by Dominic Sandbrook
Wednesday, 20
January 2021
Reaction
11:10

Donald Trump’s 1776 Report is a comical own goal

I’ve read Ladybird books with more complexity
by Dominic Sandbrook

The debate about American history is over. The scholars can put down their pens; the archivists can start locking up. In a parting gift to a grateful nation, Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission has spoken. For generations to come their report on the ‘history and principles of the founding of the United States’ will stand at the centre of American historiography.

I’m joking, of course. The report is terrible. But first, a bit of background.

Mr Trump set up the 1776 Commission last autumn, during his doomed re-election campaign. It was an obvious riposte to the New York Times’s much-criticised 1619 Project, which argued that the true date of the nation’s founding was actually 1619, when the first African slaves were brought to Virginia. Even the American Revolution, it claimed, was driven by a desire to protect slavery. There was no escaping this original sin.

Many historians denounced all this as balderdash. But the NYT doubled down, printing hundreds of thousands of copies to send to schools across America. Then came the murder of George Floyd, sending the entire debate into overdrive. And then, with his unique gift for destruction, Mr Trump lobbed his own grenade into the chaos.

I have very little time for the 1619 Project. Its inaccuracies have been well chronicled, but the real problem, it seems to me, is its tone: strident, self-satisfied, suffused with moral certainty. Alas, Mr Trump’s 1776 Report makes it look like The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It pains me to say that. But it’s true.

For there’s no getting away from it — the 1776 Report is abysmal. I’ve read Ladybird books with more complexity. In fact, that’s not a mad comparison, since it’s only 20 pages long (with pictures). Never is there a hint of doubt, a trace of self-criticism, even a fleeting nod to the principle of debate.

The most obvious example is slavery. Madly, the report tries to reinvent America as the world leader in opposition to slavery, as if the slave-holding Southern states never existed. In one especially bizarre section, it claims that the international anti-slavery movement began with the Declaration of Independence, ‘a dramatic sea change in moral sensibilities’.

But that’s not even the worst thing in the report. That’s the section on ‘Challenges to American Principles’, which names Communism, racism, fascism and … progressivism. Not progressivism as shorthand for Trotskyism: but the progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, three of the most consequential presidents in American history. There’s even a classroom exercise to hammer home the point. Students should read their speeches on ‘economic democracy’, the report says darkly, and then explain how they ‘differ from the principles and structure of the Constitution’.

Who wrote this rubbish? The report lists a handful of authors, but most have never written a history book in their lives. But perhaps it doesn’t matter. It’s impossible to imagine any sane teacher, no matter how desperate, taking this remotely seriously. And if it’s remembered at all, it will be only as a comical own goal.

Join the discussion


To join the discussion, get the free daily email and read more articles like this, sign up.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
24 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 year ago

Madly, the report tries to reinvent America as the world leader in opposition to slavery, as if the slave-holding Southern states never existed.
Well, let’s see: we did have a war over slavery. And it might be worth remembering that slavery existed before there was an America, back when it was a colony. The Founders were born into a condition they later worked to resolve.

Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, three of the most consequential presidents in American history.
Again, let’s check the record: Wilson was not only a proponent of eugenics, he is one of history’s most vile racists. FDR had the Klan at one Dem convention and appointed a Klansman to the Supreme Court. He also laid the groundwork for expansive govt which his successors put into overdrive. Teddy fares the least worst of the three.

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

FDR gave Eastern Europe to Stalin to break the power of Europe for ever, and also forced the European nations (and Japan) to give their colonies back to break their economy. The colonies were not ready for self governing at such short notice so it put them decades behind!

Joseph McCord
Joseph McCord
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Yeah – there was that little war…

Also – the voluntary practice of manumission dates all the way back to the earliest days, of the U.S. republic. Thomas Jefferson was born into a slave-owning family – and, kept his slaves throughout his lifetime – but manumitted all of them upon his death, in his will. George Washington did so, as well. Those are just two examples. Manumission was already, a known thing – even before the American Revolution (I have to assume, that it was – or would there be any uncertainty over whether Crispus Attucks was, or was not, a slave?). At the time that the Civil War broke out – there were already as many free blacks living in the Southern states that formed the Confederacy, as in the Northern states that remained in the United States of America. These facts, also, should be taken into account.

williams.roger
williams.roger
1 year ago

In fact I found the report rather moving, though of course I can see that its history is not balanced – perhaps especially in ignoring native Americans. But it shows a tremendous vision for the principles of the constitution, and claims that they are timeless and liberating. I have never understood what its means to people before, and it shows something rather noble in America, I think.

Vóreios Paratiritís
Vóreios Paratiritís
1 year ago

Oh Dominic…
Yes it does not work as an academic monograph.
How does it work as a rhetorical counter narrative to the 1619 agitprop?

Does it make its point, even if you disagree?

Kiran Grimm
Kiran Grimm
1 year ago

You cannot download the 1776 report using the link in the article. It has disappeared from the Whitehouse website. Obviously the new administration is keen to protect Trump from that comical own goal.

The report can be found in other places ““ Wikipedia for one. Don’t take Sandbrook’s word for it. It is worth reading. If anyone has scored a comical own goal it is Sandbrook with this critique. Perhaps he should stick to his histories of popular and consumer culture ““ I’m sure he’d be happier in that field.

Nigel Clarke
Nigel Clarke
1 year ago

Did Dominic have nothing to do and Unherd a spare column?

Honestly, this is the sort of thing I would expect to see in the Daily Mirror. Very poor.

And anyway, didn’t the previous inhabitants of the continent have first dibs on dates of origin? Probably a bit before either 1776 or 1619…

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
1 year ago
Reply to  Nigel Clarke

I assume you refer to the Vikings, they failed to file a deed when they got back to Denmark, so their claim was too poorly documented.

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
1 year ago

Very poor quality article for UnHerd, and not just because I disagree with him. I don’t think he argues the points he is trying to make. He makes disparaging comments about the 1776 work, but doesn’t spell out why he thinks its poor.
Given the state of academia, I would look at not having written a book of history as an accomplishment rather than a failing. History profs are some of the “wokest” folks I know.

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Milburn

Casting directors at BBC are the top level.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
1 year ago

I love history and can’t read enough of it. The problem is that self-seeking people choose certain parts of that history and use those issues to defend their theories of life. And that is what they are, just theories. Any graduate can write something like this document and in Trumpville they can get well paid for it.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

And, of course NYTville

Kiran Grimm
Kiran Grimm
1 year ago

I guess that folks earning a living in the intellectual professions (even those who claim to be woke sceptics) must display their disdain for outgoing president Trump, his legacy and associates. Anything less might leave one open to the accusation of a lack of discernment ““ and what would one’s peers think of that!

Steve White
Steve White
1 year ago

The end of slavery in America did begin with the Declaration of Independence, when it was said that:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

That was a big deal that eventually culminated in a civil war in America over slavery.

I think that the Russians did sew a bunch of stuff in universities during the cold war, and certainly they did a lot to advance communism in South America, and we can see the fruits of that in the Marxist Pope that is now in power. One of the things that has been happening in America for a long time now is a sort of Deconstructionism, where anything resembling Traditional Values, Christianity, or even Western Culture is attacked endlessly, so I applaud efforts (even ham handed ones) at leading back to pro America views.

I’m not sure if the author realized it or not but America hates itself. I mean many Americans (possibly millions) want to tear down every statue and everything that is America and start over, because it’s just so bad. This comes from a long effort that is in the education system here where kids are taught that America has pretty much always sucked. So, this is beyond showing a more balanced view where America is not always seen as noble, it’s to the point where a young person has to ask why anything of this terrible nation should be propped up at all. America has devolved into a post-historic, perpetual living in the present, pop-culture digital dystopia, full of bug-men, and fluffy self-righteous smarter-than-everyone leftist creatives like the author of this article.

Joseph McCord
Joseph McCord
1 year ago

Patriotic education is not, in and of itself, a bad idea.

Joseph McCord
Joseph McCord
1 year ago

Here’s a quote – from the Wikipedia article on the 1776 Commission –

“Trump announced the new commission in a speech on September 17, 2020, in which he contended that a “twisted web of lies” regarding systemic racism was currently being taught in U.S. schools, calling it “a form of child abuse.””

Yeah – that sounds literally pretty accurate, to me.

Joseph McCord
Joseph McCord
1 year ago

Victor Davis Hanson’s defense of the Commission’s report – I can’t post a link, but it can be found on the Tribune Content Agency’s website – is well worth reading.

As the concluding sentence reads – “…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.”

—————————-

That does, in and of itself, sound like Heresy – but I prefer it to the ideology that now wants to tyrannize us.

Joseph McCord
Joseph McCord
1 year ago

The document doesn’t turn up easily, on a Google search (only commentaries about it, do) – and, that’s interesting… But it can be found, on archive dot org. Everyone should read it – read it, for themselves.

The report entirely substantiates, all of its claims. Including, that the general trajectory of the United States from the very beginning, was in the direction away from the permanent continuation of slavery (which, after all – the 13 original states had all, separately inherited – from their previous status, as 13 separate British colonies). The “Progressivism” {capital, “P”} that the report criticizes, is not “progressivism”, in general (however many different things that that has meant, at different times) – but specifically, the Progressive Era of American history. The Wikipedia article on that, agrees with the claims about the negative aspects of it, made by the report. There is nothing, at all, propagandistic about this document – itself – except, where it opposes trends that actually are in contradiction, with the nation’s founding principles. It is only in its Appendices, that the report suggests exercises, that teachers might propose to students – such as the one that the author objects to… In that respect – at least, in relation to that one, particular question – sure, it has a conservative bias. But it is far from being a trivial document – and not at all, a poorly written one. It’s an absolutely necessary corrective, to the extremism of our times – and a very well crafted one. I recommend it, to everyone.

Karen Lindquist
Karen Lindquist
1 year ago

Wow. I was blissfully unaware of the NYT book and now this. If it isn’t the perfect example of how everyone in my country went batshit crazy I don’t know what is.
Not much room for those of us in between those two factions to stand.
Thanks for this essay. Gave me a good chuckle this morning. And also alerted me to what will inevitably become a talking point between the tweedle-dees and tweedle dumbs of America.

Derek M
Derek M
1 year ago

“Who wrote this rubbish” increasingly the response I have on reading anything by Sandbrook

Joseph McCord
Joseph McCord
1 year ago

Can anybody even find the report, itself, online – now that it has been taken down from White House website?

Charles Walker
Charles Walker
1 year ago
Reply to  Joseph McCord

Google 1776 pdf.

Joseph McCord
Joseph McCord
1 year ago

The document doesn’t turn up easily in a Google search – and, that’s interesting… but it can be found on archive.org. Everyone should read it – read it, for themselves.

Joseph McCord
Joseph McCord
1 year ago

It’s a bit bigoted, to say this – but if the British had not wanted us to have slaves, at the outset of our existence as a nation, when we first separated ourselves from them – they should not have saddled us with them, in the first place.

I wonder which nation, Mr. Sandbrook thinks did take the lead, in the abolition of slavery – if it wasn’t, the United States – that had not already possessed them, at least in its overseas colonies {although, I gather – in some very few instances, in the home country itself, as well} – and in fact, very lucratively trafficked in them? None of the British colonies in America, simply created themselves – or there would have been no need for a Revolutionary War. How does he think those slaves got there, in the first place?

Perhaps the author does not like the document that he so disparages – because he does not like the American story, itself?

(I suppose, at its founding – America could simply have sent its slaves back “home”, to Britain?)