Read previous installments in this series here.
Part Four of the 1776 Commission Report covers what it calls’ “Challenges to America’s Principles.”
Slavery is identified as one of these “challenges.” At this point in our series it is important to remember that the 1776 Commission was formed as a reaction to the 1619 Project, a series of New York Times essays that makes slavery central to the American founding. We have had a lot of things to say about the 1619 Project here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. You can read all our posts on the topic here.
Here is the 1776 Commission Report:
The most common charge levelled against the founders, and hence against our country itself, is that they were hypocrites who didn’t believe in their stated principles, and therefore the country they built rests on a lie. This charge is untrue, and has done enormous damage, especially in recent years, with a devastating effect on our civic unity and social fabric.
The statement then goes out of its way to take the founders off the hook for owning slaves. It fails to mention that the South’s wealth was generated by slave labor or that systemic racism permeated the South during the colonial era and early republic. The statement fails to mention that the failure of the founders to do anything to stop this institution allowed racism and white supremacy to gain a foothold in the United States. Over time these injustices became deeply embedded in American institutions and American culture. The Civil War ended slavery in America, but anyone who studies Reconstruction knows that the Union victory over the Confederacy did very little to rid the country of racism. None of this is acknowledged in the report. In fact, it skips from “slavery” to “progressivism” without saying anything about the failure of Reconstruction. (It does mention Reconstruction in the section on “Racism and Identity Politics”).
The founding fathers (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and others) may have freed their slaves or tried to stop slavery from spreading outside the South, but in 1776 and again in 1787 they made a decision to privilege national unity over ending this institution. In other words, they chose compromise over moral conviction. Some of the founders fought hard to keep slavery in the South. Others quietly sat by and let it happen. The 1776 Commission Report seems to subordinate the lives of millions of enslaved Africans to the project of nation-building, or what it calls “a question of practical politics.” Were these men products of their times? Of course they were. But I don’t believe this gets them off the hook. Let’s remember that there were anti-slavery voices in late 18th-century America. The founders just chose to ignore them. Let’s not pretend that future generations, even after the Civil War, had to deal with the consequences of this choice. In history class we call this contingency.
Some have argued that the founding ideals, such as the belief that “all men are created equal,” eventually led to the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, the Northern victory in the Civil War, and the civil rights movement’s challenge to Jim Crow. (On Tuesday in my American Revolution course we are reading Gordon Wood’s famous “radicalism” argument). The 1776 Commission Report seems to be echoing this view when it notes that “the foundation of our Republic planted the seeds of the death of slavery in America.” This is true. And as we noted in an earlier post in this series, American reform movements drew heavily upon these founding ideals.
But the 1776 Commission Report fails to realize that on matters of race the damage was done well before the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. By allowing slavery to flourish for so long, the founders and their immediate descendants contributed immensely to the racism and racial divisions we see today. One cannot end slavery and expect that two centuries of injustice will just go away. One cannot end slavery and then expect the culture of racism that defined every day life in America prior to the 13th Amendment to just disappear. Racism was embedded in American culture for decades upon decades prior to the Civil War. It will thus take decades upon decades for Americans to rip it out.
As I have noted before at this blog, the 1619 Project has some historical problems. Its claims are too bold. But I am thankful to the project for at least calling our attention to the fact that the racial issues we face in the United States today are rooted in systemic injustices woven deeply into the fabric of American society and culture.
There is a lot more to say about this, but I think I will stop there for today. With the start of the new semester, I don’t think I will try to cover much more of the historical content in the 1776 Commission Report. Perhaps if the 1776 Commission Report gets some traction in the school boards of conservative states I will revisit it. But I do want to comment on the prescriptive calls for “national renewal” at the end of the document. Stay tuned.