by Dominic Sandbrook
Wednesday, 20
January 2021
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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.

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  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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