The Modern Civil War Over History

Before leaving office, President Trump established a commission to make American history reverse its trend of being “anti-American.” The subsequent report has led to a battle between historians and politicians about how the nation’s history will be told. 

In the commotion of President Trump’s final days in office, people may not have noticed the release of a report by a presidential commission tasked with developing principles for American history education. The 1776 Commission Report received criticism from historians for inaccuracies, clear political motivations, and its lack of citations. The report’s controversial contents and the circumstances of its release shine a light on the growing divide over historical interpretation in a politically polarized age.

The 1776 Commission was announced at a conference on American history last September at the National Archives, headlined by a 17-minute address from former President Trump. The president decried what he described as “anti-American” sentiment from the left-wing and Black Lives Matter protests.

More specifically, President Trump targeted the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which aimed to recontextualize American history as centered around slavery and systemic racism. While historians have debated some of the claims of the 1619 Project, Trump’s quarrel was not with its historical accuracy or interpretive value, but rather its ideology. The education of children about systemic racism and other ills of American founding was “a web of lies,” said Trump, and critical race theory was “child abuse in the truest sense of those words.”

Historians have been near-universally critical of the report that the 1776 Commission produced, with the American Historical Association and 45 other historical organizations issuing a condemnation of the report.

“I don’t feel like historians should even engage with it extensively, because I don’t feel like this is a serious work,” said Professor Rebecca Jo Plant, an American history professor at UC San Diego, in an interview with The UCSD Guardian. “The importance of it is really going to be as a primary document, as a historical document, for people in the future looking back at this moment and understanding how polarized the policy is right now.”

The 45-page report is full of controversial historical statements, most clearly in the report’s section on “Challenges to America’s Principles,” beginning with slavery. This section is not about the evils of slavery, but instead defends slaveholding founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson from accusations of hypocrisy. 

“This charge is untrue, and has done enormous damage,” says the report, making the case that Jefferson was anti-slavery due to his original draft of the Declaration, which must surely come as a relief to the 600 slaves he owned during his lifetime.

The report further focuses its history of slavery around the founding fathers, as the section on slavery fails to mention the actual human toll of slavery itself, mourning only the troops lost in the Civil War. The only time any African Americans are mentioned in the section is to trumpet Frederick Douglass’ approval of the Declaration.

This framing choice continues in the report’s section on racism, titled “Racism and Identity Politics.” The report praises Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” and its message of equality, but the latter half of the section criticizes the Civil Rights Movement, arguing without evidence that it had perverted King’s ideals for preferential treatment for African-Americans. 

“It didn’t engage with historical work that’s been done on the subjects that the report ostensibly deals with,” said Professor Rachel Klein, also a UCSD professor of American history, in an interview with The Guardian. “Some of it is kind of clever, but clever in a manipulative way, and some of it is just absolutely ridiculous and really nothing more than absurd propaganda.”

The report’s following section, on history education itself, decries political motivations and partisanship before moving on to a well-worn critique of universities.

“To restore our society, academics must return to their vocation of relentlessly pursuing the truth and engaging in honest scholarship that seeks to understand the world and America’s place in it,” says the report, despite the incredibly politicized historical judgments that precede this statement.

These parts sum up to a report which more often than not skips over the complexities of American history. The sections about racism and slavery do not discuss these issues within American history, but instead, use them to attack modern-day liberals. Even historical figures like King and Douglass, who were radical in their day, are quoted selectively in the report to support conservative ideas.

“Our kids are smarter than we give them credit for, in terms of their ability to cope with complexity. The earlier they start to learn about the complexity of U.S. history, the more they’re going to be prepared to be knowledgeable citizens who can work to address outstanding social issues,” Plant said.

These issues are far from surprising, as the 1776 Commission Report was not created by conservative historians (no American historians were on the commission), but rather by ideologues, from Hillsdale College president Larry Arnn to conservative activist Charlie Kirk. But the 1776 Commission is just part of a battle over the way we teach American history, which has become one of the more contested academic subjects in broader culture wars over the identity of this nation.

The most common charge levied against universities in America is that they are hotbeds of liberal indoctrination, and there’s an entire right-wing sphere of organizations from PragerU to Campus Reform to Charlie Kirk’s Turning Point USA that seek to emphasize that notion. 

The data does suggest that professors are significantly more liberal than the population as a whole  – UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute puts the liberal-to-conservative ratio at 6:1 – but what is more contested is the reason for that difference, and the impact this has on students. For example, a recent study on the matter found that while students do drift leftwards during college, this tends to be due to peer groups rather than professor indoctrination.

“History done well has to abide by standards of evidence, and it grows out of a process of conversation, with historians looking at documents and respecting facts,” Klein said. “A good history class acknowledges that there are differences of opinion… If universities and history classes were just indoctrinating students with left-wing politics, we wouldn’t have had the last 20 years of right-wing politics. If that’s all we’re doing, we’re doing a horrible job of it.”

Still, given that there might be a disconnect between the political opinions of professors and students, the more pressing challenge for educators is teaching the often-controversial subjects in history in a way that transcends political bounds. This process only occurs when an open dialogue about historical interpretation and events can occur in the classroom.

“In my classroom, there’s been tensions that have bubbled to the surface… I had a student who I thought raised questions that were uncomfortable for the other students, and if I had to have guessed, I would have placed her pretty far on the right,” Plant said. “Then at the end of the class, she sent me a note really thanking me for [the class]. It appears that being able to ask those questions where even asking the question offended some people – like being able to ask it and have me take it seriously and answer it – it made her change her mind about things… I don’t think that it would have happened if I had just shut her down.”

A part of bridging those gaps that both Klein and Plant described was the practice of historical empathy: students should be able to understand the mindsets of historical figures, even when they do not agree with them. When students ask her about the Confederacy, says Plant, “I have said yes, they were supporting that heinous system, but what you need to think about is that if you were born into that system, there is a minuscule chance that you would have opposed it.”

As the authors of the 1776 Report made clear, one’s vision of history is very much tied to their sense of identity, both personal and political, and it is for this reason that history will always be at the center of cultural debate. 

“The battles taking place over [American history], it’s about who we are as a nation, and who gets to define that,” Plant said. “People like to say history will judge, but history doesn’t judge – historians judge, and historians are people with perspectives.”

But those very same reasons that make history such a controversial subject are why it is so important for young people to study it. In a year that has seen a devastating pandemic, massive protests over police violence and systemic racism, and widespread attacks on democratic institutions, it is important to have an understanding of the historical causes and previous instances of these events.

For Plant, the same unique circumstances of America’s founding that are so lauded by the 1776 Commission Report make this a nation in which learning history and having a stake in that history are so important.

“As a nation, the United States is groping towards a society that is so diverse, that incorporates people from so many different backgrounds that when you say ‘American,’ you don’t have a typical image… I think we’re the first country where you can really say that,” Plant said. “The commitment is to the ideals, not to a certain racial heritage… [The question is] whether or not we can hold together a country based on a certain set of principles, and that claim in the past which not all of us, in a genetic or genealogical sense, have a stake.”

Meanwhile, Klein stressed the importance of historical memory and understanding. 

“What would a person who had no memory? That sort of takes the humanity from the person … I think that’s true of a society as well,” Klein said. “A society without memory can’t be a fully functioning, healthy society… We’re never going to have a 100% accurate historical memory, but we need to have an ongoing dialogue about memory and ongoing efforts to recover the past.”

While our collective dialogue about memory often pits conservatives against liberals, a more important distinction exists between interpretations of history that are based in fact and those based in dogma. Historians mostly see the 1776 Commission Report as an example of the latter. But as a new administration enters office, it is as important as ever that the history that we draw on for clarity and understanding stay faithful to the complex realities of the past.

Ultimately, the past is not a thing we can separate from the present, and historical interpretation will always be subject to contemporary political whims. The 1776 Commission Report unintentionally proves this better than nearly any other primary source of the last four years. But even when history can be controversial, the open, honest discussions that should happen in a proficient college classroom, especially those between students and professors of differing views, is the one way that we can remain truthful in our understanding of the past and be prepared for an uncertain future.

Art by  Kalo Grimsby for The UCSD Guardian.

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