The 1776 Commission: A Brief Guide for the Perplexed

On Constitution Day, President Donald Trump gave a speech at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., in which he announced that he would sign an executive order establishing the 1776 Commission. The goal of the commission is to promote “patriotic education” for American students and “encourage our educators to teach our children about the miracle of American history and make plans to honor the 250th anniversary of our founding.”

The speech advanced a national debate regarding civics and history, as well as, how they should be taught to American students. While this debate has developed over decades, it has gained new traction with the August 2019 rollout of the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” a journalistic endeavor to “reframe” American history with the idea that the United States began with the introduction of African slaves to the colonies in 1619, rather than with the American Revolution in 1776. Part of the 1619 Project includes a K-12 curriculum intended to be distributed to schools nationwide, aimed at radically altering the way that civics and history are taught. 

There are few details on the precise makeup and structure of the 1776 Commission; however, the National Endowment for the Humanities will begin developing patriotic curriculum by awarding a $185,000 grant to two organizations: American Achievement Testing, to begin developing a patriotic American history high school curriculum, and the National Association of Scholars, to review popular history textbooks and produce a report recommending improvements. Trump named the leaders of each of these organizations—Peter Wood for NAS and Ted Rebarber for AAT—in his speech. 

In addition to the 1776 Commission, another initiative was launched this February to promote America’s founding values. 1776 Unites is a project founded by civil rights activist and social entrepreneur Robert L. Woodson Jr. along with several other scholars, including the American Enterprise Institute’s Ian Rowe, Columbia University’s John McWhorter, Georgetown University’s Joshua Mitchell, the Hoover Institution’s Shelby Steele, and Brown University’s Glenn Loury. 1776 Unites describes its mission as liberating “tens of millions of Americans by helping them become agents of their own uplift and transformation, by embracing the true founding values of our country.” On September 16,  1776 Unites announced its own K-12 curriculum intended to counter that of the 1619 Project by offering “authentic, inspiring stories from American history that show what is best in our national character and what our freedom makes possible even in the most difficult circumstances.” The 1776 Unites curriculum “maintains a special focus on stories that celebrate black excellence, reject victimhood culture, and showcase African-Americans who have prospered by embracing America’s founding ideals.” 

Despite their similar names and similar missions, the 1776 Commission and 1776 Unites are unrelated and, Rowe says, there is no coordination planned between them at this time. 

To go deeper into the debate between 1619 and 1776, The Philanthropy Roundtable will hold a discussion exploring the two perspectives during our Annual Meeting’s opening plenary session on October 14, 2020. Professor Leslie Harris of Northwestern University will defend the idea that 1619 should be considered America’s true founding, while Colombia University Professor John McWhorter will argue for 1776 as America’s true founding year. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf will moderate the conversation.

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