A nation that neglects its past is in danger of betraying its future.
That, in a line, is the chief burden of the forty-odd-page report issued last month by the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission.
This is no ordinary government “white paper,” full of reader-proof verbiage whose chief accomplishment is darkening a quantity of wood pulp. On the contrary, the 1776 Commission’s report is an eloquent, closely argued exposition of the distinctively American principles of liberty. It includes an anatomy of major challenges to those principles, historical and contemporary. And it concludes with a sketch of ways in which the idea of America—currently under siege from a variety of freedom-blighting initiatives—might be renewed through a thoughtful resuscitation of civic education and the liberal arts.
Those responsible for this remarkable document include Larry Arnn, the Churchill scholar and president of Hillsdale College; Victor Davis Hanson, the historian and classicist; and Charles Kesler, the author and editor of the Claremont Review of Books. No one familiar with their work will be surprised by the depth, authority, and rhetorical power of this report. In part, it is a restatement of the founding principles of the American Creed. At the center of those principles are the truths articulated by the Declaration of Independence, above all the twin affirmations that “all men are created equal” and that they are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
It should go without saying that the equality of which the Declaration spoke is moral equality before the law, not an equality of talent or other natural endowments. (Hence the philosopher Harvey Mansfield’s quip about the “self-evident half-truth” that all men are created equal.) Nevertheless, despite the self-evidence of that great truth, the Declaration has accumulated barnacles of cynicism, not least from those who eagerly point out that many of the Founders, including the principal author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson, were slaveholders. Does that not render their high-flown rhetoric disingenuous, not to say hypocritical?
No, it doesn’t, and the report patiently explains why. We won’t rehearse those arguments here. They are familiar to anyone who has bothered to look into the question. The real issue was articulated by Lincoln:
All honor to Jefferson—to the man who . . . had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times . . . that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.
Lincoln’s point is this: There have been plenty of revolutionary manifestos throughout history. What makes the Declaration of Independence special is that it is not simply an affidavit of separation but also an affirmation of a central moral truth, a truth that is universal—“applicable to all men and all times”—as well as prophylactic: a people that embraces the principles of the Declaration has a potent guard against “re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”
The prospect of that reappearance is the sadness inscribed in the Declaration. It is a sadness inscribed also in the human heart. “If men were angels,” Madison observed in Federalist 51, “no government would be necessary.” Likewise, he notes, “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Hence the ineradicable difficulty in “framing a government which is to be administered by men over men”: “you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” How is that working out for us today? Madison went on to note that popular sovereignty (“a dependence on the people”) is the primary check on the abuse of government power. But he also noted that the imperfection of human nature—for men are not angels and are wont to seek their own aggrandizement at the expense of their fellows—argues for the wisdom of “auxiliary precautions” against tyranny. This brings us to the incandescent center of Madison’s genius: his elaboration of a system of checks and balances that counterpoises not only the different branches of government but also the contending private ambitions of citizens. “This policy,” he writes,
of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public right.
One “auxiliary precaution” that was not mentioned by Madison but was assumed by him and other Founders was education. A sentinel must recognize and appreciate what he is guarding if his watch is to be successful. Fostering this “auxiliary precaution”—educating citizens for liberty, teaching “enlightened patriotism”—is at the center of the 1776 Commission’s report.
Perhaps the most pungent section of the report is its inventory and analysis of challenges to the American ideal. It is wholly appropriate that slavery comes first and receives the most extended discussion. Other challenges that the report enumerates are progressivism, the “ideological cousins” of fascism and communism, and the new racism of identity politics.
We hear a lot of talk about the “administrative state” today.
Some commentators have expressed surprise that the authors should have included progressivism and identity politics in this roster of toxic challenges to the American idea. But they were right to do so. At the center of the progressive ideology is the idea that truth is relative to historical circumstances. Accordingly, progressivism holds that the principles enshrined in the Declaration and safeguarded by the Constitution are not fixed. What is wanted, as Woodrow Wilson, an early progressive saint, had it, is a “living” Constitution whose principles must be malleable under the pressure of changing historical realities. The doctrine of moral relativity dictates that individual rights give way to group rights and that ultimate sovereignty resides not in the people but in a managerial, bureaucratic cadre of elites. We hear a lot of talk about the “administrative state” today. That Leviathan had its birth in the deeply anti-democratic cult of experts that was (and is) such a prominent part of progressivism. Voters may be ineradicable. But the nuisance they represent can be neutralized to the extent that real power is shifted to unelected, and increasingly unaccountable, bureaucrats.
There is broad agreement—at least, there was until recently—about how fascism and communism challenge the American idea of liberty. Both ideologies explicitly sacrifice the rights of the individual to the state. Lenin promised that under communism the state would “wither away.” He neglected to add that what would take its place was the suffocating bureaucracy of the Politburo, whose self-imposed mandate was to keep track of everything—and everyone.
There was no subterfuge about creating a “workers’ paradise” in fascism, whose glorification of the state over the individual was as unapologetic as it was thoroughgoing. Identity politics, the conceptual grandchild of Marxists like Antonio Gramsci and Herbert Marcuse, is more cunning. Instead of aiming to overthrow bourgeois institutions like the family, churches, education, and the rule of law directly, it burrows underground to subvert them from within. In the United States, this project took flight in the 1960s, but is only now, with the triumph of doctrines like “Critical Race Theory,” achieving its destructive ends. As with the phrase “social justice,” “identity politics” weaponizes an adjective to paralyze the noun it accompanies. “Social justice” represents not an improvement on justice but its suspension. Just so, “identity politics” is not politics but its demonic parody.
What gives the 1776 Commission’s report its urgency is the extraordinary division that is deepening across the country. “Americans,” the authors note, “are deeply divided about the meaning of their country, its history, and how it should be governed. This division is severe enough to call to mind the disagreements between the colonists and King George, and those between the Confederate and Union forces in the Civil War.” This may seem hyperbolic. Unfortunately, it is a simple statement of fact.
Freedom is an achievement that must constantly be renewed if it is to survive and prosper.
As we write, this report is available on several websites, including the White House site where it was first published on January 18. But on January 20, Inauguration Day, the incoming administration announced that the commission would be dissolved by executive order. That is a pity, for the realities the report illuminates transcend partisan politics. Alas, it is a measure of how much human territory has been ceded to the forces of dissolution that an inquiry so principled and high-minded should endure the censure of thoroughly partisan animus. But so it is. The New York Times charged that the report “defends America’s founding on the basis of slavery,” while cnn cut to the chase and skirled that the “Trump administration issues racist school curriculum report on mlk day.” As it happens, many critical assessments of the report mentioned, with disapprobation implicit or explicit, that it appeared on the holiday commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But the irony is that the left-wing media misses the report’s celebration of the ideal that King articulated when he looked forward to “a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
“Freedom,” Ronald Reagan famously observed, is “never more than one generation away from extinction.” It is an achievement that must constantly be renewed if it is to survive and prosper. That is a truth we are in danger of forgetting. It is the indispensable merit of the 1776 Commission’s report to dramatize with rare historical intelligence the dangers to liberty that we face and to uncover the homely but potent resources we possess to reanimate it.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 6, on page 1
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