The 1776 FolliesRoundup
tags: teaching history, Donald Trump, 1776 commission
Mr. Kazin is a historian who has written extensively about populism, the antiwar movement and the left in the United States. He is currently working on a history of the Democratic Party.
What is the meaning of American history? According to the 1776 report, rushed out by a presidential commission of the same name just two days before Donald Trump left office (and terminated by President Biden on his first day), it begins and ends with the “fundamental truths” expressed in the nation’s founding documents.
“We will — we must — always hold these truths,” the report’s unnamed authors insist, if we hope to transcend the deep divisions that plague the nation. Only if schools convey a “true education” based on the principles of “equality, liberty, justice and government by consent” will a “national renewal” be possible.
This simple, quasi-theological way of understanding the past harks back to the 19th century, before history became a real academic discipline. Back then, schoolchildren imbibed the patriotic speeches in their McGuffey’s Readers, compiled by an eponymous Presbyterian minister in the 1830s. Wealthy white gentlemen like George Bancroft and Francis Parkman wrote best-selling sagas about visionary founders and intrepid frontiersmen. Parson Mason Weems wrote a popular biography of George Washington that concocted the uplifting tale about the general and first president who displayed his virtuous character as a boy when he confessed to cutting down a cherry tree with his little hatchet. Weems “told historical lies in order to impress upon the young the importance of telling the truth,” Richard Hofstadter, the great liberal historian, remarked.
There is nothing wrong with venerating allegedly timeless values, but that is a task for preachers and ceremonial orators — not historians. Hardly anyone who writes and teaches about the American past at the college level today, whatever his or her politics, would confuse the worship of founding principles with the effort to make sense of how the United States developed and changed. It is telling that not a single member of the 1776 Commission was a professional historian of the nation whose essence they lauded and which they vowed to make the core of a “patriotic” education.
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