Today's Paper Digital FAQ Obits Newsletters NWA Vaccine Information Covid Classroom Coronavirus NWA Screening Sites Virus Interactive Map Coronavirus FAQ Coronavirus newsletter signup Crime Razorback Sports Today's Photos Puzzles
ADVERTISEMENT

OPINION | VICTOR DAVIS HANSON: The 1776 Commission

by Victor Davis Hanson | January 25, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

The newly formed President's Advisory 1776 Commission just released its report. The group is chaired by Churchill historian and Hillsdale College President Dr. Larry P. Arnn. The vice chair is Dr. Carol M. Swain, a retired professor of political science. (Full disclosure: I was a member of the 16-member commission.)

The unanimously approved conclusions focused on the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the historical challenges to these founding documents and the need for civic renewal. The commission is diverse in the widest sense of the familiar adjective. It includes historians, lawyers, academics, scholars, authors, former elected officials and past public servants.

Whether because the report was issued by a Donald Trump-appointed commission, or because the conclusions questioned the controversial and flawed New York Times-sponsored 1619 Project, there was almost immediate criticism from the left.

Yet at any other age than the divisive present, the report would not have been seen as controversial.

The commission offered a brief survey of the origins of the Declaration of Independence, published in 1776, and the Constitution, signed in 1787. It emphasized how unusual for the age were the founders' commitments to political freedom, personal liberty and the natural equality endowed by our creator--all the true beginning of the American experiment.

The commission reminded us that the founders were equally worried about autocracy and chaos. So they drafted checks and balances to protect citizens from both authoritarianism, known so well from the British Crown, and the frenzy of sometimes wild public excess.

The report does not whitewash the continuance of many injustices after 1776 and 1787, in particular chattel slavery concentrated in the South, and voting reserved only for free males.

Two of the most widely referenced Americans in the report are Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. Both argued, a century apart, for the moral singularity of the U.S. Constitution. Neither wished to replace the founders' visions; both instead demanded that they be fully realized and enforced.

The report details prior ideological and political challenges to the Constitution as we approach America's 250th birthday. Some are abjectly evil, such as the near-century-long insistence that the enslavement of African Americans was legal, an amorality that eventually led to more than 600,000 Americans being killed during a Civil War to banish it.

Some ideologies, such as fascism and communism, are easily identifiable as inimical to our principles. Both occasionally won adherents in times of economic depression and social strife before they were defeated and discredited abroad.

Perhaps more controversially, the commission identifies other challenges, such as continued racism, progressivism and contemporary identity politics. The report argues how and why all those who insist that race might become a basis from which to discriminate against entire groups of people were at odds with the logic of the Declaration.

The commission is no more sympathetic to the current popularity of identity politics or reparatory racial discrimination. It argues that efforts to insist that race, ethnicity, sexual preference and gender define who we are, rather than remain incidental in comparison to our natural and shared humanity, will lead to a dangerous fragmentation of American society.

Finally, the commission offers the unifying remedy of renewed civic education. Specifically, it advocates far more teaching in our schools of the Declaration and the Constitution, and other documents surrounding their creation.

It most certainly does not suggest that civic education and American history ignore or contextualize past national shortcomings. Again, the report argues that our lapses should be envisioned as obstacles to fulfilling the aspirations of our founding.

The commission may be short-lived with the change of administrations, given that it was born in the chaos of the divisive present. President Joe Biden reportedly planned to terminate the commission through an executive order.

But any fair critic can see that the report's unifying message is that we are a people blessed with a singular government and history, that self-critique and moral improvement are innate to the American founding and spirit, and that America never had to be perfect to be both good and far better than the alternatives.

--–––––v–––––--

Victor Davis Hanson is a member of the 1776 Commission. His views here are his own and are not necessarily those of other commission members.

ADVERTISEMENT

Sponsor Content

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT