Former President Trump’s 1776 Commission has issued a report that summarizes “the principles of the American founding and how those principles have shaped our country.” It will be the only such report—President Biden swiftly dissolved the Commission by executive order after being sworn into office on Wednesday.
Biden’s decision is regrettable because “The 1776 report calls for a return to the unifying ideals stated in the Declaration of Independence,” as Chairman Larry P. Arnn, Vice-Chairman Carol Swain, and Executive Director Matthew Spalding said in a statement. “It quotes the greatest Americans, black and white, men and women, in devotion to these ideals.”
The report rejects the teachings of historians such as Howard Zinn, the New York Times’ 1619 Project, and other efforts aimed at fundamentally transforming how Americans view their country’s history. Neither hiding America’s flaws nor offering a triumphal account of American history, the 1776 Commission aimed to recover “our shared identity rooted in our founding principles”—which, its report argues, is “the path to a renewed American unity and a confident American future.”
“Our country’s founding principles are the key to a peaceful, self-governing people,” Arnn stated, “and the 1776 Commission sets out to educate the American public about them. The Commission’s report is an approachable introduction to the historical facts of the founding and the principles that animate it.”
Beginning with an overview of American founding principles and the constitutional architecture that the founders fashioned to secure them, the report then catalogs the various threats to republican government and proposes tools that Americans can use to recover a way of life conducive to republican citizenship.
Though not denying that America was founded by a particular people with a particular history, religion, and virtues, the report stresses that the nation was nevertheless founded on the universal principles enunciated in the Declaration. This is why Abraham Lincoln argued by implication in the Gettysburg Address that the United States celebrates its birthday on July 4, 1776.
Appealing to both human reason and biblical revelation—for example, the Declaration’s references to the Creator, Providence, and the Supreme Judge—the founders justified the government on the basis of eternal, universal principles. Frederick Douglass once described them as “saving principles” that were the “ring-bolt to the chain of” America’s “destiny.”
It is always true that no human beings are picked by nature to rule others without their consent. It is always true as well that since all human beings are created equal, a just government can only be founded upon the consent of the governed. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”
In appealing to a universal standard of justice in separating from Great Britain, the founders did not destroy the concept of separate nations or cultures. Rather, as the report states, these principles “were asserted by a specific people, for a specific purpose, in a specific circumstance”: securing the “safety and happiness” of the American people.
The founders’ task was possible only because a people of sufficient character and morality, grounded in broader civilizational inheritances and fortified in a tradition of rights, liberty, and law, already existed prior to 1776.
The Constitution, in Lincoln’s formulation, is a picture of silver framed around an apple of gold, the Declaration; the Constitution is the document that secures the Declaration’s principles in practice. The 1776 Commission report sums up the dilemma that the founders confronted in creating a governing framework for the United States: “the new government needed to be strong enough to have the power to secure rights without having so much power as to enable or encourage it to infringe rights.”
Based on the sovereignty of the people, the Constitution establishes a federal government of limited but energetic power overseen by the people’s representatives. Through “auxiliary precautions” such as the separation of powers, federalism, and the natural circumstances of a large republic, the people’s rights would be preserved and the threat of tyranny would be kept at bay.
The report then turns to five major threats to republican government throughout our country’s history: slavery, progressivism, fascism, communism, and identity politics.
Though slavery was by no means a unique evil to the United States, founders such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison clearly recognized that human bondage was incompatible with the principle that “all men are created equal.” Though the Constitution recognized slavery as an existing institution, the word slave is never mentioned in its text, and the slave trade was outlawed twenty years after its ratification. Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln understood the Constitution’s antislavery character and worked diligently to stop slavery’s spread and ultimately end the institution itself, at great cost to the nation.
The Progressive movement rejected the idea of permanent truths in favor of constantly evolving group rights meted out by the administrative state, a fourth branch of government composed of independent agencies staffed with experts insulated from political accountability.
Another challenge to free government is the barbarism of fascism and communism (and its cousin, socialism). These modern ideologies constituted some of the deadliest threats to liberty and human dignity that the world has ever known. As President Ronald Reagan once argued, these ideologies deny that “God-given liberties . . . are the inalienable right of each person on this planet; indeed they deny the existence of God.”
Today, identity politics strikes at the heart of republican government by demanding “equal results and explicitly sorting citizens into ‘protected classes’ based on race and other demographic categories.” Even worse, the purveyors of identity politics see people of certain races as evil not necessarily because of what they’ve done but simply because of their skin color. The 1776 Commission report states unequivocally that identity politics “makes it less likely that racial reconciliation and healing can be attained” because it rejects “Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream for America.”
In order to preserve the blessings of liberty for future generations, families should raise “morally responsible citizens who love America and embrace the gifts and responsibilities of freedom and self-government”; state and local governments should produce curricula that convey an “enlightened patriotism” through reading primary sources; and songwriters, filmmakers, and social influencers should create content that speaks “to eternal truths” that “embody the American spirit.”
In the words of commission member Charles Kesler, the 1776 report intends to rebaptize American citizens in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, reinvigorating the American mind in the 21st century. Joe Biden’s move to dissolve the commission does not change this imperative. Indeed, as Arnn, Swain, and Spalding have declared: “The Commission may be abolished, but these principles and our history cannot be. We will all continue to work together to teach and to defend them.”
Editor’s note: This essay is part of RealClearPublicAffairs’s 1776 Series, which explains the major themes that define the American mind.