Just two days before he left office, Donald Trump released a Report generated from the 1776 Commission, a presidential advisory committee he created in September 2020 to combat, in his words, the “wicked web of lies” in some versions of American history. The commission was sparked by the right-wing outrage and panic over the New York Times’ 1619 Project, a public history project designed to reframe the American narrative around the experiences and perspectives of Black Americans. Both The 1619 Project and the 1776 Commission are particularly concerned with education – The 1619 Project produced lesson plans and resources for teachers to help educators diversity their curriculum, which threw critics into a tizzy. What would happen if children were taught that slavery was intrinsic to the foundation of the United States, or that the “founding fathers” were hypocritical slavers? The 1776 Commission Report is, happily, no longer in effect. The website was taken down at noon on Jan 20, 2021, as Joseph R Biden was sworn in as the 46th president. But the ideas and arguments in the Commission Report won’t disappear just because they no longer have the power of the presidency behind them. When the Report dropped – on Martin Luther King Jr. Day – historians immediately criticized it, but they also began to worry about how they would teach the Report and its flaws to their students. Well, that’s where we hope we can help. We don’t often do episodes like this, with all four of us focused on one document or even on one current event, but we consider it our job as educators, historians, and public historians to break down this commission Report and discuss what exactly is wrong with it.
Transcript for: American Exceptionalism at its Most Disturbing: “The 1776 Report”
Researched and Written by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD
Recorded by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD, Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD, Marissa Rhodes, PhD, and Averill Earls, PhD
Sarah: Just two days before he left office, Donald Trump released the Report generated from the 1776 Commission, a presidential advisory committee he created in September 2020 to combat, in his words, “the wicked web of lies” in some versions of American history. The commission was sparked by the right wing outrage and panic over the New York Times‘ 1619 Project, a public history project designed to reframe the American narrative around the experiences and perspectives of Black Americans. Both The 1619 Project and the 1776 Commission are particularly concerned with education. The 1619 Project produced lesson plans and resources for teachers to help educators diversify their curriculum, which threw critics into a tizzy. What would happen if children were taught that slavery was intrinsic to the foundation of the United States? Or that the “founding fathers” were actually hypocritical slavers?
Marissa: This conflict is about the fear of what kind of history education children will receive. It’s easy to forget that there are high stakes in education, not just making sure kids know how to read or do trigonometry, but because teachers have tremendous power to shape a narrative for students. And that narrative has the power to shape their worldview. How many of you listeners had a moment where you unlearned something that you had learned in elementary or high school, and felt your whole perspective shift? Parents and governments have opposed including certain things in their student’s education for ages. The entire Scopes Trial was about a teacher, trying to teach evolution. Americans in positions of power have long understood the role history education can have in shaping worldview. Think of the United Daughters of the Confederacy publishing the Confederate Catechism, the pamphlet designed to teach children the “correct” history of the Civil War. Nor is it the first commission arranged to determine the way history is taught in the United States. In the mid-90s, the National History Standards, drawn up at the behest of the NEH and Department of Education, caused a political uproar when Lynn Cheney, former NEH chair (wife of Dick and mother of Liz), called the standards “grim and gloomy.”
Elizabeth: In a larger sense, the conflict is also about competing visions of America. One is a critical attempt to grapple with the complex and contradictory history of the US as a land of the Declaration of Independence, but also the land of the “peculiar institution,” the genocide of Native Americans, the oppression of Jim Crow, the Japanese internment and other disappointing and distressing bits of our history. The other is nationalistic, focused only on the inspiring history of the United States as the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” And you can practically hear the national anthem swell there, eh? But the problem is that there aren’t just differing opinions. Putting them side by side sets up a false equivalency. The first version of history is accurate and the second is not. The 1776 Commission Report is, happily, no longer in effect. The website was taken down at noon on January 20, 2021, as Joseph R. Biden was sworn in as the 46th President. But the ideas and arguments in the Commission Report won’t disappear just because they no longer have the power of the presidency behind them. When the Report dropped on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, historians immediately criticized it. But, they also began to worry about how they would teach the Report and flaws to their students.
Averill: Well, that’s where we hope we can help. We don’t often do episodes like this with all four of us focused on one document, or even on one current event. But we consider it our job as educators, historians, and public historians to break down this Commission Report and discuss what exactly is wrong with it. I’m Averill.
Sarah: I’m Sarah.
Marissa: I’m Marissa.
Elizabeth: And I’m Elizabeth.
Averill: And we are your historians for this special episode of Dig.
Sarah: We want to start by clarifying what this episode isn’t. While we want to break down this Report and DIG into how and why it’s wrong and inappropriate (and no we’re never gonna get sick of the dig puns), we can’t fully unpack every single implication of this Report, or flesh out entirely every misleading or false claim. I think the entire Report is something like 46 or 45 pages long, so you know there’s a lot packed in there. If we tried to really unpack every single thing in it, that would make for a very long, probably very boring episode. Instead, we’ll do our best to explain what we can and to point you to historians and resources that can provide more context than we can give here.
Averill: Let’s start with one of the foundational problems with the Report, there were no historians on this advisory committee. The committee was made up of conservative intellectuals from law, economics, and education. And we’re using this term, “education,” loosely here. The chair was the president of a super conservative college.
Sarah: Right, not like an Education PhD or something?
Averill: Right. Politicians and activists, including Charlie Kirk, who teaches that there was no party switch? *nervous laughter*
Averill: There was one guy, one guy, who writes about ancient warfare, but isn’t a working historian. Instead of historians, the board lists lots of people whose bios say that they are “conservative commentators.”
Elizabeth: But that doesn’t mean that there were no historians involved at all. In September 2020, Trump hosted the White House Conference on American History. The conference featured a couple of conservative historians, Wilfred McClay (now of Hillsdale College) and one of Sarah’s former mentors, Allen Guelzo (formerly of Gettysburg College and now at Princeton). They were joined by activists from various parts of the world of education: Larry Arnn (President of Hillsdale College), Mary Graber (an English professor who has written a book taking on Howard Zinn, and who is a resident fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization), and Theodor Rebarber an advocate for “school choice.” It also featured Ben Carson, for reasons that are not clear, other than he’s really the only Black guy that Trump knows? Haha, the panel was astounding. They railed on Howard Zinn as if he personally was teaching every social studies and history class in the nation (and we’ll come back to Zinn in just a sec). They decried “liberal” book and textbooks that denigrate western civilization and instead focus on multiculturalism. They warned about radical professors who worked to indoctrinate students into Black Lives Matter. Antifa drones, right? So they were especially worried about critical race theory, which they never really bothered to actually define. Guelzo ripped on The 1619 Project and there were many references to George Orwell‘s 1984. After the conference papers, Trump gave a speech in which he said that American students needed to receive a “patriotic education,” a phrase that should send a chill down your spine. A couple of weeks later, Trump announced the creation of a commission on American history education called (and a direct call to The 1619 Project,) the 1776 Commission.
Marissa: The major theme of the conference was that radical leftist professors (that’s historians) indoctrinate students by manipulating and falsifying history to denigrate America’s glorious past. And this is the theme that comes through, specifically, in the 1776 Commission Report. In the first paragraph of the Report, after a stirring reference to the Declaration, the authors state that, “The declared purpose of the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission is to ‘enable a rising generation to understand 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,” in their words, “‘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.”
Sarah: Yeah. So, what I think that we should do is to walk through some of the major points of the Report and unpack and debunk them for you. Then, I’d like to open up to just a little bit of a discussion about our job as historians, partisanship, patriotism and history, and the bigger implications of this Report. So I’ll walk us through the Report and we’ll discuss a little bit as we go along, then we’ll get into a bigger conversation. Alright, so…
Averill: Sounds good.
Elizabeth: And we should probably let our listeners know that you can Google this Report and the PDF comes up pretty easily. So even though it was decommissioned on official government sites, it’s still readily available for you to read and we’ll link to it.
Sarah: Absolutely, that’s a good point.
Marissa: It’s archived in the Wayback Machine; that’s where I found it.
Sarah: What’s really funny is I downloaded it, I think at like, 5pm, the night before the inauguration thinking, “This is probably going to disappear from the White House website tomorrow.” Haha but yeah, especially if you’re thinking of teaching with it, it might be useful to have the PDF. If you can’t locate it, you know, email us and I can send it to you. Because we’re going to walk through it sort of bit by bit, and so if you’re thinking of actually using this episode with your students, it might be useful to be able to reference it as we go along.
The Report opens with a section called “The Meaning of the Declaration.” And in this section, the Report admits that the United States did have some things at its founding in common with other countries. But then, it immediately shifts into stating that the United States is unusual and has a government system, that is, using their phrase, “historically rare.” So I think it’s really important to start right off the bat by saying that this is American Exceptionalism, right? Does one of you want to define what American Exceptionalism is?
Elizabeth: Marissa, do you want to do it? Haha
Marissa: Haha yeah, well it’s the idea that, and this is something that I think a lot of Europeanists and global historians face when they consume American history, is that it’s really common to have these kind of throwaway lines like “This is the first time that there was ever this experiment in democracy” or whatever.
Marissa: And, “It shook the foundations of the world!” and all of those kinds of things. And then people who do history of the rest of the world for, you know, since the beginning of time, are like “What? No, that’s not true.” It’s just that idea that the United States of America is particularly special and holds this special place in world history.
Sarah: Yeah and I should say too that (not always) but in some cases where American Exceptionalism is pushed, it’s tied explicitly to Christianity. And that America is sort of, somehow… it’s really hard to even describe it. It’s almost like foreseen in the Bible as like, the Christian Nation.
Marissa: Yes, that’s the “city on the hill” thing.
Sarah: Right, yeah.
Marissa: And they mention that in the Report.
Sarah: Right, absolutely yes. This is a phrase that comes up all the time. I think of both the Puritans and Reagan, haha. And I want to come back, actually, you mentioned world history. And so I want to come back to that idea at the end, because I think that this is a particularly important part of this Report in how it pushes exceptionalism. But I do want to circle back to that at the end. Also in this very beginning section, they start by saying that the United States has a definite birthday haha, which I think is kind of funny and how it’s phrased. Birthday! Not founding date, birthday! July 4, 1776. Now of course, that phrase is used particularly because of, again, the 1619 Project. Which, as part of its reorientation of American history, asks people to think of the founding of America not happening in 1776, but happening in 1619 when the first enslaved people arrived in Virginia.
And I wanted to say, something that struck me as I was reading this part is that I do an activity in my Civil War class when I teach it, where I have students brainstorm all of the possible causes of the Civil War, right? It’s like John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, the 1820 Compromise, like all of these different things, right? We put them all up on the board, and one by one, we start erasing them until we come down to what was the one thing that made it inevitable? And yes, I realized that like the inevitability argument is… like this is a teaching tool, right? Like I’m not going too deep into the historical theories behind the inevitability. But, something that I think is really interesting that my students and I have come back to in multiple classes is the importance of the year 1619. And this was before The 1619 Project started, that students were pointing that out as sort of a tipping point. That moment is pivotal in the history of the United States in determining kind of the rest of its trajectory. So while you know they were very focused on The 1619 Project, as this radical reorientation or whatever, that’s also not entirely new. It’s not like The 1619 Project is the first. It’s not like they were the first folks to be like “Yo, this thing happened in 1619.” This is something that historians have been discussing long before that.
Marissa, I wanted to ask you, what else are we missing if we make this the birth of America, 1776, specifically? What’s the problem with that? Like what are we missing in American history?
Marissa: I mean, you’re missing hundreds of years of history, not to mention thousands of years of Indigenous history.
Sarah: Right. There is no mention of Native Americans or Indigenous history whatsoever in this entire document.
Marissa: So you’re just pretending America starts when white people show up?
Sarah: Not even when they show up, when they found, ya know—
Marissa: Well, yeah, yeah, when they gave birth to a nation.
Marissa: Which is just absolutely crazy. Blaming the events that happen during the colonial period on European powers, whatever, fine, I guess that sort of makes sense. But completely excluding the fact that there were thousands of years of really complex societies just living here and having their own history and their own cultures and their own everything, it’s just very strange that they don’t even mention it.
Sarah: Right and that’s interesting to me too. Because, even Thomas Jefferson believed that that was part of what made America great: that it had hosted other civilizations before the Americans, right? I think I talked about this in our Skull Collectors Episode where in Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson is talking about Indian burial mounds and how it’s evidence of like cities being here before, right? So, it’s interesting that there’s kind of an erasure of all of that.
Marissa: Yeah that’s that romantic idea that the United States of America, somehow, has inherited some kind of specialness from Indigenous Americans that lived here too. So that in and of itself is kind of this weird American Exceptionalism, also. But in reverse and that’s weird.
Sarah: Yeah. Okay, so then it goes into sort of a discussion of the Declaration of Independence. You know, obviously from the fact that they call themselves the “1776 Commission”, you should get the impression that we’re going to be talking about the Declaration a lot, right? They’re kind of fetishy about the Declaration here and about the Constitution (which was not written in 1776). So, another red flag that comes up pretty quickly is this, “The assertion that ‘all men are created equal’ must also be properly understood.” Like, I see that as a red flag if you need to parse the phrase, “all men are created equal” and explain to me why that’s not saying what it’s saying. That seems bad. They claim in the Report that this really means (and I’m using their phrase), “human beings are equal in the sense that they are not by nature divided into castes, with natural rulers and ruled.” This idea of castes, or groups, or identities is going to also come up over and over and over again. They talk about consent of the governed as being part of this naturally equality.
Marissa: Can I say what pisses me off about their use of the word, “caste”? Can I interject that here?
Sarah: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, because they use the term “caste.”
Marissa: They use it specifically, to my mind, as a reference to an Orientalist thing.
Marissa: Kind of like, “Oh, we’re not like these “old” societies like Persia or India, or whatever. We are a “new kind” of society.” And it’s a very anti-Eastern… I mean East and West don’t even exist. Don’t even get me started. But if they did, it would be a very anti-Eastern [Asian] way of interpreting what that means.
Sarah: Yeah, that’s a really important point. Thank you. They then talk about the principles of the Declaration being universal and eternal but also say, “Yes they were asserted by specific people, for a specific purpose, in a specific circumstance.” And they say there that they’re talking only about Americans, first of all. The Declaration’s declaration, that “all men are created equal,” they say, was only meant to refer to Americans. And [they say] it shouldn’t be extrapolated to other groups, which is also pretty gross. They then assert that America is the culmination of principles and ideas that the ancients could basically only talk about. Like the philosophs could “theorize”, but it was the Americans who could actually make these ideas work. And that’s another [example] again [of] American Exceptionalism, right? And what was it that made America able to do this? I bring you this quote where it says, “the sundering of civil from religious law with the advent and widespread adoption of Christianity… the emergence of multiple denominations within Christianity that undid Christian unity and undermined political unity… it was in response to these fundamentally new circumstances that the American founders developed the principle of religious liberty.”
Marissa: No! Haha, that’s literally not what happened.
Sarah: Right, yeah. I mean this is my reading of it and I could be wrong, there could be other readings of that, but the way that I interpret that is that they’re referring specifically to a Puritan past, an America that was based on a migration of peoples seeking religious liberty to create that “city upon a hill.” Which as we all know, is not actually an accurate depiction of how settlement in the United States happened, right? First of all, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was not the first settlement.
Sarah: The Virginia Colony was and it was very different. Right?
Sarah: Not a lot of “city on a hill” happening in the Chesapeake.
Marissa: Not very religious at all.
Sarah: Much more people eating, haha.
Marissa: And much more prostitution, and sex, and rape of Indigenous women and things like that. Like, you know?
Marissa: Not lots of upstanding stuff going on.
Sarah: Right, but again they this is coming from a very particular worldview where Christianity is at the heart of what makes America, America and what has made our “grand experiment” in Republicanism and Democracy.
Averill: And I guess to say, it also completely overshadows the market push of colonizing the “new worlds”, right? This is all based on market and on burgeoning capitalism.
Sarah: Oh abosolutely.
Marissa: Right, which is where all the actual power was. I mean, most movement from Europe to the Americas was done at the behest of the Crown or by someone who was rich who was trying to become more rich. It wasn’t done by people who were trying to escape tyranny. That was a very, very, very small group of people.
Sarah: Right, but that small group has had a really outsized influence on American memory. And so they loom very large, when in fact, they were only one small piece of the actual story of the settlement of white people in America.
Averill: Can we also say imperialism or colonization because settlement is such a passive word and it neglects the experience of the Indigenous people who were here, and forced out, and murdered?
Marissa: That’s a perfect point. This was a purposeful, imperial project, not just random people coming and being like, “I’m gonna start a new life!” That’s not really how it worked.
Sarah: Right yeah, that’s a really important point and I’m glad that you said that. So another thing that I want to make sure to point out before we move on, is this big opening shot from the Commission Report where they say that we need to properly understand what they meant by “all men are created equal.” And I think that this is a way of them framing right from the very beginning [how] to get around the central tension in American history, which in my teaching [I] refer to as the “American Paradox.” [It’s] this idea that America at its founding, was both based on freedom and liberty and independence, while also, being a slavocracy. Those words [were] written by people, like Thomas Jefferson, who could speak out of both sides of their mouth when it came to liberty and slavery. And that will come up over and over again but they really want to… This is a problem for the Commission in writing this Report: that this is the central problem of American history, and it’s also a problem for these folks in trying to reframe this according to their kind of glorious patriotic worldview and say, “Well no, no, no, that’s not really what the founders meant. They didn’t really mean it in this way.” Which… fair, haha. They didn’t mean it in that way, right?
Okay. They then go on to talk about the First Amendment, and how important that is by saying quote, “A people that cannot publicly express its opinions, exchange ideas, or openly argue about the course of its government is not free.” Okay, which, you know, also seems fair on its face, right? Except when you remember that this is an oblique criticism of things like deplatforming and “safe spaces” and controversies over right-wing speakers on campuses. So like, they’re not just saying, “The First Amendment is important.” There’s a reason behind them really emphasizing the First Amendment here. We need to remember that the First Amendment does not require that everyone gets an equal platform to express their opinion. It also doesn’t protect you from the consequences or criticism of your speech, either. It also doesn’t guarantee you a Twitter account, haha, contrary to what many of my conservative friends and relatives on Facebook believe right now.
Right. It’s also important to point out that this is rich that they bring up the importance of the freedom of the press, when they are a group that’s working for Donald Trump, who has, for four or five years railed against journalism and the freedom of the press, right?
Sarah: Then of course, they have to move on to talk about the Second Amendment by saying, “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.” Obviously, very gendered language there, this reflects the conservative viewpoint that the Second Amendment is about private gun ownership as a “check against the worst kind of tyranny.”
Averill: They don’t mention a militia at all. They specifically say it’s a personal right. So I thought that was very interesting.
Sarah: Right, whereas the actual phrasing of the Amendment, is “A well regulated Militia.”
Marissa: You know, for all of their bluster about not changing the meaning of our founding documents, they’re doing a lot of interpretive work here too.
Elizabeth: That’s a good point.
Marissa: In terms of what these founding documents actually say, that’s what’s really frustrating to me is that [they’re] pretending that doing history is not an interpretive act. It is just bull. Doing history involves interpretation and they’re trying to set forth this “official record” and they say it a million times, “based on facts and accuracy.” But they’re doing just as much interpretive work as any historians might do. But sometimes they’re not doing it as fairly or well as some historians do.
Elizabeth: Haha, sometimes?
Marissa: Haha, okay, a lot of the time.
Sarah: I think it’s also important to point out that this also sort of plays into a kind of mythology that we have about the American Revolution. And I want to say right off the bat, I am not a scholar of the American Revolution. But, we have this idea that it was like people’s grandpappy just, kind of like, tumbling out of their houses because Paul Revere told them to. And they’re like going up to the hill with their personal sidearm, or whatever, their own muskets pulling them off the wall, you know? And like they’re, I don’t know, probably was a certain amount of that? But when it’s referring to militias, those were a real thing in this era where men drilled together. And so it wasn’t as much of a sort of ragtag group of individuals as we tend to think it was, it was people who are like, “Well, the militia is going out and I’m a member of the militia.” Which is a very different thing. We like to, I think, really fetishize this idea of individuals, and individuals taking up arms collectively against the Crown, right? That’s not quite accurate, but that’s such a nuanced difference that I think it gets easily lost.
Marissa: I think important to point out at the point of the Declaration of Independence, the vast majority of colonists thought of themselves and identified themselves as British subjects, and would have thought of themselves as being British, and their experiences of weapons, and all of their their military experience would have been in the British Army or Navy. I think it’s not accurate, it doesn’t tell the full story, to think of these ragtag individualists who carved out this place for themselves in the Americas and fought against tyranny using their muskets. That’s just not what it was like. There were these very fancy and rich people who had these qualms with Britain and felt like they weren’t being given their God-given “rights as Englishman.” And a lot of the Declaration of Independence mirrors the language of the document called the Rights of Englishmen. So a lot of this was very kind of “high” political conflict and ordinary folks were not involved in the very beginning. Not involved a ton, unless you were kind of radical. And haha I can even tell you that the first few Fourth of Julys that happened, (I read a lot of diary entries of people who live in Philadelphia and in the years following July 4, 1776) they were so annoyed by the fireworks and celebrating. And they were just like, “These people are ridiculous.”
Sarah: Haha, “Tone it down!”
Marissa: “This is very annoying. Let’s not do this and that would be great.” It wasn’t—
Sarah: —but it’s America’s birthday!!
Marissa: Haha, “It’s America’s birthday!!” It’s just a lot more complicated than is being portrayed here.
Sarah: Yeah, and I also want to say that we see [this] come up every once in a while. Everytime there’s a debate over guns in America, one of the talking points that comes up is the importance of individual gun ownership to your ability to resist tyranny and that if the government ever was to, I don’t know, infringe upon you, you could protect yourself. There’s often an invocation of the Holocaust, and that if Jews had only been armed, that the Nazis wouldn’t have been able to ghettoize them and shipped them off to concentration camps in the way that they did. Which is incredibly, incredibly problematic on multiple levels. I don’t know if you have anything to say about that Averill, or if I should just move on.
Averill: So obviously, this is incredibly offensive on many levels. But let’s just take it from the logical fallacy part of the issue, in which (and we can post an article that really digs deeper into this in the show notes) it’s true that during the Weimar period (the democratic government that was put in place right after the end of World War One), the Weimar government passed a bunch of laws that did regulate and de-arm German citizens more broadly. And that was, at least in part, responding to requirements of the Versailles Treaty, which was to demilitarize Germany, both its army and its population so they couldn’t rise up again and launch another coup to overthrow the democratic governments (which ultimately sort of happened anyway). But when the Nazis came to power, when Hitler came to power, they actually started to reverse those restrictions on gun ownership and use for German citizens at the same time, specifically targeting the Jewish minority population and disarming them. So that’s a very different system, right? The systematic de-arming of a minority population, not a general population situation. In fact, during the Nazi period, more Germans would have had more guns, perhaps contributing to greater distress and genocidal efforts against Jewish neighbors.
Elizabeth: Yeah, I’m thinking about your episode, Averill, that you did on the Nuremberg Laws and how you really laid out in a very clear way how this was a slow, chipping away, and eroding of the natural or civil rights of Jews. So like you’re saying, it wasn’t just all of a sudden they were like, “Okay, everybody! We’re rounding you up!” And you know, that was their moment to be like, “Oh my gosh, let’s rally and get our guns!”
Sarah: “Yeah, let’s rise up!”
Now we come to the next section of the Report where the authors go through sort of a list of things that “challenged” the Constitution. Yet, they repeatedly tried to emphasize the fact the Constitution was designed to make change possible, as if that sort of absolves the fact that those rights were left out in the first place. They have a very interesting perspective that like, the Constitution was made amendable and that because of that, we can’t blame anything on the Constitution if it wasn’t in the beginning, even though they also want to have this strict construction interpretation.
Marissa: Because they’re trying to cast the founding fathers as very forward looking.
Sarah: That’s right. And geniuses.
Marissa: And geniuses, and forward looking, and like “progressive” in a good way, not in like a scary way. And they do that with the slavery section a ton.
Sarah: Right. Okay, so we get to this paragraph where they introduce these challenges where they say, “At the same time, it is important to know that by design there is room in the Constitution for a significant change and reform,” as I just mentioned, “Indeed great 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…” I wish I could have caught an audio of Marissa’s face there when I said the Pro-Life Movement.
Marissa: “That great reform! The Pro-Life movement! That great reform, anti-Communism!” Anti-Communism is not a reform movement, like what the [expletive] are you talking about? exasperated sigh
Sarah: Right and I mean when they say anti-Communism as a reform movement, are they talking about McCarthyism?!
Averill: Well that’s what I’m wondering about, like what the hell are they talking about?
Sarah: Right. I also think it’s important to point out the, I mean obviously it’s important to note what they have chosen as their key reforms, but also the phrasing in that. Women’s suffrage, not women’s rights. So we’re talking specifically about women earning the right to vote, not about women having the right to say, have a credit card in their own name.
Marissa: Or have the right to not be raped in marriage or something.
Sarah: Right, yeah, that’s not reform. Okay, so what are the challenges that they lay out? First and foremost, the central challenge of American history: slavery. The section on slavery is gross. And the first time I read it, I got to this section, and I said, “Peace out, I’m done.” I read about three sentences of the slavery section, and I had to step away because it really is that insulting. So it starts by defending the reputation of the founders who they say have suffered “enormous damage” by charges “that they were hypocrites,” which has had, “a devastating effect on our civic unity and social fabric.” Averill’s face right now. And then after this defensive posture of trying to defend the founders from any criticism associated with slavery, they then make the case that America was not alone in the fact that it had a system of enslavement. They claim that Americans today, “brought up in the comforts of modern America” where we all have rights and privileges can’t imagine the kinds of cruelties that were common in earlier times. And so we’re more angry about slavery today than people would have been back then because everybody was just used to living in squalor, and everything being horrible, is essentially what they’re saying. So this is similar to the argument that people often trot out which is, “He was a man of his time,” that Jefferson, when he created this internal paradox in American history, he was a man of his time. Does anybody want to sort of break down why that argument is problematic?
Marissa: It was a problem at his time!
Averill: Haha, it was a problem. Like right now, if you talk to 500 people, no two of them are going to have the exact same perspective on a single issue, right? That’s not how the world works, at any time in history. There is no single monolithic way of thinking, at any time in history. So a man of his time, means that he thought one way but then 15 people around him probably thought a different way.
Marissa: The example I like to give to my students is if somebody did a survey of people on social media, we’re 200 years from now, it’s the year 2200, and they did a survey on social media [with] comments about abortion, they would see a whole range of things. They’d see people who are against abortion. They’d see people who are Pro-Choice. They’d see people who maybe changed their mind at some point. They would see people who believe that abortion should be legal up to a certain point. There’s literally an entire spectrum. And to pretend that our time has a spectrum of opinions but other times don’t, is irresponsible and ridiculous. Exactly what Averill says, that’s not how it works.
Sarah: It also completely ignores the perspectives of the enslaved.
Sarah: I’m sure they weren’t like “Well, it’s just the 1770s and as we all know, it’s slavery time. I can’t do anything about that.” The enslaved always wanted free and wrote about the experience of the Middle Passage going back before 1619. So to say that Jefferson was just unaware that there were criticisms of slavery or that he was just swimming in this ocean of pro-slavery sentiment from all sides. It is complete garbage.
Elizabeth: Well I’d like to go back to what you were saying though, Marissa. Like this isn’t just conjecture on our part, like there are receipts. And I think that’s the thing that we need to remind our listeners, or whoever needs to hear this, these abolitionist viewpoints were readily available. So you can go into an archive and find them now. It’s not just us saying, “Oh there had to be different viewpoints!” There were and there are receipts.
Sarah: Right, exactly. When I was saying that there are narratives of the Middle Passage, I’m thinking about Olaudah Equiano during this time period. Or, I think it was in our episode on slavery in New York State, we talked about the New York State Manumission Society, I think it was called?
Elizabeth: Yes, yes! I do remember.
Sarah: Something along those lines. And that’s founded immediately after, I think in the 1780s or something that was founded. And even before that, John Jay, one of the founders, is talking about the American Paradox, right? He is calling it out right from the beginning. So, again, we want to emphasize throughout this whole episode, these are not our opinions. These are our professional expertise on these topics and which comes from years and years of studying and reading.
Marissa: Reading primary sources from the time and having a good understanding of what people thought about these things at the time.
Sarah: Right, this is just not factually accurate.
Averill: Yeah, and I know we’ll get into this because I think you’ll mentioned it later but there are no footnotes in the 1776 Commission Report.
Sarah: I want to come back around to that.
Elizabeth: Yeah, so if we were like writing this podcast in an academic journal, we would be footnoting everything that we are stating stating here. So in this Report, there’s no way. They’re just making claims; there’s no receipts. That’s what I tell my students all the time, bring the receipts. What’s your proof, right? And there’s really no documentation whatsoever.
Sarah: I also don’t want to move past this without pointing out that they say over and over again, they refer to the fact that the United States was not alone in practicing slavery and that other cultures and other times also practice slavery. And, in fact, they actually go so far as to say quote, “the Western world’s repudiation of slavery,” beginning at the time of the revolution, “marked a dramatic change in moral sensibilities.” Which is, again, not accurate, not accurate, not accurate, not accurate.
Marissa: Probably, literally, the opposite.
Sarah: Right. But I was hoping Averill that you might be able to talk a little bit about why this is misleading? This constant charge that we hear that America wasn’t the only nation to hold slaves? And in fact, the way that I usually hear it as, “Well, Africans enslaved each other.”
Averill: I barely know even where to begin. But let’s start with one: “Africans” wasn’t a thing in 1500 or 1600 or 1800. Only outsiders, like white Europeans, would have lumped the continent of varied ethnic groups, and religions, and language speakers, and government systems into a single monolithic identity based on the color of their skin.
Marissa: So to say that say that Africans are the ones who are culpable for slavery because they sold their own into slavery, or they enslaved other Africans, is ridiculous. And as Jason Young mentioned, he said, it would be like looking at World War Two and being like, “Why can’t all these white Europeans just get along? Like they’re all Europeans, they’re all white. Why are they fighting?” It’s ridiculous.
Averill: Right. Yes. Second, chattel slavery which involved the kidnapping of men, women and children from their homes and countries, the forced migration across an ocean packed into slave ships like cargo, the process of dehumanization and enforced labor and torture, that was unique to both North and South American enslavement, did not compare to the slave systems of like you know the Ottoman Empire or even the Songhai Empire empire in West Africa.
Marissa: And it’s race based!
Averill: It’s also uniquely race based, exactly. That “other people did it too,” that doesn’t absolve perpetrators of violence. So, again, logical fallacies just abound.
Sarah: Yeah, it also sort of ignores the huge, I mean as Averill sort of nodded to before, the huge role of imperialism and this whole process of Africans selling off slaves to the Portuguese or the Spanish or whatever. This is part of a HUGE, much larger, process that’s happening at that time. It’s not like you know some of the “Africans” were like, “Hey, white dudes! Give us your cash; we’ve got these extra people.” It wasn’t a simplistic situation. It wasn’t happening in a vacuum. It’s happening within a much larger-scale process. Okay. I mean we can talk about for a really long time.
Averill: For forever.
Sarah: And it’s an important topic and we have episodes that address various parts of this, as Averill mentioned. We’ve talked about some forms of slavery within various tribes in Africa. We’ve talked about slavery in the Caribbean. We’ve talked about that in the episode sugar. We’ve talked about that in the episode on resistance, Marissa’s episode on resistanse in the Caribbean. And Elizabeth and I have done each several episodes on slavery in the United States, the peculiar institution. This is a hugely, hugely complicated history, that’s being sort of boiled down into something overly simple.
Averill: And to say that the western world is repudiating slavery is—
Sarah: —is bonkers! Sorry, it’s bonkers.
Averill: Haha, it’s just crazy, right? Like, think about even like the French Empire right, which for a hot second right after the French Revolution, they actually abolished slavery. For a minute!
Sarah: One minute!
Averill: For like one minute, then they re-instituted it. But then the Haitians, which were their like main the French colony in the Caribbean.
Averill: Saint-Domingue, they rose up and overthrew the French because the French were like, “Oh wait, just kidding. We couldn’t possibly abolish slavery because we still need to benefit from your free enslaved labor.”
Marissa: Right, “We still need the money.”
Averill: So to say that the Western world is repudiating slavery, and again this is not to say that everyone in the West (or in Europe, in the Americas) was pro-slavery. Because obviously there are people within the French Revolution who were who were opposed to slavery and they thought it was important enough to abolish it. That is evidence of that. But then, there’s also these major imperialist projects that rely exclusively on the free labor of enslaved people to prop up their hegemony.
Sarah: There’s also America, which is writing slavery into its founding documents, haha.
Marissa: And we should also point out that if you’re gonna do the comparison game, like, “Oh well these other countries have slavery to do it okay for us.” Then we should probably point out that the United States was one of the latest countries to abolish slavery.
Sarah: I think it was Brazil that was last?
Elizabeth: I’m pretty sure it was Cuba, then Brazil. Brazil was 1888.
Marissa: Okay and Cuba is around there too in the 1880s so [America was the last to abolish slavery], except for a couple other countries in the Caribbean and South America.
Sarah: But that’s a good point because there’s a reason that the United States was referred to as having the “peculiar institution.” There’s a reason they used the word, “peculiar.”
So, then of course they go through and sort of try to excuse, several of the founders. They talk about George Washington manumitting slaves in his will, which is not accurate. I highly recommend that you read the work of Alexis Coe on George Washington and the manumission of his slaves. She had a great Twitter thread breaking this down really briefly, the other day. But essentially, he manumitted the slaves. I think one person, one man, was actually freed when he died (out of his will). But the rest of those slaves didn’t actually belong to him. They belonged to his wife, because of the way that they had inherited them. So they actually weren’t manumitted until his wife’s death. And by that point, many of them had actually been sold off and that sort of thing. So we make much hay out of George Washington, believing in freedom so much that he waited until he died to manumitt people and, you know, not actually even manumitting them. They talked about Jefferson who “worried a lot about slavery.” It’s essentially what they say, haha. “He worried about slavery.” He didn’t do anything about it.
Marissa: He wrung his hand so much.
Sarah: I will admit, I am a Jefferson fan girl in a way. I mean, that’s not the right way to put it because I don’t uncritically fan over, Thomas Jefferson. I think he is fascinating because of this paradox, right? I think he’s interesting to study because of this paradox. And he did say a lot of things foreboding ill of what would come to America because of the institution of slavery. But he, himself, owned slaves. He had children with an enslaved woman. It is absolutely a fact that there’s no getting around that. And they make a big deal out of the fact that Madison in writing the Constitution did not use the word slave. They’re giving him a lot of credit for not actually using that word.
Marissa: Scraping the bottom of the barrel there.
Sarah: And technically, that is true, the words “slave” or “slavery” does not appear in the Constitution. In fact, Madison bends over backwards to refer to people as “serving”, and “servants”, and conditions of bondage, and things like that. So he doesn’t actually use that phrase. And forgive me for staying on this for a minute, but they argue that the Constitution and all of the founding documents were actually anti–slavery. Which, simply could not be further from the truth. They make the argument that the Constitution was written as a compromise, which is true between slavers and non-slaveholders. It is fair to say that it’s possible that it could just have fallen apart had those compromises not happened. I think many? Most? All? Historians would agree that that’s accurate. But then they take that argument one step further by saying that the Constitution protected and made space for slavery, in order for slavery to die. Which is the most convoluted way of squaring this problem between the founding documents and slavery that I think I’ve ever heard of. They use as their example, Frederick Douglass, who talked a lot about the Constitution as a tool that enslaved people and Black people should use the Constitution in order to kill slavery. That’s what they really hinge their argument on. But this is also, again, overly simplistic. Because first of all, they don’t talk about the fact that Frederick Douglass before that point had been a Garrisonian and the Garrisonian abolitionists believed that the Constitution was inherently pro-slavery. William Lloyd Garrison lit a copy of the Constitution on fire in Boston (I think in 1855) and engaged in this very fiery speech, saying that the Constitution was “a covenant with death” and with sin and with hell. And said slavery was so baked into the Constitution, that we couldn’t actually reform it. We’d have to break it down and rebuild it. Which, I should note, is kind of what we had to do in Reconstruction, as Elizabeth and I just talked about with the 13th, 14th, 15th ammendments. But also, they oversimplified Douglass’s stance on the Constitution. They simplified Douglass’s change of tactic to this quote from him saying that the Constitution is a “glorious liberty document,” when in reality, Douglass’s use of the Constitution was really radical. Because what he was doing was saying as black people, as black Americans, they had rights within the Constitution. And that they demanded that a nation live up to that be enacting reforms. So he wasn’t just saying, “The Constitution is this glorious unchanging document and because of that, slaves should be free.” He’s actually making very radical argument that black people have rights to be honored. So they’re really simplifying his argument there. And I won’t get into all this because I could talk about slavery and the constitution for a long time, but it’s a really bizarre reading of slavery in the Constitution. It leans really heavily on the Transatlantic Slave Trade Clause, which ended American use of the slave trade in 1808, looking forward into the future in 1808. And they make this sound like it’s anti-slavery, but it wasn’t. It was not an anti-slavery clause. I mean, first, it didn’t enter the trade. It didn’t end the black market and slaves (which continued well into the Civil War). But it also created an incredibly profitable domestic slave trade, that made slavery more entrenched in the United States.
Marissa: It made slavery perhaps more cruel, as well.
Marissa: There’s a lot more sexual exploitation of slaves.
Sarah: Because it raised the profitability of—
Marissa: —Now they’re having to rely on natural increase or the black market.
Marissa: So it may have made slavery in the United States even worse. You can make that argument.
Sarah: Right, or at least crueler in different ways.
Elizabeth: And I think we should point out too, so this 1808 law or rule that the Triangle Trade would end, they basically were kicking the can down the road. They’re like, “Okay well in 20 years, then we’ll stop.” If it is an anti-slavery document, then why wouldn’t they end it right then?
Sarah: That is really a good way of encapsulating how many of the founders, not all, but many of the founders thought about slavery during this time period. Which is that, “If we deal with this too strictly right now, if we focus on this too much right now, this whole thing is going to collapse. And so we’re just gonna… table it.” Haha, “We’re just gonna push it to 1808, and we’re gonna deal with it later.” Which, in no small part, contributes to the Sectional Crisis and the Civil War.
Marissa: I think part of that is they kind of hoped that something would happen that would resolve the slavery question, without having to endanger the Republic.
Sarah: Right, and many of them, like Alexander Hamilton, thought that America would just sort of grow past it, right? That it would develop in certain ways, and business it would develop in certain ways, and the economy would shift and change, and slavery would become obsolete. And what he didn’t foresee (and what many people didn’t foresee) is slavery actually becoming more entrenched and becoming MORE profitable. So to argue that that’s an anti-slavery clause is just poppycock.
Averill: It’s malarkey!
Sarah: It is malarkey, as our Uncle Joe would say. They very briefly touch on the Three Fifths Clause. They very briefly talk about the Fugitive Slave Clause. Their interpretation of the Fugitive Slave Clause is so tortured, that I can’t even get into it. They also amazingly, more than once, refer to John C. Calhoun. They bring him up several times, in some really strange ways. And the reason they bring up Calhoun here in the slavery section, is to point out how bad he was (which is true). They say that John C. Calhoun argued that slavery was was a “positive good” (which he did), and that the founders were actually wrong to argue that “all men were created equal.” That was Calhoun’s position. And they use that as evidence that the founders really did intend to kill slavery slowly, with the way that they wrote the Constitution, which is really, again, very tortured. They also make this claim, “Yet the damage done by the denial of core American principles and by the attempted substitution of a theory of group rights…” We’re going to see that phrase over and over again, “…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 the fabric of [our country.]” So this sentence does a couple of things. First, it brings up this idea of “group rights.” So group rights is a dog whistle for what a lot of conservatives refer to as “identity politics,” where people view politics through the lens of their own identities. Kind of this rejiggering of the feminist mantra that “the personal is political.” And identity politics is this really vague phrase. It could very generously be interpreted to mean that individual needs should come before identity groups. But more importantly, it’s a calling out of Democrats and lefties for essentially paying much attention to the needs and wants of minority groups. That’s what they really mean when they use the phrase, “group rights.” We’ll come back to that in a few minutes.
But the second reference here, I just want to touch on briefly, is to this idea of “destructive theories.” And what they mean there, again this is another sort of double meaning phrase, what they’re talking about there is “critical race theory.” And this has been, I think for me, one of the more bonkers aspects of the last year of the Trump presidency, this bizarre obsession with critical race theory. And maybe I found it bizarre because Donald Trump was using the phrase “critical race theory,” haha. Which is, you know, it’s a very grad-school-seminar-sort-of-conversation to have right. It’s not something you expect Donald Trump or Mike Pompeo to be talking about. Essentially, critically race theory is a form of literary and cultural criticism that interrogates the role of race in our society and how it manifests in different forms like in literature, in media, and in law. It’s very focused in on understanding systemic racism, and institutional racism, and structural racism, right? All things that are really relevant to our modern political experience. And part of the reason that it’s become this obsession, is because we’re suddenly having a much different conversation about systemic racism right now in the United States. Conservatives don’t accept the existence of systemic racism, though, because it would poke a hole in this glorious or perfect exceptional America fiction that they’re really deeply invested in. “We can’t have systemic racism because America is based on pure founding documents and pure founding theories, and therefore, nothing about it can be racist.” Which is malarkey, haha.
Okay, so this brings us to the section where this is Elizabeth’s time to shine.
Marissa: Hahaha, looking forward to this.
Sarah: This is our next challenge to the Constitution which is, drumroll please…. Progressivism!
Elizabeth: So alright, within this document, they list “challenges” to America’s principles. That’s subheading IV: “Challenges to America’s Principles.” So slavery was number one. Then they choose Progressivism…
Sarah: “Slavery then progressivism!” haha
Elizabeth: It’s slavery and then progressivism. And then after progressivism, it’s fascism, right? So we’ll get into that in a minute. So basically, they are saying progressivism are and fascism are the same thing.
Sarah: They’re saying they’re on the same level.
Elizabeth: So what is progressivism? So when we’re teaching American history (progressivism is also a thing in world history as well), it’s this time period of roughly 1898 to 1920 we consider the Progressive Era. Some people move that a little more or less. Essentially, what it is, is people looking at this increasing division of wealth and this increasing division between “the haves” and “the have nots.” And they’re saying “Something is NOT right. Society is not working the way that we envisioned this ‘great American experiment’ to go. Capitalism has essentially run amok and the only way that we can rein in that rampant capitalism, the only thing that’s strong enough to counteract that, is the federal government.” And so what they want to do is USE the federal government to guarantee (if we’re going to use the wording of the Declaration of Independence) “life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.” So notice I’m saying “guarantee,” not “grant.” And that’s where this 1776 Report goes with progressivism. They are claiming that progressives want to grant new rights to “groups.” But, no, it’s about guaranteeing those rights. So a guaranteed “right to life” would be, you know, the guarantees that you have access to health care. That it’s not just the people who can afford health care should have access to that. It’s all Americans should have access to that. And so, even again, going back to the beginning of the 1776 Commission Report they say that Americans don’t have an aristocracy or we don’t have a “caste.” And progressives are actually saying “Well, actually, that’s where we’re going. ‘The haves’ and ‘have nots’ ARE creating an aristocracy, in this country where railroad moguls can give paybacks to politicians that will then give kickbacks back to them, increasing their profits. And it’s just this circle jerk right of aristocrats, enriching each other and the working man is left to the side. Again, “liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is like the right to a livable wage, the right to an eight-hour [work] day, the right to weekends, the right to assemble, the right to form unions to you know make sure that you have these labor rights, right? So these are the types of reform movements that are coming about in the Progressive Era. Now I don’t want to play hero worship because progressives also had some interesting views on race and eugenics and things of the sort. So we don’t want to overshadow some of those aspects as well.
Marissa: And were were also anti-immigration weren’t they? A lot of times?
Elizabeth: I mean it depends. That’s the thing. Progressives weren’t a monolith.
Sarah: We should point out that today the term, “progressive,” is associated with the further left wing of like the Democratic Party right. But the the progressives of the Progressive Era weren’t necessarily a political party. We’re not talking about political people who are progressively liberal right. There could be conservative progressive and liberal progressives. Teddy Roosevelt was sort of a progressive and so was Margaret Sanger, right? So the progressives could fall on all over on a political map. It’s not quite the same thing and so I think one of the things that strikes me about this is that they maybe we’re thinking, “Well progressive means bad.”
Elizabeth: Well, I wondered that when I first started reading it, but then I really do feel like they are trying to hearken back to this earlier period that I’m talking about because they talk about the rise of the bureaucracy. And so one of the things that progressives are trying to do is they’re trying to use scientific means to make society run better. A really easy example is the rise of social work. So [you have] case management, you have a caseworker, that has to record every single time that you come in. And there’s a file, so that the next person that has your case can open the file and can see the history. That type of record.keeping is actually a new phenomenon in the Progressive Era. They’re asking [that] people who have civil jobs, shouldn’t be politically appointed so that when this transfer of power comes about, the worker bees just keep on truckin. It doesn’t matter who’s in the White House or whatever, that the day runs the same.
Marissa: And there’s inspections for work safety and all these regulations.
Sarah: Right, all these things that now have become coded as “big government.”
Marissa: This is an attack on big government.
Elizabeth: Right, yeah, and when we say regulations, we’re talking about (you mentioned Teddy Roosevelt being one of the, what we call, progressive presidents) supporting things like the Food and Drug Act. So keeping thumbs out of your sausage and morphine out of the cough medicine you take.
Sarah: I don’t like thumb sausage.
Marissa: Only one or two rat turds in your cereal.
Elizabeth: Yeah no more than the percentage that is allowable.
Sarah: Yeah, exactly. And I don’t want this to go by without also pointing out that this has gone in the past couple of years from being a really common conservative platform, anti-“big government,” to suddenly taking a really dark and conspiratorial turn. Where it’s not just that the government is growing, but that the bureaucracy represents, as they say in the Report, “a fourth branch of the government.” And that career government workers actually form a “deep state,” which works against the democratically elected officials that they don’t like.
Marissa: And that they answer to no one!
Sarah: And this became a really, really big part of the Trump presidency. So I think that this also contributed to this really anti-Progressive Era section in this. Because I mean, historians feel lots of ways about the progressives, but I don’t think anybody would put them on a list of Constitutional challenges on par with slavery.
Elizabeth: I mean, I’m sorry, I’ve been kind of going off.
Sarah: No, it’s fine.
Elizabeth: I read this, my mind was just, “What the hell.” So, again, this is the section you mentioned earlier where they talk about “groups’ rights.” So you know when I’m reading it at first, I’m like “What the hell. What the hell is this?” And so I’m just assuming it’s this dog whistle for “identity politics.” But I was curious, is there some like right-wing fever dream about groups’ rights that I’m not aware of? Like their “deep state” thing with this groups’ rights thing?
Sarah: Everything that I’ve read says that this is a reference to “identity politics.”
Elizabeth: Okay, alright.
Sarah: And they go on later in the Report to talk more, specifically, about “identity politics.” So that’s how I interpret it.
Marissa: And there’s a little bit of a feeling of “the tyranny of the majority” sort of thing, like… nevermind. I’ll get into it later if it comes up but there’s just the self conscious acknowledgement that the conservatives are in the minority and then they’re being steamrolled by progressive agendas, whatever. But I’ll take about that later, cut that out.
Sarah: Haha, okay, so then as Elizabeth mentioned, the next two challenges to the Constitution are fascism and communism.
Averill: *uncontrollable snickering*
Sarah: But good news! Before fascism could arrive in the United States, America built a “arsenal of democracy” in the form of a massive military.
Averill: Oh god.
Sarah: Which, apparently, that massive military arsenal democracy was like okay with Pearl Harbor? They let that one through or something. And this military (this phrase oh my gosh), “embodied in their own ranks and brought with them the principles of the Declaration, liberating peoples and restoring freedom.”
Averill: Oh, hmm
Sarah: This is like the Saving-Private-Ryan–Captain-America version of World War Two, where America is singularly the savior of the rest of the world, right? The British would be very upset to hear this. Because as I recall, they fought very hard, haha, during World War Two. They had a pretty big part in it. The Soviets?
Averill: I think the Soviets would be pretty unhappy about this.
Elizabeth: This would be a surprising take.
Averill: They might be surprised.
Sarah: I have found in teaching that it’s very common for students to not have any idea how important the Soviets or the British were in World War Two. [They assume] that it was the Americans showed up the D-Day and we Captain America-ed that [expletive] and that was it. I also really briefly (I don’t want to dwell on this very much) want to point out that this idea that the American military “embodied in their own ranks and brought with them the principles of declaration” is also not true.
Averill: Did we not have a segregated military?
Sarah We had a segregated military during World War Two. Yeah, Averill, that’s exactly what I was going to say.
Marissa: And black troops struggled to get their GI benefits.
Sarah: Exactly correct.
Averill: And men and women who were homosexual were excluded from service.
Sarah: Yup and we know the Army, as it moved across Europe, also raped, and committed all sorts of crimes, and caused a lot of of chaos, as well as fighting for you liberty and democracy, or whatever.
Marissa: Haha, oh whatver.
Sarah: So again, a really an appropriately patriotic version. This is the, again, Saving-Private-Ryan-Captain-America-version of World War Two, which is extremely appealing to a lot of people. This is the “Greatest Generation,” right? So this is a version of World War Two that we all have inplanted in our brains.
Marissa: So I teach a War, Sex and Violence in 20th Century Europe class, and grappling with the idea that grandfathers and great-grandfathers could have raped French and German women, when they were overseas “fighting fascism”… there’s like a cognitive inability to accept that for a lot of students and I think, certainly, that’s not something my dad even would probably be able to grapple with very easily.
Sarah: Yeah, definitely. I just finished teaching a class on War and Memory in American History, and there is something unique about World War Two that makes it really difficult for us to except that Americans were not simply the victors, right? This is a silly example, but it makes me think of the episode of Friends where Ross and Monica’s parents are in London to celebrate Ross not getting married to Emily, hahaha. And Ross’s dad is having an argument with Emily’s dad and he calls him a “little would-be-speaking-German if it wasn’t for us, little man!!” It’s this idea that it was the Americans who saved everybody from the Germans and nobody else actually had played a role in it.
Okay, so the next section is communism. There’s a whole section on the threat to the Constitution with communism, which they say, is inherently un-American. Because they say, “in the communist mind, people are not born equal and free, they are defined entirely by their class.”
Marissa: I wanted to point out that this definition of communism is so….
Averill: Stupid? Haha
Marissa: So bizarre! Because it’s, “in the communist mind, people are not born equal and free, they are defined entirely by their class.” But, the way that—
Sarah: —It’s a response to the fact that it’s not that way!
Marissa: Right, no, people ARE born equal and free. But unfortunately, because of the way society is shaped, they are defined by their class.
Sarah: I’m pretty sure that’s what Marx was trying to fix.
Marissa: Right! Like, yeah, but it’s just, so, so slippery.
Sarah: It’s a backwards version. It’s a backwards interpretation of communism.
Marissa: And it’s so dishonest, because I know that the people who wrote this know that that’s not what communism is. I know that they know that.
Sarah: That’s a good point.
Marissa: And it’s very frustrating that they’re banking on folks not knowing enough about it to take that at face value. And it’s upsetting.
Sarah: Right. Well another problem that they have that they need that they need to work around is the difference between “capital C” Communism, Soviet Communism, the actual governmental political structure of communism, and “little c” communism. Which is what they really want to talk about, which is the way they say that communism, “pervades much of academia and the intellectual and cultural spheres…” of the United States. Even though, as they say, “Americans won the Cold War,” communism still exists in our brains, as professors.
*Collective sounds of annoyance*
Sarah: Averill, I was hoping that you might be able to say something about this. Because, that makes it sound like Americans personally killed the Soviet Union, is that what happened?
Marissa: No, Ronald Reagan did it, haha.
Averill: No, no, no, Ronald Reagan. The only thing he killed was the American economy.
Marissa: Haha, ba dum tsss!
Sarah: Oh, and a lot of gay people.
Averill: Oh yeah, a lot of gay people and black people through policies. So no, this is a common critique that the right wing scholars and politicians like to lob at academics who push back against the notion that an ideological war CAN be won or lost. There were victors who emerged from the Cold War, like various nations who used American and Soviet attention to leverage weapons, and money, etc. from each superpower. And maybe the Eastern Europeans states that transitioned from a one-party system to a multi-party system, more or less peacefully, I mean I’m sure that would be considered a victory. But what did America win exactly? Communism didn’t die with the Soviet collapse. Hello, China, Cuba, North Korea. And for all intents and purposes, we’re still in an ideological war. America is still involved in an ideological war. When communism proved to stalwart to kill, we just rebranded to like terrorism, right? The War on Terror?
Averill: So no. No, America didn’t win the war. Haha
Sarah: Nobody won the war! Haha
Marissa: No, no, no. Nobody won.
Sarah: That was one of the things when I was writing up our notes, I wrote, “WE DID????????????” with like 12 question marks, “I don’t remember that!” But you know what it is, it’s the version where David Hasselhoff showed up at the Berlin Wall and sang, “talking ’bout freeeeeedom!”
Averill: Right. Just kidding, no.
Sarah: And it fell and Americans restored liberty to the world, right.
Marissa: Well it’s that idea that there’s only two ways to run a government: you’re either a republic or you’re a communist. And the Cold War was this massive struggle between these two powers and one of the powers fell apart, so that means that is a victory for democracy.
Sarah: Right, yeah, no I think you’re right. That may be how they’re trying to make it seem but—
Averill: —but it’s not a victory for democracy because in America’s fighting of the Cold War, we funded so many anti-democratic states.
Marissa: Including Islamic fundamentalists.
Averill: If anything, America killed democracy.
Sarah: We essentially caused the Guatemalan Civil War, right? The Iranian Revolution? Like we could go on, and on, and on. Anyway, okay, so again this is just more evidence that this Report is touching on huge things that are vastly inaccurate that we just can’t entirely unpack. But that one I think is particularly egregious. So then, we come to the next section on racism and identiy politics, which are apparently both threats to the Constitution. It’s not just racism. It’s racism and identity politics. This is the section that says that the Civil Rights Movement was a “movement composed of people from different races, ethnicities, nationalities, and religions,” who all worked together to end legal discrimination, which is bull honkey. I mean, it’s not to say that there wasn’t a white person who worked in the civil rights movement. There was, right? This was a diverse group, but it was largely black people who were fighting for their own rights. I don’t think it’s fair to put it any other way. I mean, it is of course, liberally quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. Specifically, the only speech he apparently gave which was in 1963, the “I Have a Dream” speech, which is the only speech that anyone can ever quote. But then it says this, “The Civil Rights Movement culminated in the [mid] 1960s,” and then, “The Civil Rights Movement was almost immediately turned to programs that ran counter to the lofty ideals of the founders.” They talked about the abandonment of non-discrimination and equal opportunity (which is what they say the civil rights movement was looking for) to a advocacy for “group rights,” which they again compared to John C. Calhoun and the pro-slavery factions of the pre-Civil War period. So in other words, what they’re trying to say is that the Civil Rights Movement bred all of the movements, which were founded on identity politics, right? The womens’ rights movement, the gay rights movement, the Chicano rights movement, the American Indian movement, the disability rights movement, right? All focused on individual identities, which they say was just the same as John C. Calhoun advocating for “white rights,” the right to own slaves. Of course, part of this is a reference to affirmative action, the anti-racist policy to try to undo systemic racism by prioritizing people of color in college admissions, for instance. Elizabeth, I’m going to ram through this quickly so we can get to the bigger conversation, if that’s okay. They go on to say that the Civil Rights Movement led to this, “regime of formal inequality [that came] to be known as identity politics.” And this is a constant refrain that we hear that, to me, is the zero sum game argument. “There’s only so much pie. And if all of you guys are gonna get some pie, then my slice of pie is going to be smaller. And so we have to come up with some kind of arrangement because my pie can’t be shrunk,” even though, the pie is infinite. Here’s lots of pie, everyone can have pie, right? This is not my pie shrinks when you pie grows.
The next section is called The Task of National Renewal. “All things good [in America,]” they say, including its physical infrastructure came from “America’s unity, stability, and justice,” which is really something, considering that the White House was built by slaves. Haha and the Capitol Building was built by slaves, and other things like that. Our modern economy is built on stolen labor, stolen wealth of Black Americans, the laboring classes of Latinx people, the stolen land of Native Americans, right? They say that in order to protect the founding documents, we must restore patriotic education. And 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.” Um, is that what we do as teachers? Haha
Marissa: Hahaha. Oh my god. I don’t even know what to say about that.
Sarah: It goes on and if I can just jump ahead before we break into that, because they go into this in greater depth. And in fact they go even further into this. The appendixes go into this even more, that I didn’t even get into. But they say the social studies curriculum “promot[ing] one-sided partisan opinians, activist propaganda, or factional ideologies,” that, “Colleges peddle resentment and contempt for American principles and history alike, in the process weakening attachment to our shared heritage.” They complain about “Historical revisionism that tramples honest scholarship,” that professors only highlight “the sins of our ancestors,” that we teach “claims of systemic racism that can eliminated by more discrimination.” And we’ve tried to “manipulate opinions more than educate minds.” So what are your thoughts on that?
Marissa: I mean, so, to be fair, I can see sometimes the argument that the kind of history that we do as educators and as podcasters, is sort of dark? And, you know, upsetting? And I think that that is true, because I think that a lot of times we try to bring stories to light that are lesser told stories. And a lot of times, those are the uncommon histories. So I want to acknowledge that that is true. That we’re not just like, “Oh, all that stuff is really cool and interesting and great and whatever.” I mean we talk about uncomfortable things and we DO talk about the “sins” of the founders or whatever. You know, so yeah. But I think that historians and educators who do focus on those things, are doing so, in order to bring balance to an already watered down, “great man,” sort of, line of history that has been the norm (in at least elementary and middle schools) for a long time. I can’t tell you how many students I’ve had who were like, “I literally never knew about any of this.”
Sarah: Yep. Yep, every semester. Every single semester.
Marissa: And that’s the point! That’s why we bring it up because otherwise, you wouldn’t know about it. And that’s not to say that the negative and uncomfortable things are the only part history that is worthy of knowing. I think that we strive to bring a balance, to give credit where credit is due, and to place culpability on those who deserve it. Obviously, they’re misinterpreting what educators, such as us, are trying to do.
Sarah: Right, I think there’s a lot there to unpack. There are several things that you brought up that I think are really important. But one thing that I want to raise, emplicit in this argument is that professors and historians, such as ourselves, hate America? And so we only focus on the criticisms. And that within that, is also the suggestion that we need to love America, right? We need to love America in order to do American history or to do history in general. And I know that we all four of us will have different responses to this, but for me, my love of America and American history was what made me want to be a historian, you know? I was that dork in Washington DC, as a teenager, like staring verklempt looking at the Lincoln Memorial. I mean, I am patriotic in THAT sense. What I’m NOT is nationalistic and jingoistic and I’m not going to love America to the point of not criticizing it. To me, that is not patriotism. But also, I don’t necessarily believe that patriotism should have anything to do with the way that I teach or write history. right?
Averill: Yeah, teach history.
Elizabeth: Yeah, absolutely. No, I mean I have to agree. I often say like, “If I hated America so much, why would I devote my life to studying American history?” Haha, ya know? Like at the end of the day, I would love for us to live up to these grand ideals. I think I agree that my patriotism has nothing to do with teaching history and learning history.
Sarah: I mean, I also don’t necessarily think that every American has to be patriotic, right? I don’t think that is incumbent on us as citizens of the United States to wave flags, right? And other countries don’t do that. It’s not the culture of every country. I mean, other countries look at us and think it’s a little weird that people drive around with American flags hanging out of their windows, right? It is a little strange.
Marissa: I mean to me, being critical of your country is a sign of being patriotic because you CARE, because you want your country to be something that you think it should be.
Averill: Because you care, yeah.
Marissa: If I didn’t care. I was totally checked out, didn’t give a [expletive] about any thing, that’s the opposite of being patriotic. Not being critical of our history and of our politics.
Sarah: I also want to say something else about what Marissa brought up about the phenomenon of students coming to us in our college classrooms and saying like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I never knew this. This is blowing my mind.” I mean before I go on, have any of you had that experience as teachers?
Elizabeth: Oh, all the time.
Sarah: Yeah, I do as well.
Elizabeth: Every semester.
Sarah: What about you, Averill?
Averill: Well yeah, I mean I teach the non-American history, haha, in my department. So like my world history students have never learned any of the stuff that I teach them.
Sarah: The reason I ask is because I think that this is a common experience for anyone going to college, right? No matter what your background is, the whole point of college is that you go and you’re learning at a different level. And you’re learning things that you couldn’t have learned in elementary school, and middle school, and high school. And that’s not because all your social studies these teachers were garbage, right? I mean, some of them probably were. I know I have some bad social studies teachers, like really bad ones. Many of mine were coaches as well.
Averill: All of mine were coaches, haha.
Sarah: And that’s like a joke, right? Like your social studies teacher, [has] to [be] the football coach. But I don’t want to be overly critical of elementary, middle, and high school social studies teachers, because man, they’re in a really difficult to really position. They’re really hamstrung by curriculum, they’re hamstrung by state, you know, boards of education, by standardized testing, by grumpy parents who are going to call them out if they phrase something one way or another. And so they, I think, in many cases do what they can. Then students come into one of our classes and they go, “Oh my god, I’ve never heard of the Lost Cause,” or “I’ve never heard of the Sepoy Rebellion,” or “I never realized there were gay people before 1975.” And that’s okay! It’s okay to have that mind-opening experience. But I think what often happens (this is what happened to me), is that when that happens, your political your worldview, your political beliefs, start to sometimes change. And then you go home for Thanksgiving, and you talk to your dad and your dad is like, “Oh my god, they got to you too. They brainwashed you too.” At least that’s my experience with it. So I think that’s where we get this idea that there’s a liberal indoctrination happening, when really, you’re opening up to new information and to new stuff, right? And it’s not just history or social studies. It could be your anthropology class, your English class, your sociology class, or whatever it is, could have that light bulb moment. I know I had that experience when I was in college, for sure.
Marissa: I think there’s also something developmentally, you know. I don’t know that middle schoolers or elementary-school-aged children can really appreciate some of the nuances that are really important to understand when you learn history and things like that. I had a lunch with Jim Grossman from the AHA, and he said that he didn’t think that history should really even be taught in elementary schools. Because he said “If you can’t really teach it well and it can’t be received in a developmentally appropriate way, why even bother? Why don’t just wait till middle school.” I thought it was an interesting viewpoint that I had never thought of before, because I’m all like, “Oh history education since birth!” But I think that there is something to that. That developmentally, you might not be ready to understand two sides of the same story or these things like empathy, and self-criticism, and things like that are skills that are learned over time.
Sarah: They all require a great deal of maturity that you don’t necessarily have [when you’re] younger, but also, not everybody develops the same way.
Elizabeth: I just want to kind of piggyback on that, because Marissa you’ve said a few things that have made me think of this. And reading this Commision Report, it is so black and white. A binary, right? Marissa uses that word. It’s an either or. And there’s none of that nuance that comes with, you know, a proper historian being on the Commission. Nothing that we study is binary. Nothing that we study is right or wrong, this or that, you know? There are layers and layers and layers, upon layers. So it’s not an easy regurgitating history and that’s what this Commision is trying to do.
Sarah: Right, we joke about this all the time on the podcast, especially me, I’ll say, “Well, it was really complicated,” “Well, this was really complex,” “Well, it was really hard to say because it was complicated.” And then it gets almost to the point of it being laughable, but it’s true, right? There’s a reason I say that all the time, and it’s because this stuff is really complicated and it isn’t as easy as saying, “Well, Jefferson was a horrible, horrible person and we should strike him from the historical record,” or, you know, “Jefferson was the greatest person who ever lived and he was personally touch by God.” Neither of those positions is accurate and it’s doesn’t reflect, responsibly, the way that any historian would talk about someone like Thomas Jefferson.
Before we run out of time, though, I have one other question that we didn’t get to and I think it’s really important. And that’s the question of American exceptionalism here. This Report really presents America as unique, and good, and better than other nations. Averill, I especially want to hear you talk about what’s the problem with presenting America as uniquely great and uniquely superior in a global context?
Averill: Well it depends on how you’re defining the America that is unique and special, because what is being laid out here is a white America. And so that assumes a lot, first of all, and disreguards the experience of the marginalized and minoritized people of this country. And then, of course, it’s just not true. There are people who have had better experiences of democracy in other places, and they worse experiences of democracy in other places. And democracy is not unique to the United States. Republicanism is not unique to the United States. It puts blinders on students and Americans to the rest of the world. Marissa and I joke about this on the podcast all the time. Because sometimes when we’re on your episodes, because you are both trained as Americanists (Elizabeth and Sarah), your episodes are grounded in very Americanist thinking. As Europeanists, we have to be, essentially, world historians. We have to contextualize everything we do in the narrative of world history. We can’t be like, “Oh this thing happened in Ireland and it was so special. It only ever happened in Ireland.” Of course, it hasn’t. Things happen everywhere. There’s no such thing as actual exceptionalism. No country is exceptional, no people is exceptional. To think so, makes you blind to the experience of the rest of the world. That’s super frustrating. As the “non-Americanist” in my very small department, this is super frustrating to me because students who come to Mercyhurst tend to be predominantly white, they tend to be from middle or upper class backgrounds, and they tend to only know anything about American history. So it really puts me at a disadvantage. Because I can’t dig as deep into some topics as I would like to, because have to break down “What are the tenets of Islam?” to be able to talk about the Ottoman Empire, to be able to talk about “What is this kind of imperialism even look like?” or, “What does kind of enslavement look like?” They only know American history and that’s one of the greatest downfalls to their eduation.
Sarah: Well even look at this Report and the way that it talks about communism, haha, right? This is relying on people who do not actually know the real history of the Cold War, or what communism is. Which is, again, pretty easy for someone who’s been raised in a really Americanist context to not ever have to actually grapple with the Soviet perspective on the Cold War (or on communism or what have you), which would help you to better understand that. And when they get to your classroom, then you have to do twice as much work to teach them “point to Russia on a map,” like that sort of thing first.
Marissa: There’s also some unlearning that needs to be done when you teach non-American as well. When we had to teach World History or World Civilization, I would always focus mostly on the Islamic world, just because that was what I focused on in undergrad and it just something that I was comfortable with. And there was a lot of unlearning that people needed to do in terms of what they knew about Muslims or knew about majority Muslim countries. Because of this idea of American exceptionalism and since 9/11, American identity has become increasingly hostile to Islam. And so, there was always a lot of unlearning that people had to do and I had to grapple with, “Okay, do I address misconceptions people have or do I try to teach Islam on its own terms?” You know, that that kind of thing can be really difficult. Yeah, I think this is just really frustrating. I want to know what they would say about, “Okay well should we teach non-American history?” What are they actually trying to say about the diversity of history that should be taught in schools.
Sarah: That’s a good point, because there is no “America in the World” section, right? I actually thought if I had had more time, I would have talked to my new colleague, Gene Zubovich. That’s his specialty, America in the World. And I would love to get a perspective of somebody who does do that kind of transnational (I mean other than you, Marissa) scholarship on looking at America’s relationship with other countries. And see how they see that happening here.
But we have been talking for a really long time, so I think that we should probably wrap it up. That does not mean that we’ve touched on everything. I think that there’s still so much in this that we could have unpacked. You know, you could have an entire episode on any one of these small issues in here. So hopefully, this was helpful in some way. I know it was helpful for us to get this off our chests a little bit, haha.
Sarah: Thank you for listening to our special episode and maybe we can come up with some other ways that you can incorporate this into your classrooms on our “For Educators” section of our website, which we’re really working on this semester. All right. Bye!
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