Rejecting the 'Proposition Nation' - By Brion McClanahan
The left’s ‘1619 Project’ and the conservative 1776 Commission both rely on a distorted picture of the American founding.
In January, Donald Trump’s President’s Advisory 1776 Commission released its 45-page “1776 Report,” which, according to The New York Times, is “a sweeping attack on liberal thought and activism that…defends America’s founding against charges that it was tainted by slavery and likens progressivism to fascism.” Joe Biden scrapped it the day he entered office, and the report has since been scrubbed from all government websites.
This is perhaps for the best. However noble the intentions of the Commission’s members, their document is a profoundly flawed vision of American history, one that places the Declaration of Independence and Abraham Lincoln at the center of the American experience. That Lincolnian vision is now the accepted “conservative” consensus regarding American history.
American conservatives looking for an intellectual home should avoid claptrap like the 1776 Commission and its intellectual sibling, “The 1619 Project.” They are in reality two sides of the same coin. Both rely on a fantasy about the founding that Lincoln invented at Gettysburg in 1863. Accepting the assumptions behind either view of America is tantamount to a coin toss in which the rules are heads they win, tails you lose.
Trump tapped Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn to head the Commission and appointed 17 other academics and politicians to serve in advisory roles. Vanderbilt University Political Science and Law Professor Carol M. Swain and Hillsdale Constitutional Government Professor Matthew Spalding served as vice-chair and executive director, respectively. Swain’s prior publications focused almost exclusively on race and the dangers of “white nationalism,” including tomes fully in accord with the credo of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Spalding penned the popular We Still Hold These Truths (2009), a book steeped in neoconservative deceit.
Other appointments included Thomas Lindsay, director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, who drafted most of “The 1776 Report,” as well as conservative historian Victor Davis Hanson. While Hanson has recently bemoaned the effects of cancel culture on American history, for years he never found a Confederate statue he did not want removed.
Consider the required reading recommendations for American students from “The 1776 Report,” which include the 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration calling for women’s suffrage, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Stanton looked to the form and substance of the Declaration of Independence in crafting the Declaration, and King asserted that the Declaration and the Constitution constituted a “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”
No contemporary of Stanton or King would have confused either for a “conservative.” Stanton sided with the Republican Party during the 1850s because she perceived it as a conduit for reform, and complained loudly of betrayal when it refused to back women’s suffrage following the Civil War. King flirted with communism, and like the academics who crafted “The 1776 Report,” viewed the Declaration’s “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal” as a foundational promise betrayed by bad actors in American history, mostly from the South.
Not to be outdone by King, the 1776 Commission blames John C. Calhoun for modern identity politics, for the distortion of the true founding principles enshrined in the Declaration, and for the deaths of the 600,000 men who perished in the Civil War. If not for Calhoun, “The 1776 Report” authors seem to suggest, the United States would today be a utopia of free-thinking nationalist egalitarians dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal.”
Can you guess who else holds similar views? To name two: leftist Civil War historian Eric Foner and Nikole Hannah-Jones, the lead journalist for “The 1619 Project.” In his book The Second Founding (2019), Foner writes:
Before the Civil War, black spokesmen, like abolitionists more generally, tended to ground their claims [to citizenship] in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence rather than the Constitution. As early as the era of the Revolution, slaves petitioning for freedom cited the Declaration’s words about liberty and equality, seeing the document as a charter of individual rights rather than an assertion of national sovereignty.
Hannah-Jones considers the United States to be a “nation founded on both an ideal and a lie.” The ideal is that “all mean are created equal” with “certain unalienable rights,” i.e., the “proposition nation.” But, unlike the Straussians, Hannah-Jones does not let Northern white men off the hook, for she sees them as as complicit as Southerners in betraying that ideal. She summarizes the core position of “The 1619 Project” as follows:
Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves—black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights.
To the Straussians who crafted “The 1776 Report” and their conservative pundit allies like Dinesh D’Souza, Glenn Beck, and the late Rush Limbaugh, not all white Americans should be blamed for the sins of the South. In their view, there were “good” white Americans—abolitionists, Northern members of the founding generation, and Lincoln—who recognized the inhumanity of slavery and tried to end it. Even Southern members of the founding generation, including Jefferson himself, but also Washington, Madison, Mason, and a host of other Virginians, thought enough of humanity to pave the way for Lincoln to revolutionize the Revolution in the Gettysburg Address.
“The 1776 Report” suggests that the founders (not excluding those who hailed from Southern states) created the mechanism to end slavery through the Constitution and cannot be blamed for the evil deeds of later pro-slavery Southerners who ignored the true founding of America. More importantly, the report’s authors believe they are free from the stain of racism because they adhere to the “correct” view of American history. In other words, “Don’t blame us. We voted for Lincoln.”
Hannah-Jones, on the other hand, does not make this distinction, nor does she differentiate between Lincoln and Calhoun. Both were guilty of America’s “original sin” of racism. Neither man held views on race that are acceptable to modern Americans, let alone “woke” social justice warriors. Hannah-Jones is as critical of Lincoln’s colonization plans as of Calhoun’s “positive good” speech. Frankly, she is at least being more consistent than the self-righteous conservatives on the 1776 Commission.
The attempt by the authors of “The 1776 Report” to beg absolution from the political left for the sin of slavery is a fatal miscalculation. The left’s game is cancel culture, and it’s a game in which conservatives will always be playing defense. You cannot play the left’s game on their field and by their rules and hope for success. Charges of racism are emotional, not intellectual, and are used—successfully—to change the narrative. Instead of focusing on the contributions antebellum Americans made to Western civilization, we are instead debating who was the least racist and bigoted among them. This is unproductive.
Conservatives cannot appease the left by regurgitating its distorted vision of the founding. Placing the lofty ideals of the Declaration at the center of the founding is a distortion of history.
Consider that Jefferson himself downplayed the importance of the Declaration’s phrase “all men are created equal,” and that, for much of the period leading up to the Civil War, Jeffersonians in both the North and South championed the principles of state sovereignty, rather than those of an egalitarian, propositional nation. To Jefferson, the last paragraph, not the second, provided the most important language of the Declaration. Most of the founding generation agreed.
The story written during the debates over the Constitution in 1787 and 1788 provides a more robust and authentic American vision of the founding. The principles that predominated in those debates unified most Americans for decades and created a populist national base.
The founders drafted two constitutions for the central government and a host of state constitutions that reaffirmed their commitment to a union of states and the principles of federalism. The Constitution would not have been ratified in 1788 had the founding generation believed that the states would be consolidated into one national government.
That argument took center stage in every state ratifying convention in 1787 and 1788. Rarely was the Declaration mentioned, even in passing, and none of the founders ever referred to the line “all men are created equal” with religious reverence, contrary to what the Straussians and their leftist allies would have you believe.
For example, James Wilson of Pennsylvania made federalism a central theme of his State House Yard Speech in October 1787, just a few weeks after the Constitution had been signed in Philadelphia. Wilson mentioned the Declaration in one of his speeches before the Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention in December 1787, but only to show that the people had a right to “alter or abolish” either a state government or a central government. That was the American tradition.
Delegates to the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention in January 1788 were told that the powers of the central government would be limited to those “expressly delegated” and that the language of what would become the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution imported the same meaning as the second article of the Articles of Confederation, namely that each state retained its “sovereignty and independence.” No one mentioned Jefferson’s “all men are created equal” phrase.
Even in Virginia, the state that gave the United States the Declaration, the delegates never mentioned that document when debating the Constitution. And it was only mentioned twice during the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, in both instances by nationalists for the purpose of arguing that the Union predated the states—a position flatly rejected by most of the men in attendance.
Despite these historical facts, the authors of “The 1776 Report” insist that “The meaning and purpose of the Constitution of 1787…cannot be understood without recourse to the principles of the Declaration of Independence….” If that’s true, then the founding generation should have made that meaning explicit during the ratification debates, or at the very least in Philadelphia. But they didn’t. “States’ rights,” not the phantasm of a proposition nation, dominated the debates between the Founding Fathers.
To be fair, “The 1776 Report” admits that the founding generation never spoke of America as a proposition nation, even though its authors appear to believe that the propositional idea can be discerned in the penumbra of the founding documents. It was Lincoln, the abolitionists, and black Americans who popularized that concept (in reality, fabricated it) for political reasons.
Foner and Hannah-Jones more correctly contend that very few Americans subscribed to anything resembling a proposition nation on the eve of war in 1860. Calhoun and other Southerners who hurled verbal spears at the “all men are created equal” phrase were drawing attention to abolitionist agitators seeking to revise the founding. These men and women were almost always drummed out of Northern towns before the war, in some cases violently. Hardly anyone, North or South, wanted them around, and certainly most Americans did not subscribe to their version of American history.
Democrats held both houses of Congress and the executive branch throughout the 1850s and would have continued to hold power had the party not split in 1860. Lincoln pulled only 39 percent of the popular vote in his path to the executive mansion. In other words, most Americans would have agreed with the following plank of the Democratic Party Platform of 1852:
[T]hat all efforts of the abolitionists, or others, made to induce Congress to interfere with questions of slavery, or to take incipient steps in relation thereto, are calculated to lead to the most alarming and dangerous consequences; and that all such efforts have an inevitable tendency to diminish the happiness of the people and endanger the stability and permanency of the Union, and ought not to be countenanced by any friend of our political institutions.
Antebellum Americans rallied around core tenets of the old republican American tradition: resistance to unconstitutional powers and a proper relationship between state and general governments; strict economy in federal expenditures; opposition to corporate welfare in all its manifestations; sound money and a stable currency; peaceful neutrality and the cultivation of international trade; and more broadly the spirit of personal and political independence.
Southerners advanced most of these principles more fervently and for a longer period than their Northern neighbors, but part of the reason the Lincolnian myth of a proposition nation failed to establish a permanent hold upon the American electorate immediately after the war is because both sections believed fundamentally in an old republican vision of the American founding, as well as in an anti-federalist interpretation of the Constitution.
American conservatives today are rethinking their commitment to the Republican Party. Trump’s victory in 2016 cemented an already growing dissatisfaction with the proposition-nation wing of the GOP. In that light, perhaps Biden’s move to purge “The 1776 Report” from the public record is a blessing in disguise. If history is on the ballot, then conservatives need to tell the real story of the American founding, not some fairy tale. Let the left have the proposition nation. Conservatives can’t win that game.
Patrick Henry provided the best answer to similar distortions of the American tradition back in 1788: “I smell a rat.” We could say the same thing about “The 1619 Project” and its mirror image, the 1776 Commission.
Brion McClanahan is editor of The Abbeville Review and the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers (Regnery, 2009) and The Founding Fathers’ Guide to the Constitution (Regnery History, 2012).