The (Former) President’s 1776 Report

Former President Trump convened a body of writers to produce a new version of American history.  He didn’t give them much time to do it.  They were appointed thirty-three days before the inauguration of President Joe Biden and it was published before inauguration day.

Still, it didn’t take as much time as it surely would have had there been any historians on the panel.  The chair was President of Hillsdale College, Larry Arnn. [1]  The members included a conservative professor from Vanderbilt Law School, some of President Trump’s former domestic policy advisors, and some conservative activists.  No historians.

If you are reading a document, especially one that is going over events that have been written about a great deal before, it is helpful to get some idea of how this particular version is different from its predecessors.  We will look at three ways.

The first is the goal statement, which is clearly stated in the Conclusion.

Among the virtues to be cultivated in the American republic, the founders knew that a free people must have a knowledge of the principles and practices of liberty, and an appreciation of their origins and challenges.

We know now that “liberty,” as it will be defined in this document, is the value to be maximized and that a knowledge of its “principles and practices” will be the means by which this will be achieved.  This is referred to later in the conclusion as “an authentic civics education.”  It is a kind of education that will enable us to love our country as we should.

The second is embedded in the Table of Contents.  My eye was caught first by Section IV of the pamphlet;  this section is called “Challenges to America’s Principles.”  Five such “challenges” are named in particular.  In order, they are:  Slavery, Progressivism, Fascism, Communism, and Racism and Identity Politics.”   The principle evoked here is the you are known by the company you keep.  Three of the challenges are directed to political systems as such.  The three are Fascism, Communism, and Progressivism.

Progressivism was prominent in the campaigns and in the presidencies of Republican Theodore Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson.  Its being listed along with Communism and Fascism calls immediately to mind the question of just what it is about “progressivism” that merits such company.

As the third look at this pamphlet, let’s examine what it is about “progressivism” that has aroused so thorough a rejection.

In the decades that followed the Civil War, in response to the industrial revolution and the expansion of urban society, many American elites adopted a series of ideas to address these changes called Progressivism.

The first shot across the bow is this:

“…the political thought of Progressivism held that the times had moved far beyond the founding era, and that contemporary society was too complex any longer to be governed by principles formulated in the 18th century.”

This is rebutted by a quote from Republican President Calvin Coolege

We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren scepter in our grasp.

The second shot—closer to the waterline than across the bow— is this.

Progressives held that truths were not permanent but only relative to their time. They rejected the self-evident truth of the Declaration that all men are created equal and are endowed equally, either by nature or by God, with unchanging rights. 

Instead, Progressives believed there were only group rights that are constantly redefined and change with the times. Indeed, society has the power and obligation not only to define and grant new rights, but also to take old rights away as the country develops.

If the country will need to be redefined and to change with the times, there will need to be people to identify the new needs and to propose the necessary changes.  Who will these be?

By this account, they will be “credentialed managers, who would direct society through rules andregulations that mold to the currents of the time”

By this means, Progressives:

“created what amounts to a fourth  branch of government called at times the bureaucracy or the administrative state. This shadow government never faces elections and today operates largely without checks and balances. The founders always opposed government unaccountable to the people and without constitutional restraint, yet it continues to grow around us.”

These characterizations account for why “Progressivism” is listed along with Fascism and Communism as “challenges to America’s principles.”

It is interesting to me that it is the “principles” rather than the practices, that define the America that is to be cherished and admired by its citizens.

Also that it is individuals, not groups, that are to be the beneficiaries.  In that regard, I note that the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments deal with groups (former slaves) and the 19th as well (women), and I can only wonder whether a principled opposition to “progressivism” would have insisted that these liberties be restored one person at a time.  It seems impracticable, but perhaps not all slaves deserved their freedom or all women the right to vote.  These are the groups, after all, who “voted wrong” in the 2020 election.

I notice that Progressives rejected the notion that “all men are created equal.”  I gather that the key to that is that being “created equal” means that they have “unchanging rights.”  That would mean, among other things, that those rights cannot be expanded.  But if the rights of “all men” can be expanded over the original notion—if, for instance, you don’t need to be a white male property owner to vote—where will it all end?

And finally, the shot that tries to sink the ship outright, there is the question of the “administrative state.”  The charge against the administrators is that they are not elected.  I ask you, in response, to try to imagine the regulatory apparatus of the United States being operated by Senators and Representatives.  Only.  No delegation.  That position must have been taken by someone who has never read, or possibly never held, the Federal Register and noted the process by which proposed changes in the rules are published and held open for criticism and opposition.  Do the true patriots who produced this document really want to see the administrative burden of an advanced economy in the hands of Senators and Representatives?  Only?

Concluding Observation

You might want to take a look at this document for yourself.  It is very attractive.  And there are, at the end, questions you should ask.

Good luck.

[1]  Hillsdale College, their mission statement says, “maintains ‘by precept and example’ the immemorial teachings and practices of the Christian faith.”

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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1 Response to The (Former) President’s 1776 Report

  1. ericinlo says:

    Thanks, Dale. Thoughtful piece.

    I tried to link to the 1776 Report and got a 404 error — page not found.

    Sunk out of sight already?

    eric ===

    >

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