The 1776 Commission Report as Shepherd

With the appointment of his 1776 Commission on November 2, 2020, and the publication of its report on January 18, 2021, President Trump ended his term the way he should have started it—with a statement of the principles he sought to restore. But how could he know that his enemies would ruthlessly undermine the constitutionalism his administration tried to defend? For now, it seems the insurgency that has undermined constitutional government for decades has toppled its most vigorous defender with the Blinking Idiot who today resides at the White House. 

Encounter Books’ publication of an annotated version of the now-notorious report affords a timely opportunity to reflect on its illumination on our revolutionary times.

Most popular and scholarly accounts of the report are so tendentious that it is self-defeating to restate and refute their assertions. It’s better to start over, which is what the president asked for in announcing the creation of the commission: education for an “informed and honest patriotism.” Given the rapid deterioration of America in the last several months, the commission’s report may be the last official government publication to attempt this vital purpose. 

This grim assessment is evidenced by our self-hating ambassador to the United Nations, who declared Wednesday, “the original sin of slavery weaved white supremacy into our founding documents and principles.” No wonder Biden struck down the commission and all its subversive works on his first day.

The report’s brevity and simplicity were assailed by commentators who have no appreciation for civic education that respects founding principles. Just over 100 pages, the report has two main parts, equally divided in pages, the first on America’s major principles and enemies thereof (slavery, Progressivism, and tyrannical forms of rule such as fascism, Communism, and racism). Given these principles and their enemies, the “Task of National Renewal” requires family education “A Scholarship of Freedom,” and the combination of intellect and piety in “The American Mind” and “Reverence for the Laws,” also known as the theological-political dynamic of Western civilization. 

The second half of the book consists of four appendices, including the Declaration of Independence, followed by an essay on religion and politics (elaborating on the last chapters of the first part), a critique of identity politics (which turns out to be of particular relevance in the Biden folly of attempting to sever American equality from his prized partisan “equity”), and a concluding essay about restoring patriotism. A rich array of footnotes with suggestions for further reading has been added for the Encounter Books edition. 

The informed and honest patriotism” of the report is best exemplified in its treatment of race—or better, slavery. This necessary focus has somehow led malicious critics to condemn it for racism, old Confederate apologetics, and alt-Right propaganda, among other vain accusations. To the contrary, the argument focuses on the tyranny coeval with slavery, so that we might see the abiding political problem with which the founders and Lincoln struggled.

“Without our common faith in the equal right of every individual American to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the report declares, “authoritarian visions of government and society could become increasingly alluring alternatives to self-government based on the consent of the people.” 

Only when we see that the evil of slavery lies in its tyranny (with its corruption of both slave and master) do we understand the history of American politics as a struggle, often successful, to realize the Declaration’s equality. Abraham Lincoln’s determination “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master” resonates throughout his speeches. By replacing equality with “equity,” as the Biden Administration seeks to do, this nation would reject what has been its governing principle in favor of interest-group satisfaction (and virtue signaling). This would be wolves ruling in sheep’s clothing.

Perhaps the best brief illustration of Lincoln’s teaching on equality is his short Sanitary Fair speech toward the end of the Civil War. He begins, “The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty.” A strange thing for Lincoln to say—don’t we have the Declaration? But by “good” he means put in practice.

The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails to-day among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty.

In this simple parable, we see the problem of equality. Differences are more obvious. For their security, the sheep require a shepherd. But we can’t leave the tale at that. The shepherd ultimately wants to consume the sheep as much as the wolf does. Is there then no hope for the sheep? The difficulty lies in the truth of nature that human beings are a combination of both wolf and sheep. Lincoln is explaining the meaning of the Civil War. Men are not angels—nor can one Good Shepherd be entrusted with rule over everyone.

“[E]ven in the North,” men united by war are composed in varying proportions of sheep and wolf. One may only pray for some greater portion of the shepherd in them. After all, Lincoln had appealed in his first inaugural to “the better angels of our nature.” The Civil War demanded a shepherd, so that America may finally have its “good definition of liberty.”

For us today the 1776 Report’s shepherd could be said to be the Claremont Institute, a southern California think-tank, whose purpose is “to restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life.” The scholarship bears the stamp of the work of political philosopher Harry V. Jaffa, who was the principal teacher of the chairman and executive director of the commission as well as some of its staff. Jaffa was a scholar of the Declaration, Abraham Lincoln, and the American political principles of equality and liberty. 

Glenn Ellmers, author of a penetrating forthcoming book on the American crisis as Jaffa understood it, says of him

A good argument can be made that were it not for Jaffa’s 60 years of influential scholarship (he died in 2015 at the age of 96), the New York Times and its allies would not have found it necessary to launch the 1619 Project. This assault on America’s history and meaning was deemed necessary, at least in part, because of the work of the Claremont school. Without its decades of advocacy and educational programs, the American founding—the Spirit of ’76—would be even more distant and unfamiliar today than it already is.

Elsewhere, should America deteriorate as much as Jaffa feared, Ellmers raises a horrifying possibility: “America, as an identity or political movement, might need to carry on without the United States.” 

This is where we are today, on the brink of another civil war and a “recurrence to fundamental principles.” Is America a disembodied spirit (that is, a ghost) or a real nation? In carefully considering this question, we are not without resources to guide us, in the 1776 Report.

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About Ken Masugi

Ken Masugi, Ph.D., is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. He has been a speechwriter for two cabinet members, and a special assistant for Clarence Thomas when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Masugi is co-author, editor, or co-editor of 10 books on American politics. He has taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he was Olin Distinguished Visiting Professor; James Madison College of Michigan State University; the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University; and Princeton University.

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