The Project to Understand America

It’s hard to love an ugly founding. Was America ill-founded, well-founded, even incompletely founded? Each of these judgments captures some essential part of the American story. Choose a date when the founding started and you will probably get a different America: 1492, 1619, 1620, 1776, 1787, 1863 . . . 2026?

Take, for example, 1492. Howard Zinn’s influential A People’s History of the United States began as a critical alternative, a kind of “relevant” supplement, to the established view of American history, one grounded in the character of the people and the unique political institutions of 1776 and 1787. It turns out that this “anti-elitist” interpretation has become pretty much mainstream opinion. Zinn located the origin story in the “imperialist” hands of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Thus, America was founded over 100 years before 1619 and nearly 300 years before the Declaration and Constitution. For Zinn, the American story is the unimpeded unfolding of European racism and privilege, and the enslavement of indigenous peoples. 1619 is no more important to Zinn’s account than 1776 or 1787, which merely confirm this story of the oppressed.

Conservative luminaries such as William Bennett and Paul Johnson took up their pen against Zinn, though government—at any level—played no part in the resistance. Here we are 40 years later and the K-12 education system is certainly no better than before, and our children are much more skeptical about the American experiment in self-government. We still do a terrible job of teaching the basics. Professional historians and political scientists continue on their grim and smug way, teaching the past from the position of the present rather than on its own terms.

Or take 1620 and 1787. Although aware of the Jamestown settlement, Alexis de Tocqueville places the origin of America in 1620 with the signing of the Mayflower Compact. What follows chronologically and conceptually is the creation of private and public associations and of written constitutions ordained and established by the consent of the governed. This culminates in the creation and ratification of the 1787 Constitution without a drop of blood being spilled. 1620—not 1619—and 1787 are central to Tocqueville’s American story, while 1776 merely ratifies the legal and constitutional culture of the colonies against their British masters.

1619 vs. 1776?

Neither the New York Times‘ 1619 Project nor President Trump’s 1776 Commission deal adequately with the events of 1620 and 1787. The 1619 Project is presentism with critical race theory in support. What is central to critical race theory is the word “critical.” “Critical thinking,” in effect, starts by making race the only focus, drawing attention to the most horrific aspects of colonial life. This “original sin” of slavery becomes the framework for everything that followed. There is no hope and no optimism. The 1776 Project, by contrast, takes 1776 on its own terms and traces the continuation of the idea of natural rights into the next three centuries. It may well be a bit simplistic and sugary, but it is a more accurate and optimistic story.

The 1619 Project is the immediate context for the creation of the Advisory Committee that issued the 1776 Report. In Fall 2020, President Donald Trump, by executive order, authorized the creation of an 18-member Advisory Committee to restore “patriotic education.” The President’s Advisory 1776 Commission Report was issued just 2 days before the end of the Trump term in January 2021. President Joe Biden disbanded the Committee, by executive order, the very day he became President. The 1776 Report was published privately on February 7, 2021. It has been criticized by professional historians as “filled with errors and partisan politics.”

True, the 1776 Committee was hastily created and unceremoniously disbanded by partisan executive orders, though “filled with errors” is going too far. Its assumption of a continuous natural rights tradition over three centuries from the Declaration, through Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King, gives it a coherence, continuity, and love of country, even if it does neglect the covenanting tradition of 1620 and the deliberative contribution of 1787. The authors did not create a curriculum—nor could they, given the limitations of time and space.

The stated purpose of the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission was to “rediscover” our “shared identity rooted in our founding principles,” and thus “enable a rising generation to understand the history and principles of the United States in 1776 and to strive to form a more perfect Union.” That history is objective is central to the 1776 Project. The nation has faced, and overcome, says the Report, many disagreements in its 200 plus year history—including independence from Britain and a Civil War—and now, it faces a rupture of the very same dimension. Contemporary disagreements “amount to a dispute not only over the history of our country but also its present course and future direction.” The choice for the 1776 Project is clear: the founding truth of the Declaration that “all are created equal and equally endowed with natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” or the 21st-century contemporary “creed of identity politics” that indoctrinates the American people to believe that they are “defined by their perpetuation of racial and sexual oppression.”

Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones and the New York Times in 2019 started a running commentary that asks “what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year” instead of 1776. That year was the 400th anniversary of the first African slave arriving in America. Even though “history is not objective,” Hannah-Jones has discovered more than an alternative Black history interpretation to add to the various accounts of the American story. She has discovered a previously buried truth: “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of the country” and, in accordance with critical race theory, we therefore need to reframe American history around the “slavery project.”

In 1776 and 1787, she reminds us, one-fifth of the American population were slaves. “Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence” was because “they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” Thus America’s 1776-1787 founding was a slavocracy, not a democracy, and that the Framers were actually morally inferior people. Accordingly, the much loved and honored late 18th-century “foundations” were not foundations at all. They were actually continuations of the real and ugly founding of 1619. What about Lincoln and the Emancipation Act of 1863? “Like many white Americans, he opposed slavery as a cruel system at odds with American ideals, but he opposed black equality,” says Jones. Thus equality, of outcome rather than opportunity, is the core principle undergirding the 1619 Project.

As a naturalized citizen for over 50 years, I am pretty clear about what it means to be an American: Deliberation, disagreement, compromise, and optimism toward the future were the hallmarks of my adopted country.

The 1619 Project is not the first time, however, that 1619 is mentioned as critical to understanding the American story. Most importantly, The 1776 Commission’s hero, former slave Frederick Douglass, said in his “Lecture on Slavery, No. 1” (1850) that the evil of American slavery “dates back to the landing of the pilgrims on Plymouth rock.—It was here more than two centuries ago. The first spot poisoned by its lecherous presence, was a small plantation in Virginia. . . . Indeed, slavery forms an important part of the entire history of the American people.” In short, “slavery governs the American people.” But, unlike the 1619 Project, Douglass does not think this “important part” is a deterministic or inevitable part, of the American story. There is moral suasion, hope, and the real possibility of change because 1776 and 1787 are, according to Douglass and the 1776 Project, basically anti-slavery. Unfortunately, the 1776 Project does not cite this lecture by Douglass.

A Real Education for Citizenship

When it comes to translating this race-conscious breakthrough into the K-12 education curriculum, one of Hannah-Jones’s recommendations, at least, is remarkably reasonable: That we need to do a much better job of teaching basic civics. There is (surprisingly, given the notion that we are witnessing a battle between “patriotic education” and “unpatriotic education”) a basic compatibility between the race-conscious 1619 and the 1776 “color-blind” Projects over the Civil War: it was about slavery. Jones complains that teachers in K-12 teach that the Civil War was about states’ rights and not about slavery; 60 percent of students, she says, think that states’ rights caused the Civil War! Out of politeness, she continues, the teachers ignore the fact that the founders of 1776-1797 owned slaves. These are hardly novel insights demanding a declaration of war by one President on the civic education establishment and then an executive order by the next President overturning it. The 1776 Project agrees that slavery and not states’ rights was at the center of the Civil War, but it focuses on the ideas of the Founders rather than on their personal behavior.

The real problem this agreement points to is that neither teachers nor students have the time to wrestle with the primary sources which are essential for an excellent civic education. Moreover, if we move to the college level, the authors of both Projects must know that the dominant interpretation of slavery and the American founding of 1776-1787 in the academic literature for the last 50 years is overwhelmingly a neo-Garrisonian abolitionist critique. Traditional interpretations, such as Catherine Drinker Bowen’s 1966 uplifting Miracle at Philadelphia account of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, have pretty much been “discredited.”

But what about K-12?

I think I see what is going on, but I have difficulty accepting what I see. As a naturalized citizen for over 50 years, I am pretty clear about what it means to be an American: Deliberation, disagreement, compromise, and optimism toward the future were the hallmarks of my adopted country. Thus, I find it disturbing that natural-born Americans are so quarrelsome, contentious, and pessimistic over what it means to be an American and spend so little time reading the original sources of American thought between 1619 and 2021.

Why is civic education broadly understood in such a terrible state in 2020-2021 that it warrants the use of dueling presidential powers more suited for war than for schooling? The domestic wars on poverty and on drugs are tame stuff compared to this partisan war over what it means to be an American. Both sides are exercising the prerogatives of “cancel culture.” Conversation and intellectual compromise, which require looking at both sides of an argument, are apparently phenomena of a previous century. After studying the basics, why not have students consider the original sources of 1619, and 1620, and 1776-1787, and 1863, and beyond? Why not encourage them to think about 2026, the 250th anniversary of 1776?

We would first have to restore the basics of civic education to the K-12 curriculum. My colleague David Davenport reminds us in his October 2020 commentary, “Commonsense Solutions to our Civics Crisis,” for the Hatch Center, that we do a terrible job of teaching civics and history in schools. Civic education has “become an educational after-thought” to the more “robust STEM movement.” 

Instead of teaching the basics of civics (the separation of powers, federalism, the Bill of Rights, and—yes—executive orders) in elementary and middle schools and then moving on to original sources and “critical” thinking in high school, we confine the coverage of civics to one year and rely on secondary sources and textbooks. This minimal amount of coverage results in low test scores. In the most recent “Nation’s Report Card” testing, 24 percent of eighth-graders tested “proficient” or better in civics and government, and 15 percent in U.S. history. Only one-third could pass the basic citizenship test required of immigrants. Thank goodness for naturalized Americans!

Does the rivalry between the 1619 and 1776 Projects conducted at the presidential level by way of war powers help students and teachers learn about basic fundamentals? No. Both put the cart before the horse. What we need ultimately—the sufficient condition for a well-constructed civic education—is what Ronald Reagan called “an informed patriotism.” But at the level of basics, neither the 1619 Project nor recent bills in five states banning it in favor of the “patriotic education” of the 1776 Commission, will restore the necessary qualities of citizenship.