On September 17, 2020, President Donald Trump announced his intention to create a “1776 Commission” which would serve as an advisory committee on the need for American schools to provide “patriotic education” and to counter the America-hating narrative of Critical Race Theory. Trump officially established the Commission by executive order on November 2, 2020. The 16-member […]
On September 17, 2020, President Donald Trump announced his intention to create a “1776 Commission” which would serve as an advisory committee on the need for American schools to provide “patriotic education” and to counter the America-hating narrative of Critical Race Theory. Trump officially established the Commission by executive order on November 2, 2020. The 16-member panel included historians, attorneys, professors, scholars, authors, and former elected officials and public servants. It was chaired by Churchill historian and Hillsdale College President Larry P. Arnn, and vice-chaired by Carol M. Swain, a retired professor of political science. The Commission released a document titled The 1776 Report on Martin Luther King Day — January 18, 2021 — two days before the end of Trump’s term in office. The Commission was subsequently terminated by President Joe Biden on his Inauguration Day, January 20, 2021.
California State University professor emeritus Victor Davis Hanson, who served on the 1776 Commission, published an overview of the Commission, its perspectives on American history, and its January 18 report. Wrote Dr. Hanson:
“The newly formed President’s Advisory 1776 Commission just released its report…. 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.
“First, 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 repeatedly focuses on both the ideals of the American founding and the centuries-long quest to live up to them. It notes the fragility of such a novel experiment in constitutional republicanism, democratic elections, and self-government—especially during late 18th-century era of war and factionalism.
“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. Indeed, the commission explains why and how these wrongs were inconsistent with the letter and spirit of our founding documents. So it was natural that these disconnects would be addressed, even fought over, and continually resolved—often over the opposition of powerful interests who sought to reinvent the declaration and the Constitution into something that they were not. 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…. Some were 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, were 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 identified other challenges, such as continued racism, progressivism, and contemporary identity politics. The report argued how and why all those who insisted that race might become a basis from which to discriminate against entire groups of people were at odds with the logic of the declaration…. Often they sought to curb the liberties of the individual, under the guise of modernist progress and greater efficiency.
“The commission was no more sympathetic to the current popularity of identity politics or reparatory racial discrimination. It argued that the 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 offered 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 did not suggest that civic education and American history ignore or contextualize past national shortcomings. Again, the report argued that our lapses should be envisioned as obstacles to fulfilling the aspirations of our founding.”
Some key excerpts from The 1776 Report include the following:
The declared purpose of the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission is to “enable a rising generation to understand the history and principles of the founding of the United States in 1776 and to strive to form a more perfect Union.” This requires a restoration of American education, which can only be grounded on a history of those principles that is “accurate, honest, unifying, inspiring, and ennobling.” And a rediscovery of our shared identity rooted in our founding principles is the path to a renewed American unity and a confident American future.
The Commission’s first responsibility is to produce a report summarizing the principles of the American founding and how those principles have shaped our country. That can only be done by truthfully recounting the aspirations and actions of the men and women who sought to build America as a shining “city on a hill”—an exemplary nation, one that protects the safety and promotes the happiness of its people, as an example to be admired and emulated by nations of the world that wish to steer their government toward greater liberty and justice. The record of our founders’ striving and the nation they built is our shared inheritance and remains a beacon, as Abraham Lincoln said, “not for one people or one time, but for all people for all time.”
Today, however, Americans are deeply divided about the meaning of their country, its history, and how it should be governed. …
Comprising actions by imperfect human beings, the American story has its share of missteps, errors, contradictions, and wrongs. These wrongs have always met resistance from the clear principles of the nation, and therefore our history is far more one of self-sacrifice, courage, and nobility. America’s principles are named at the outset to be both universal—applying to everyone—and eternal: existing for all time. The remarkable American story unfolds under and because of these great principles.
Of course, neither America nor any other nation has perfectly lived up to the universal truths of equality, liberty, justice, and government by consent. But no nation before America ever dared state those truths as the formal basis for its politics, and none has strived harder, or done more, to achieve them.
Lincoln aptly described the American government’s fundamental principles as “a standard maxim for free society,” which should be “familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated.” But the very attempt to attain them—every attempt to attain them—would, Lincoln continued, constantly spread and deepen the influence of these principles and augment “the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.” The story of America is the story of this ennobling struggle. …
2. THE MEANING OF THE DECLARATION
The United States of America … is a republic; that is to say, its government was designed to be directed by the will of the people rather than the wishes of a single individual or a narrow class of elites. Republicanism is an ancient form of government but one uncommon throughout history, in part because of its fragility, which has tended to make republics short-lived. Contemporary Americans tend to forget how historically rare republicanism has been, in part because of the success of republicanism in our time, which is derived in no small part from the very example and success of America. …
There was no United States of America before July 4th, 1776. There was not yet, formally speaking, an American people. There were, instead, living in the thirteen British colonies in North America some two-and-a-half million subjects of a distant king. Those subjects became a people by declaring themselves such and then by winning the independence they had asserted as their right.
They made that assertion on the basis of principle, not blood or kinship or what we today might call “ethnicity.” […] [T]he newly formed American people were … neither wholly English nor wholly Protestant nor wholly Christian. Some other basis would have to be found and asserted to bind the new people together and to which they would remain attached if they were to remain a people. That basis was the assertion of universal and eternal principles of justice and political legitimacy. …
The American founders understood that, for republicanism to function and endure, a republican people must share a large measure of commonality in manners, customs, language, and dedication to the common good. …
At the time of the American founding, the most widespread claim was a form of the divine right of kings, that is to say, the assertion that God appoints some men, or some families, to rule and consigns the rest to be ruled.
The American founders rejected that claim. As the eighteen charges leveled against King George in the Declaration of Independence make clear, our founders considered the British government of the time to be oppressive and unjust. They had no wish to replace the arbitrary government of one tyrant with that of another.
More fundamentally, having cast off their political connection to England, our founders needed to state a new principle of political legitimacy for their new government. As the Declaration of Independence puts it, a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind” required them to explain themselves and justify their actions.
They did not merely wish to assert that they disliked British rule and so were replacing it with something they liked better. They wished to state a justification for their actions, and for the government to which it would give birth, that is both true and moral: moral because it is faithful to the truth about things. …
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.
The assertion that “all men are created equal” must also be properly understood. It does not mean that all human beings are equal in wisdom, courage, or any of the other virtues and talents that God and nature distribute unevenly among the human race. It means rather that human beings are equal in the sense that they are not by nature divided into castes, with natural rulers and ruled.
Thomas Jefferson liked to paraphrase the republican political thinker Algernon Sidney: “the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” Superiority of talent—even a superior ability to rule—is not a divine or natural title or warrant to rule. George Washington, surely one of the ablest statesmen who ever lived, never made such an outlandish claim and, indeed, vehemently rejected such assertions made by others about him.
As Abraham Lincoln would later explain, there was no urgent need for the founders to insert into a “merely revolutionary document” this “abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” They could simply have told the British king they were separating and left it at that. But they enlarged the scope of their Declaration so that its principles would serve as “a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.” The finality of the truth that “all men are created equal” was intended to make impossible any return to formal or legal inequality, whether to older forms such as absolute monarchy and hereditary aristocracy, or to as-yet-unimagined forms we have seen in more recent times.
Natural equality requires not only the consent of the governed but also the recognition of fundamental human rights—including but not limited to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—as well as the fundamental duty or obligation of all to respect the rights of others. These rights are found in nature and are not created by man or government; rather, men create governments to secure natural rights. Indeed, the very purpose of government is to secure these rights, which exist independently of government, whether government recognizes them or not. A bad government may deny or ignore natural rights and even prevent their exercise in the real world. But it can never negate or eliminate them.
The principles of the Declaration are universal and eternal. Yet they were asserted by a specific people, for a specific purpose, in a specific circumstance. The general principles stated in the document explain and justify the founders’ particular actions in breaking off from Great Britain, and also explain the principles upon which they would build their new government. These principles apply to all men, but the founders acted to secure only Americans’ rights, not those of all mankind. …
We confront, finally, the difficulty that the eternal principles elucidated in the Declaration were stated, and became the basis for an actual government, only a relatively short time ago. Yet if these principles are both eternal and accessible to the human mind, why were they not discovered and acted upon long before 1776?
In a sense, the precepts of the American founders were known to prior thinkers, but those thinkers stated them in entirely different terms to fit the different political and intellectual circumstances of their times. For instance, ancient philosophers appear to teach that wisdom is a genuine title to rule and that in a decisive respect all men are not created equal. Yet they also teach that it is all but impossible for any actual, living man to attain genuine wisdom. Even if wisdom is a legitimate title to rule, if perfect wisdom is unattainable by any living man, then no man is by right the ruler of any other except by their consent.
More fundamentally, by the time of the American founding, political life in the West had undergone two momentous changes. The first was the sundering of civil from religious law with the advent and widespread adoption of Christianity. The second momentous change was the emergence of multiple denominations within Christianity that undid Christian unity and in turn greatly undermined political unity. Religious differences became sources of political conflict and war. … [I]t was in response to these fundamentally new circumstances that the American founders developed the principle of religious liberty.
While the founders’ principles are both true and eternal, they cannot be understood without also understanding that they were formulated by practical men to solve real-world problems. For the founders’ solution to these problems, we must turn to the Constitution.
3. A CONSTITUTION OF PRINCIPLES
… The bedrock upon which the American political system is built is the rule of law. The vast difference between tyranny and the rule of law is a central theme of political thinkers back to classical antiquity. The idea that the law is superior to rulers is the cornerstone of English constitutional thought as it developed over the centuries. The concept was transferred to the American colonies, and can be seen expressed throughout colonial pamphlets and political writings. …
To assure such a government, Americans demanded a written legal document that would create both a structure and a process for securing their rights and liberties and spell out the divisions and limits of the powers of government. That legal document must be above ordinary legislation and day-to-day politics. That is what the founders meant by “constitution,” and why our Constitution is “the supreme Law of the Land.”
Their first attempt at a form of government, the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, was adopted in the midst of the Revolutionary War and not ratified until 1781. During that time, American statesmen and citizens alike concluded that the Articles were too weak to fulfill a government’s core functions. This consensus produced the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which met in Philadelphia that summer to write the document which we have today. It is a testament to those framers’ wisdom and skill that the Constitution they produced remains the longest continually-operating written constitution in all of human history.
The meaning and purpose of the Constitution of 1787, however, cannot be understood without recourse to the principles of the Declaration of Independence—human equality, the requirement for government by consent, and the securing of natural rights—which the Constitution is intended to embody, protect, and nurture. Lincoln famously described the principles of the Declaration (borrowing from Proverbs 25:11) as an “apple of gold” and the Constitution as a “frame of silver” meant to “adorn and preserve” the apple. The latter was made for the former, not the reverse.
The form of the new government that the Constitution delineates is informed in part by the charges the Declaration levels at the British crown. For instance, the colonists charge the British king with failing to provide, or even interfering with, representative government; hence the Constitution provides for a representative legislature. It also charges the king with concentrating executive, legislative, and judicial power into the same hands, which James Madison pronounced “the very definition of tyranny.” Instead, the founders organized their new government into three coequal branches, checking and balancing the power of each against the others to reduce the risk of abuse of power.
The intent of the framers of the Constitution was to construct a government that would be sufficiently strong to perform those essential tasks that only a government can perform (such as establishing justice, ensuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense, and promoting the general welfare— the main tasks named in the document’s preamble), but not so strong as to jeopardize the people’s liberties. …
More specifically, the framers intended the new Constitution to keep the thirteen states united—to prevent the breakup of the Union into two or more smaller countries—while maintaining sufficient latitude and liberty for the individual states. …
While the Constitution is fundamentally a compact among the American people (its first seven words are “We the People of the United States”), it was ratified by special conventions in the states. The peoples of the states admired and cherished their state governments, all of which had adopted republican constitutions before a federal constitution was completed. Hence the framers of the new national government had to respect the states’ prior existence and jealous guarding of their own prerogatives.
They also believed that the role of the federal government should be limited to performing those tasks that only a national government can do, such as providing for the nation’s security or regulating commerce between the states, and that most tasks were properly the responsibility of the states. And they believed that strong states, as competing power centers, would act as counterweights against a potentially overweening central government, in the same way that the separation of powers checks and balances the branches of the federal government.
For the founders, the principle that just government requires the consent of the governed in turn requires republicanism, because the chief way that consent is granted to a government on an ongoing basis is through the people’s participation in the political process. This is the reason the Constitution “guarantee[s] to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.”
Under the United States Constitution, the people are sovereign. But the people do not directly exercise their sovereignty, for instance, by voting directly in popular assemblies. Rather, they do so indirectly, through representative institutions. This is, on the most basic level, a practical requirement in a republic with a large population and extent of territory. But it is also intended to be a remedy to the defects common to all republics up to that time. …
The main causes of prior republican failure were class conflict and tyranny of the majority. In the simplest terms, the largest single faction in any republic would tend to band together and unwisely wield their numerical strength against unpopular minorities, leading to conflict and eventual collapse. The founders’ primary remedy was union itself. Against the old idea that republics had to be small, the founders countered that the very smallness of prior republics all but guaranteed their failure. In small republics, the majority can more easily organize itself into a dominant faction; in large republics, interests become too numerous for any single faction to dominate.
The inherent or potential partisan unwisdom of a dominant faction also would be tempered by representative government. Rather than the people acting as a body, the people would instead select officeholders to represent them. This would refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. [Federalist 10]
And the separation of powers would work in concert with the principle of representation […] One important feature of our written constitution is the careful way that it limits the powers of each branch of government— that is, states what those branches may do, and by implication what they may not do. This is the real meaning of “limited government”: not that the government’s size or funding levels remain small, but that government’s powers and activities must remain limited to certain carefully defined areas and responsibilities as guarded by bicameralism, federalism, and the separation of powers.
The Constitution was intended to endure. But because the founders well knew that no document written by human beings could ever be perfect or anticipate every future contingency, they provided for a process to amend the document—but only by popular decision-making and not by ordinary legislation or judicial decree.
The first ten amendments, which would come to be known as the Bill of Rights, were included at the demand of those especially concerned about vesting the federal government with too much power and who wanted an enumeration of specific rights that the new government lawfully could not transgress. But all agreed that substantive rights are not granted by government; any just government exists only to secure these rights.
It is important to note the founders’ understanding of three of these rights that are decisive for republican government and the success of the founders’ project. Our first freedom, religious liberty, is foremost a moral requirement of the natural freedom of the human mind. … Faith is both a matter of private conscience and public import, which is why the founders encouraged religious free exercise but barred the government from establishing any one national religion. The point is not merely to protect the state from religion but also to protect religion from the state so that religious institutions would flourish and pursue their divine mission among men.
Like religious liberty, freedom of speech and of the press is required by the freedom of the human mind. More plainly, it is a requirement for any government in which the people choose the direction of government policy. To choose requires public deliberation and debate. A people that cannot publicly express its opinions, exchange ideas, or openly argue about the course of its government is not free.
Finally, the right to keep and bear arms is required by the fundamental natural right to life: no man may justly be denied the means of his own defense. The political significance of this right is hardly less important. An armed people is a people capable of defending their liberty no less than their lives and is the last, desperate check against the worst tyranny.
4. CHALLENGES TO AMERICA’s PRINCIPLES
… [G]reat reforms—like abolition, women’s suffrage, anti-Communism, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Pro-Life Movement—have often come forward that improve our dedication to the principles of the Declaration of Independence under the Constitution.
More problematic have been movements that reject the fundamental truths of the Declaration of Independence and seek to destroy our constitutional order. The arguments, tactics, and names of these movements have changed, and the magnitude of the challenge has varied, yet they are all united by adherence to the same falsehood—that people do not have equal worth and equal rights. … It is the sacred duty of every generation of American patriots to defend this priceless inheritance.
The most common charge levelled against the founders, and hence against our country itself, is that they were hypocrites who didn’t believe in their stated principles, and therefore the country they built rests on a lie. This charge is untrue, and has done enormous damage, especially in recent years, with a devastating effect on our civic unity and social fabric.
Many Americans labor under the illusion that slavery was somehow a uniquely American evil. … But the unfortunate fact is that the institution of slavery has been more the rule than the exception throughout human history.
It was the Western world’s repudiation of slavery, only just beginning to build at the time of the American Revolution, which marked a dramatic sea change in moral sensibilities. The American founders were living on the cusp of this change, in a manner that straddled two worlds. George Washington owned slaves, but came to detest the practice, and wished for “a plan adopted for the abolition of it.” By the end of his life, he freed all the slaves in his family estate.
Thomas Jefferson also held slaves, and yet included in his original draft of the Declaration a strong condemnation of slavery, which was removed at the insistence of certain slaveholding delegates. Inscribed in marble at his memorial in Washington, D.C. is Jefferson’s foreboding reference to the injustice of slavery: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.”
James Madison saw to it at the Constitutional Convention that, even when the Constitution compromised with slavery, it never used the word “slave” to do so. No mere semantics, he insisted that it was “wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.”
Indeed, the compromises at the Constitutional Convention were just that: compromises. The three-fifths compromise was proposed by an antislavery delegate to prevent the South from counting their slaves as whole persons for purposes of increasing their congressional representation. The so-called fugitive slave clause, perhaps the most hated protection of all, accommodated pro-slavery delegates but was written so that the Constitution did not sanction slavery in the states where it existed. There is also the provision in the Constitution that forbade any restriction of the slave trade for twenty years after ratification—at which time Congress immediately outlawed the slave trade.
The First Continental Congress agreed to discontinue the slave trade and boycott other nations that engaged in it, and the Second Continental Congress reaffirmed this policy. The Northwest Ordinance, a pre-Constitution law passed to govern the western territories (and passed again by the First Congress and signed into law by President Washington) explicitly bans slavery from those territories and from any states that might be organized there.
Above all, there is the clear language of the Declaration itself: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” The founders knew slavery was incompatible with that truth.
It is important to remember that, as a question of practical politics, no durable union could have been formed without a compromise among the states on the issue of slavery. Is it reasonable to believe that slavery could have been abolished sooner had the slave states not been in a union with the free? Perhaps. But what is momentous is that a people that included slaveholders founded their nation on the proposition that “all men are created equal.”
So why did they say that without immediately abolishing slavery? To establish the principle of consent as the ground of all political legitimacy and to check against any possible future drift toward or return to despotism, for sure. But also, in Lincoln’s words, “to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.”
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.
Benjamin Franklin was president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and John Jay (the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) was the president of a similar society in New York. John Adams opposed slavery his entire life as a “foul contagion in the human character” and “an evil of colossal magnitude.”
Frederick Douglass had been born a slave, but escaped and eventually became a prominent spokesman for the abolitionist movement. He initially condemned the Constitution, but after studying its history came to insist that it was a “glorious liberty document” and that the Declaration of Independence was “the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny.”
And yet over the course of the first half of the 19th century, a growing number of Americans increasingly denied the truth at the heart of the founding. Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina famously rejected the Declaration’s principle of equality as “the most dangerous of all political error” and a “self-evident lie.” He never doubted that the founders meant what they said.
To this rejection, Calhoun added a new theory in which rights inhere not in every individual by “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” but in groups or races according to historical evolution. This new theory was developed to protect slavery—Calhoun claimed it was a “positive good”—and specifically to prevent lawful majorities from stopping the spread of slavery into federal territories where it did not yet exist.
“In the way our Fathers originally left the slavery question, the institution was in the course of ultimate extinction, and the public mind rested in the belief that it was in the course of ultimate extinction,” Abraham Lincoln observed in 1858. “All I have asked or desired anywhere, is that it should be placed back again upon the basis that the Fathers of our government originally placed it upon.”
This conflict was resolved, but at a cost of more than 600,000 lives. Constitutional amendments were passed to abolish slavery, grant equal protection under the law, and guarantee the right to vote regardless of race. Yet the damage done by the denial of core American principles and by the attempted substitution of a theory of group rights in their place proved widespread and long-lasting. These, indeed, are the direct ancestors of some of the destructive theories that today divide our people and tear at the fabric of our country.
In the decades that followed the Civil War, in response to the industrial revolution and the expansion of urban society, many American elites adopted a series of ideas to address these changes called Progressivism. Although not all of one piece, and not without its practical merits, the political thought of Progressivism held that the times had moved far beyond the founding era, and that contemporary society was too complex any longer to be governed by principles formulated in the 18th century. …
More significantly, the Progressives held that truths were not permanent but only relative to their time. They rejected the self-evident truth of the Declaration that all men are created equal and are endowed equally, either by nature or by God, with unchanging rights. … Instead, Progressives believed there were only group rights that are constantly redefined and change with the times. Indeed, society has the power and obligation not only to define and grant new rights, but also to take old rights away as the country develops.
Based on this false understanding of rights, the Progressives designed a new system of government. Instead of securing fundamental rights grounded in nature, government—operating under a new theory of the “living” Constitution—should constantly evolve to secure evolving rights.
In order to keep up with these changes, government would be run more and more by credentialed managers, who would direct society through rules and regulations that mold to the currents of the time. Before he became President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson laid out this new system whereby “the functions of government are in a very real sense independent of legislation, and even constitutions,” meaning that this new view of government would operate independent of the people.
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.
The principles of the Declaration have been threatened not only at home. In the 20th Century, two global movements threatened to destroy freedom and subject mankind to a new slavery. Though ideological cousins, the forces of Fascism and Communism were bitter enemies in their wars to achieve world domination. What united both totalitarian movements was their utter disdain for natural rights and free peoples.
Fascism first arose in Italy under the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini, largely in response to the rise of Bolshevism in Russia. Like the Progressives, Mussolini sought to centralize power under the management of so-called experts. All power—corporate and political—would be exercised by the state and directed toward the same goal. Individual rights and freedoms hold no purchase under Fascism. Its principle is instead, in Mussolini’s words, “everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.” Eventually, Adolf Hitler in Germany wed this militant and dehumanizing political movement to his pseudoscientific theory of Aryan racial supremacy, and Nazism was born.
The Nazi juggernaut quickly conquered much of Europe. The rule of the Axis Powers “is not a government based upon the consent of the governed,” said President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “It is not a union of ordinary, self-respecting men and women to protect themselves and their freedom and their dignity from oppression. It is an unholy alliance of power and pelf to dominate and enslave the human race.”
Before the Nazis could threaten America in our own hemisphere, the United States built an arsenal of democracy, creating more ships, planes, tanks, and munitions than any other power on earth. Eventually, America rose up, sending millions of troops across the oceans to preserve freedom.
Everywhere American troops went, they embodied in their own ranks and brought with them the principles of the Declaration, liberating peoples and restoring freedom. Yet, while Fascism died in 1945 with the collapse of the Axis powers, it was quickly replaced by a new threat, and the rest of the 20th century was defined by the United States’ mortal and moral battle against the forces of Communism.
Communism seems to preach a radical or extreme form of human equality. But at its core, wrote Karl Marx, is “the idea of the class struggle as the immediate driving force of history, and particularly the class struggle between the bourgeois and the proletariat.” In the communist mind, people are not born equal and free, they are defined entirely by their class.
Under Communism, the purpose of government is not to secure rights at all. Instead, the goal is for a “class struggle [that] necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat.” By its very nature, this class struggle would be violent. “The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims,” Marx wrote. “They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution.”
This radical rejection of human dignity spread throughout much of the world. In Russia, the bloody Bolshevik Revolution during World War I established the communist Soviet Union. Communism understands itself as a universalist movement of global conquest, and communist dictatorships eventually seized power through much of Europe and Asia, and in significant parts of Africa and South America. …
But Communism’s relentless anti-American, anti-Western, and atheistic propaganda did inspire thousands, and perhaps millions, to reject and despise the principles of our founding and our government. While America and its allies eventually won the Cold War, this legacy of anti-Americanism is by no means entirely a memory but still pervades much of academia and the intellectual and cultural spheres. The increasingly accepted economic theory of Socialism, while less violent than Communism, is inspired by the same flawed philosophy and leads down the same dangerous path of allowing the state to seize private property and redistribute wealth as the governing elite see fit. …
Racism and Identity Politics
The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, passed after the Civil War, brought an end to legal slavery. Blacks enjoyed a new equality and freedom, voting for and holding elective office in states across the Union. But it did not bring an end to racism, or to the unequal treatment of blacks everywhere.
Despite the determined efforts of the postwar Reconstruction Congress to establish civil equality for freed slaves, the postbellum South ended up devolving into a system that was hardly better than slavery. The system enmeshed freedmen in relationships of extreme dependency, and used poll taxes, literacy tests, and the violence of vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan to prevent them from exercising their civil rights, particularly the right to vote. Jim Crow laws enforced the strict segregation of the races, and gave legal standing in some states to a pervasive subordination of blacks.
It would take a national movement composed of people from different races, ethnicities, nationalities, and religions to bring about an America fully committed to ending legal discrimination.
The Civil Rights Movement culminated in the 1960s with the passage of three major legislative reforms affecting segregation, voting, and housing rights. It presented itself, and was understood by the American people, as consistent with the principles of the founding. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir,” Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his “I Have a Dream” speech. “This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
It seemed, finally, that America’s nearly two-century effort to realize fully the principles of the Declaration had reached a culmination. But the heady spirit of the original Civil Rights Movement, whose leaders forcefully quoted the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the rhetoric of the founders and of Lincoln, proved to be short-lived.
The Civil Rights Movement was almost immediately turned to programs that ran counter to the lofty ideals of the founders. The ideas that drove this change had been growing in America for decades, and they distorted many areas of policy in the half century that followed. Among the distortions was the abandonment of nondiscrimination and equal opportunity in favor of “group rights” not unlike those advanced by Calhoun and his followers. The justification for reversing the promise of color-blind civil rights was that past discrimination requires present effort, or affirmative action in the form of preferential treatment, to overcome long-accrued inequalities. Those forms of preferential treatment built up in our system over time, first in administrative rulings, then executive orders, later in congressionally passed law, and finally were sanctified by the Supreme Court.
Today, far from a regime of equal natural rights for equal citizens, enforced by the equal application of law, we have moved toward a system of explicit group privilege that, in the name of “social justice,” demands equal results and explicitly sorts citizens into “protected classes” based on race and other demographic categories.
Eventually this regime of formal inequality would come to be known as “identity politics.” The stepchild of earlier rejections of the founding, identity politics values people by characteristics like race, sex, and sexual orientation and holds that new times demand new rights to replace the old. This is the opposite of King’s hope that his children would “live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” and denies that all are endowed with the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
5. THE TASK OF NATIONAL RENEWAL
All the good things we see around us—from the physical infrastructure, to our high standards of living, to our exceptional freedoms—are direct results of America’s unity, stability, and justice, all of which in turn rest on the bedrock of our founding principles. Yet today our country is in danger of throwing this inheritance away. … Above all, we must stand up to the petty tyrants in every sphere who demand that we speak only of America’s sins while denying her greatness. …
The Role of the Family
By their very nature, families are the first educators […] For the American republic to endure, families must remain strong and reclaim their duty to raise up morally responsible citizens who love America and embrace the gifts and responsibilities of freedom and self-government.
The primary duty of schools is to teach students the basic skills needed to function in society, such as reading, writing, and mathematics. … [O]ur founders also recognized a second and essential task: educators must convey a sense of enlightened patriotism that equips each generation with a knowledge of America’s founding principles, a deep reverence for their liberties, and a profound love of their country. … Like any love worthy of the name, it must be embraced freely and be strong and unsentimental enough to coexist with the elements of disappointment, criticism, dissent, opposition, and even shame that come with moral maturity and open eyes. But it is love all the same, and without the deep foundation it supplies, our republic will perish. …
By studying America’s true heritage, students learn to embrace and preserve the triumphs of their forefathers while identifying and avoiding their mistakes.
States and school districts should reject any curriculum that promotes one-sided partisan opinions, activist propaganda, or factional ideologies that demean America’s heritage, dishonor our heroes, or deny our principles. Any time teachers or administrators promote political agendas in the classroom, they abuse their platform and dishonor every family who trusts them with their children’s education and moral development. …
A Scholarship of Freedom
Universities in the United States are often today hotbeds of anti-Americanism, libel, and censorship that combine to generate in students and in the broader culture at the very least disdain and at worst outright hatred for this country.
The founders insisted that universities should be at the core of preserving American republicanism by instructing students and future leaders of its true basis and instilling in them not just an understanding but a reverence for its principles and core documents. Today, our higher education system does almost the precise opposite. Colleges peddle resentment and contempt for American principles and history alike, in the process weakening attachment to our shared heritage.
In order to build up a healthy, united citizenry, scholars, students, and all Americans must reject false and fashionable ideologies that obscure facts, ignore historical context, and tell America’s story solely as one of oppression and victimhood rather than one of imperfection but also unprecedented achievement toward freedom, happiness, and fairness for all. Historical revisionism that tramples honest scholarship and historical truth, shames Americans by highlighting only the sins of their ancestors, and teaches claims of systemic racism that can only be eliminated by more discrimination, is an ideology intended to manipulate opinions more than educate minds.
Deliberately destructive scholarship shatters the civic bonds that unite all Americans. It silences the discourse essential to a free society by breeding division, distrust, and hatred among citizens. And it is the intellectual force behind so much of the violence in our cities, suppression of free speech in our universities, and defamation of our treasured national statues and symbols. …
Reverence for the Laws
… Patriotic education must have at its center a respect for the rule of law, including the Declaration and the Constitution, so that we have what John Adams called “a government of laws, and not of men.” […]
On the 150th Anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, President Calvin Coolidge raised the immortal banner in his time. “It is often asserted,” he said, “that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776 … and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning cannot be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions.”
America’s founding principles are true not because any generation—including our own—has lived them perfectly, but because they are based upon the eternal truths of the human condition. They are rooted in our capacity for evil and power for good, our longing for truth and striving for justice, our need for order and our love of freedom. Above all else, these principles recognize the worth, equality, potential, dignity, and glory of each and every man, woman, and child created in the image of God.
Throughout our history, our heroes—men and women, young and old, black and white, of many faiths and from all parts of the world—have changed America for the better not by abandoning these truths, but by appealing to them. Upon these universal ideals, they built a great nation, unified a strong people, and formed a beautiful way of life worth defending. …
We must renew the pride and gratitude we have for this incredible nation that we are blessed to call home. …
The 1776 Report
By The President’s Advisory 1776 Commission
It’s Fake News That the 1776 Commission Report Whitewashes America’s Past
By Victor Davis Hanson
Trump’s “1776 Report” Goes Down the Memory Hole
By Mark Tapson
February 3, 2021