Read previous installments in this series here.
The authors begin with the Articles of Confederation. The report teaches a “critical period” approach to the 1780s, arguing that “American statesmen and citizens alike concluded that the Articles were too weak to fulfill a government’s core functions.” What this view of the Constitution of the United States fails to mention is that the 1787 document was barely ratified in some states because so many “statesmen and citizens”–Patrick Henry, Luther Martin, Samuel Adams, George Mason, Richard Henry Lee, James Monroe, Mercy Otis Warren, and George Clinton, to name a few–were relatively happy under the Articles of Confederation and worried that the Constitution took too much power away from the states. American historians talk about these debates and differences with their students when they teach the 1780s. They provide students with primary sources to evaluate both sides of an issue so that they can detect bias and understand ideas in larger contexts. They ask questions like: “Whose critical period?”
In fact, I think the entire 1776 Commission might be a valuable resource in the history classroom. I would use it alongside the 1619 Project or Howard Zinn’s People’s History to help students see how the past can be marshalled toward political ends.
Good history teachers understand the complexity of the past. For example, the 1776 Commission Report insists that there is a direct link between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It fails to mention that many ordinary men and women believed that the Constitution curbed their liberties and squashed some of the democratic practices of the states during the 1780s. Many believed that Madison’s “large republics” would weaken their political voice. The Electoral College filtered the voice of the people. As we saw in 2016, it is possible for a presidential candidate to win the votes of the people and still lose a presidential election. There were people in the eighteenth century who worried about this possibility.
So what were the links between the Declaration of Independence and Constitution? This question would make for a wonderful pedagogical exercise. Instead, this document offers only one side. In the end, it does the exact same thing the conservative authors of the document accuse those on the left of doing.
Finally, the 1776 Commission’s section on the Constitution says nothing about the debates over slavery at the Constitutional Convention. It says nothing about the three-fifths compromise. The paragraphs on the Bill of Rights focuses almost entirely on religious liberty and the right to bear arms.
Today Inside Higher Ed has a piece on the 1776 Commission and its connection to conservative Hillsdale College.
I also learned today that South Dakota pro-Trump governor Kristi Noem is asking for nearly $1 million to revamp the teaching of social studies in her state so that students learn “why the U.S. is the most special nation in the history of the world.” We will have to see if the 1776 Commission Report will play a role in Noem’s plans. Whatever happens, the history wars will continue.