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Explained: What is the 1776 Commission report released by White House?

The initiative, dubbed the ‘1776 Commission’, is an apparent counter to The 1619 Project, a Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of essays on African American history of the past four centuries, which explores the Black community’s contribution in nation-building since the era of slavery to modern times.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: January 27, 2021 8:57:53 am
Clouds form over the White House in Washington, Monday, Jan. 18, 2021. (AP Photo)

The White House on Monday released the 1776 Commission report, just days before president-elect Joe Biden would take his oath in office. In September last year, US President Donald Trump signed an executive order to set up a “national commission to promote patriotic education” in the country. The move was aimed at pleasing his conservative voter base in the run-up to the November 3 elections.

The initiative, dubbed the ‘1776 Commission’, is an apparent counter to The 1619 Project, a Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of essays on African American history of the past four centuries, which explores the Black community’s contribution in nation-building since the era of slavery to modern times.

Trump announced the move at a history conference celebrating the 233rd anniversary of the signing of the US Constitution (on September 17, 1787); the document being written in the decade after the original 13 colonies declared independence from the British Empire in 1776.

In September, Trump said that he wanted $5 billion from companies that were building the US version of TikTok for setting up the “very large fund” that would teach American children “the real history, not the fake history.”

What is The 1619 Project?

The Project is a special initiative of The New York Times Magazine, launched in 2019 to mark the completion of 400 years since the first enslaved Africans arrived in colonial Virginia’s Jamestown in August 1619.

The project was initiated by Nikole Hannah-Jones, a MacArthur Grant-winning journalist. The collection aims “to reframe US history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year,” according to Jake Silverstein, the publication’s editor-in-chief.

What is Trump’s 1776 Commission?

When he set it up, Trump was lagging behind president-elect Biden in polls for the presidential race. With this move Trump sought to activate his right-wing supporters by doubling down on what he described as “cancel culture”, “critical race theory” and “revisionist history”.

US carries out 13th and final execution under Trump administration US President Donald Trump. (File)

In remarks delivered at the National Archives Museum, where original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights are kept, Trump said at the time, “Students in our universities are inundated with critical race theory. This is a Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation, that even young children are complicit in oppression, and that our entire society must be radically transformed.”

A new “1776 Commission”, Trump said, would “encourage our educators to teach our children about the miracle of American history and make plans to honor the 250th anniversary of our founding,” and teach the youth to “love America.”

“The Left has warped, distorted, and defiled the American story. We want our sons and daughters to know they are the citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world,” he added.

What does the report say?

According to a report in The New York Times, the 18-member commission formed by Trump “includes no professional historians but a number of conservative activists, politicians and intellectuals — in the heat of his re-election campaign in September, as he cast himself as a defender of traditional American heritage against “radical” liberals.”

“The declared purpose of the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission is to “enable a rising generation to understand the history and principles of the founding of the United States in 1776 and to strive to form a more perfect Union.” This requires a restoration of American education, which can only be grounded on a history of those principles that is “accurate, honest, unifying, inspiring, and ennobling.” And a rediscovery of our shared identity rooted in our founding principles is the path to a renewed American unity and a confident American future,” the report says.

What have critics said about this commission?

Critics have lambasted Trump for making false claims during the speech in September and accused him of infringing on constitutional liberties.

During his address, Trump said that the USA’s founding “set in motion the unstoppable chain of events that abolished slavery”, while many pointed out that the institution continued unabated for almost two-and-a-half centuries, including 89 years after American independence.

Hannah-Jones, the 1619 Project’s founder, said at the time, “These are hard days we’re in but I take great satisfaction from knowing that now even Trump’s supporters know the date 1619 and mark it as the beginning of American slavery. 1619 is part of the national lexicon. That cannot be undone, no matter how hard they try.”

Hannah-Jones has also previously criticised Trump’s opposition to teaching the 1619 Project in schools as a government attempt to infringe on the First Amendment right to free speech and press in the country. She said, “The efforts by the president of the United States to use his powers to censor a work of American journalism by dictating what schools can and cannot teach and what American children should and should not learn should be deeply alarming to all Americans who value free speech.”

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Interpreting the move

By attacking The 1619 Project, Trump hoped to win the support of conservatives who oppose its central idea that US history should be reframed around the date of August 1619, and who insist that the nation’s story should be told the way it has been over the years– beginning with the year 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was signed, or from 1788, when the US Constitution was ratified.

Last year, Trump threatened to withhold federal funding from public schools that used school syllabi based on the 1619 Project– which he said “warped” American history, adding that it claimed the US was “founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom”.

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