sort of love of country holds it up to an objective standard of right and wrong, with the desire and intent that the country do what is right. Where the country has done what is good, citizens justly praise those who came before them. Where it has done wrong, they should criticize the country and work to make sure that we—the people who govern it—do what is right.
Rather than cast aside the serious study of America’s founding principles or breed contempt for America’s heritage, our educational system should aim to teach students about the true principles and history of their country—a history that is “accurate, honest, unifying, inspiring, and ennobling.”
The 1776 Report responds to the call President Ronald Reagan made in his farewell address to the nation 32 years and six presidential successions ago. “An informed patriotism is what we want,” he said. “Are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world? … We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs production [protection]. So, we’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important.” Three decades later, the stakes have never been higher.
Paired with last summer’s report from the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights, The 1776 Report forms the kernel of a clear-eyed curriculum on American history and civics. It brings the Founders’ wisdom to bear on so many topics in so few pages. It even seems to comment on its own eradication. “A people that cannot publicly express its opinions, exchange ideas, or openly argue about the course of its government is not free,” it says.
Its cancelation signifies either the triumph of division and redistribution or the beginning of a broader, stronger, and reinvigorated intellectual commitment to Western civilization and American exceptionalism. Thankfully, the advisory committee’s executive director, Matthew Spalding of Hillsdale College, has said the group will continue its work privately. That is welcome news. Our nation’s heritage of liberty is too important to be left to the changing whims of government, where the established facts of history fluctuate from one administration to the next. Preserving the American form of government is within the province of every patriot’s heart.
You can read the full 1776 Report and download the file here.
*About the author: Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute’s flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.
Source: This article was published by the Acton Institute