I'm wrestling with a dilemma, a paradox. Media, social and otherwise, want to know why history has seemingly lost status in higher education. Majors are declining; enrollments have stabilized unevenly across institutions. Departments are being consolidated and losing positions as chairs are told to tighten their belts.
At the same time, history itself—along with history education and the public commemoration of historical events—pervades these same media, the focus of battles over the very essence and future of the United States. The already iconic photographs from the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol reek of history: medieval imagery, the 1775 Gadsden flag, abundant Confederate emblems. Reporters ask historians whether 1619 or 1776 holds the key to our national identity, or why state legislators have disparaged a particular set of curricula and introduced bills that list forbidden concepts, topics, and perspectives.
The controversy generating the most attention of late is the already infamous “Report from the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission,” issued on the penultimate full day of the Trump administration. After President Biden quickly withdrew the report and disbanded the commission, many journalists and historians breathed sighs of relief; surely this was the end of the matter. But the report lives on, not only in the National Archives as an official document, but also on the Heritage Foundation website as part of an attack on academic historians and the New York Times and Pulitzer Center’s 1619 Project Curriculum. As one journalist told me, one commission member has made it clear that she “wants school boards and students to read the report,” and that “the deactivated commission still plans to meet and rework the report.”
The 1776 Commission is not yet dead. I fear seeing the report put to use, zombie-like, to delegitimate the work of professional historians, while activists and legislators work—as boosters or propagandists, not as historians—to influence local history education. This is already brewing in at least three state legislatures (Arkansas, Iowa, and Oklahoma), with bills in the hopper that aim to purge teaching materials of “divisive concepts.” Consider proposed legislation in Arkansas:
A public school shall not allow a course, class, event, or activity within its program of instruction that: Promotes the overthrow of the United States Government; Promotes division between, resentment of, or social justice for a: (A) Race; (B) Gender; (C) Political affiliation; (D) Social class; or (E) Particular class of people.
The AHA’s statement on the 1776 Commission report, printed below, articulates what is at stake. Although the immediate target of the commission, the president who appointed it, and its allies in state legislatures is the 1619 Project, the broader and more enduring goal is to perpetuate celebratory myths of a nation whose essence lies in extremely limited government and cultural homogeneity. They want neither to confront our past nor learn from it.
In the context of the current fixation on the 1619 Project, it is not merely the question of whether 1619 or 1776 represents the nation’s “founding.” It is a matter of whether one can understand documents written by slaveholders in the late 18th century without understanding their world—one in which humans had owned, bought, and sold other humans for nearly two centuries.
I fear seeing the commission report put to use to delegitimate the work of professional historians, while activists and legislators work to influence local history education.
Historians know this, including those who have identified flaws in the 1619 Project. But the proponents of a history that marginalizes slavery and its aftermath while denying the deep and continuing impact of racism on nearly all aspects of American life would rather not have historians at the table. There were no professional historians of the United States on the 1776 Commission. Nor were any historians consulted by the San Francisco Board of Education in advance of its recent decision to rename 44 public schools. The chair of the school “renaming committee” believes historians themselves to be both troublesome (here’s that paradox again) and irrelevant. “What would be the point?” in consulting a historian, he asked. “History is written and documented pretty well across the board. And so, we don’t need to belabor history in that regard. . . . Based on our criteria, it’s a very straightforward conversation. And so, no need to bring historians forward to say—they either pontificate and list a bunch of reasons why, or [say] they had great qualities. Neither are necessary in this discussion.”
These controversies are by no means equivalent. What happened in San Francisco is unusual, an extreme case, in the battles over naming. But in its details can be found a call to action for historians, to be aware of what is happening not only in our state legislatures, but in our communities and school boards—indeed all those civic associations that Alexis de Tocqueville so admired—and to show up, perhaps even to join the table without a special invitation. We cannot heal this nation without accurately understanding its pathologies, which are by their very nature historical.
AHA Condemns Report of the Advisory 1776 Commission
The just-released “1776 Report” claims that common understanding of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution can unify all Americans in the love of country. The product of “The President’s Advisory 1776 Commission,” the report focuses on these founding documents in an apparent attempt to reject recent efforts to understand the multiple ways the institution of slavery shaped our nation’s history. The authors call for a form of government indoctrination of American students, and in the process elevate ignorance about the past to a civic virtue.
The report actually consists of two main themes. One is an homage to the Founding Fathers, a simplistic interpretation that relies on falsehoods, inaccuracies, omissions, and misleading statements. The other is a screed against a half-century of historical scholarship, presented largely as a series of caricatures, using single examples (most notably the “1619 Project”) to represent broader historiographical trends.
The sections on the founders envision godlike men who crafted documents that asserted “universal and eternal principles of justice and political legitimacy.” Ironically, the report erases whole swaths of the American population—enslaved people, Indigenous communities, and women—the way the founders excluded those groups from the body politic in a wide variety of founding documents as well as actual public practice. In listing threats to the ideals of the nation, the report ignores the Confederate States of America, whose leaders, many clearly guilty of treason, initiated a civil war that claimed more than 700,000 lives—more American lives than all other conflicts in the history of the country combined. Instead, the authors focus on early 20th-century Progressive reformers and bizarrely suggest they were similar to Mussolini and other World War II European fascists. Of particular note is the implied condemnation of Progressive Era legislation—workplace health and safety legislation, regulation of the production of food and drugs, the elimination of child labor, and other social goods we take for granted today.
The report concludes with a full-throated assault on American universities, which, the authors claim, have produced what they call “deliberately destructive scholarship.” This scholarship is described as the “intellectual force behind so much of the violence in our cities,” including the “defamation of our treasured national statues.” The vast majority of targeted statues, as the AHA has noted before, honor either men who committed treason by violating oaths of office and taking up arms against the United States government, or whose main historical significance lay in their defense of slavery or other forms of white supremacy.
Written hastily in one month after two desultory and tendentious “hearings,” without any consultation with professional historians of the United States, the report fails to engage a rich and vibrant body of scholarship that has evolved over the last seven decades. Americans across the nation, perhaps including some of the commissioners, have encountered this history not only in books and classrooms, but also at museums, in national parks, and even in their homes as they watch documentaries.
Though it extols (narrowly defined) family and faith as the ultimate forces for good, the “1776 Report” also observes that the “bedrock upon which the American political system is built is the rule of law.” Yet its condemnation of contemporary social movements ignores recent efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the very institutions enshrined in the Constitution itself.
The AHA Council approved this statement on January 20, 2021.
James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.
Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.