This July 4 marks the 246th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed as “self-evident” that people are granted by a divine Creator the rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.
On Jan. 18, 2021, the outgoing Trump administration produced a 45-page document aimed at encouraging patriotic education and acquainting more Americans with the principles upon which the United States was founded.
The report of the 1776 Commission was overshadowed by other events — less than a fortnight prior, the country was in uproar over the breach of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. And on Jan. 21, the Biden administration would take office, scrubbing the previous administration’s policies and literature from the White House website.
But as America and the world face a slew of mounting crises, the 1776 Report provides a much-needed reminder of what the United States stands for, as well as the challenges that must be overcome if Americans are to preserve their country and its values.
God-given rights and human dignity
You are now signed up for our newsletter
Check your email to complete sign up
In its introduction, the 1776 Report warns that “Americans are deeply divided about the meaning of their country, its history, and how it should be governed.” The disagreement is so severe that it amounts to “a dispute over not only the history of our country but also its present purpose and future direction.”
However, the report notes, “the facts of our founding are not partisan. They are a matter of history. … Properly understood, these facts address the concerns and aspirations of Americans of all social classes, income levels, races and religions, regions and walks of life.”
When the 13 Colonies rose up in rebellion against the British crown, they did not intend to simply end that particular tyranny, but did so to advance the understanding that men are created equal and that they have natural rights.
“It does not mean that all human beings are equal in wisdom, courage, or any of the other virtues and talents that God and nature distribute unevenly among the human race,” the 1776 Commission clarifies. “It means rather that human beings are equal in the sense that they are not by nature divided into castes, with natural rulers and ruled.”
Recognition that “all men are created equal” means the recognition of natural rights, including freedom and consent of the governed. The purpose of government as demanded by the Declaration of Independence, then, is to secure those rights, but, as the 1776 Report discusses in its appendix, they are granted by the Creator — an understanding rooted in faith.
George Washington once said, “Let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion.”
“Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle,” the first president observed in his Farewell Address.
Another Founder, John Adams, observed, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Challenges to the American system
The 1776 Report acknowledges the fragility of republics, which can be easily subverted by opportunities, or fall to internal bickering. However, the United States being a republic, “its government was designed to be directed by the will of the people rather than the wishes of a single individual or a narrow class of elites.”
From the very outset, the American project was marred by the existence of slavery, something common throughout the world at the time but diametrically incompatible with the idea that all men are created equal.
“But,” the report notes, “what is momentous is that a people that included slaveholders founded their nation” on the basis of assumed equality. Slavery was a contentious issue at the time of American independence, and many of the Founding Fathers designed the U.S. system so that slavery could be abolished “as fast as circumstances should permit,” as President Abraham Lincoln would later observe.
Threats to the U.S. founding principles did not abate with the end of the Civil War and slavery. Following its discussion of the “peculiar institution,” the 1776 Report addresses the rise of Progressivist thought, which “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.”
The report cites Progressivist historian Carl L. Becker, who in 1922 claimed that “to ask whether the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is true or false, is essentially a meaningless question” as rights are “constantly redefined and change with the times,” the report notes.
“Based on this false understanding of rights, the Progressives designed a new system of government. Instead of securing fundamental rights grounded in nature, government—operating under a new theory of the ‘living’ Constitution—should constantly evolve to secure evolving rights.”
However, “far from creating an omniscient body of civil servants led only by ‘pragmatism’ or ‘science,’ … progressives instead created what amounts to a fourth branch of government called at times the bureaucracy or the administrative state,” which is essentially unaccountable to the American people.
From Progressivism, which included among its ranks the white supremacist Democratic president Woodrow Wilson, followed a slew of political ideologies that attacked the U.S. system as cynical, duplicitous, or ineffective. Today, the 1776 Report notes, these include communist-derived ideas such as Critical Theory, that purport to be against racism and discrimination, but in fact reduce human beings to their ethnic or class background.
The report’s authors concede that “the American story has its share of missteps, errors, contradictions, and wrongs” that tarnish the country’s founding principles — from of slavery and racist laws, to the more modern movements that ignore or deny the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
However, “these wrongs have always met resistance from the clear principles of the nation, and therefore our history is far more one of self- sacrifice, courage, and nobility,” the report reads.
“America’s principles are named at the outset to be both universal—applying to everyone—and eternal: existing for all time. The remarkable American story unfolds under and because of these great principles.”
The 1776 Commission observed that much of the confusion about America’s founding principles stem from the simple lack of education in schools and universities across the country.
A “pronounced decline of American education began in the late nineteenth century when progressive reformers began discarding the traditional understanding of education,” which “involved conveying a body of transcendent knowledge and practical wisdom that had been passed down for generations and which aimed to develop the character and intellect of the student.”
“The new education, by contrast, pursued contradictory goals that are at the same time mundane and unrealistically utopian,” the report said.
In order to defend and strengthen the American nation, it is necessary to encourage education about U.S. founding principles and facts.
“The wide experiences and the varied backgrounds of our citizens should be respected and honored. But the truths that equality and liberty belong by nature to every human being without exception must be taught as the moral basis of civic friendship, economic opportunity, citizenship, and political freedom,” the 1776 Report stresses.
“Rather than learning to hate one’s country or the world for its inevitable wrongs, the well-educated student learns to appreciate and cherish the oases of civilization: solid family structures and local communities; effective, representative, and limited government; the rule of law and the security of civil rights and private property; a love of the natural world and the arts; good character and religious faith.
“Thoughtful citizens embrace their national community not only because it is their own, but also because they see what it can be at its best. Just as students know their family members have good qualities and flaws, good education will reckon the depths and heights of our common history.