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1676 Project, A Thought Experiment
Is there a way to bridge the gap between the NYT 1619 Project and the Trump admin's 1776 Project?
If you’re reading this piece, you’ve undoubtedly heard of the 1619 Project, the New York Times’ controversial attempt to redefine American history through the lens of slavery, based on the dubious claim that America’s real founding was in 1619, when the first slaves were brought over to the colonies, as well as the even more spurious claim that the American Revolution was fought to preserve slavery.
The 1619 Project has been partially debunked from the Right and the Left. And the New York Times famously stealth-edited it to remove factual inaccuracies without issuing corrections. But it sparked a fight over American history, which led to then-president Trump’s creation of “the 1776 Project,” which also came under some criticism as presenting a MAGA version of history.
I have no desire to relitigate those fights, nor to comment on the various specifics of either project. What I’d instead like to do is to propose a third way. Or, rather, a thought experiment.
What about a 1676 Project?
From here on out, I’ll speak to the spirit of both projects, rather than their letter. I won’t argue over any particular claims made by either project. Instead, I’ll use a shorthand (oversimplified to be sure), in which I use the name of each project to refer to what I perceive as its intent. Basically, the 1619 Project is premised on examining America’s sins, while ignoring her virtues. And the 1776 Project focuses on America’s triumphs and ignores or glosses over some of her flaws.
I’d argue that each contains within it important truths about American history, while leaving out critical context. Conveniently, a “1676 Project” combines one half of each date: 16 from 1619 and 76 from 1776. What is the significance of 1676? That was the year of Bacon’s Rebellion (notorious in my 11th grade AP U.S. History class after it became an inside joke that makes little sense in hindsight but received laughs every time someone shouted it in the middle of class).
In this piece, I plan to use the history of that event to illustrate what I see as a potential path forward for teaching and understanding our complicated past.
But First, Let’s Back Up a Little
This piece of mine was partially inspired by an article at The Dispatch by David French. French takes both sides of this historical debate seriously and doesn’t straw man either. He writes about America’s past as a tension between “the spirit of 1776” and “the spirit of 1619.” In our best moments, America lived up to the ideals of the spirit of 1776, while at our worst, we lived down to the evil of the spirit of 1619.
I find this argument persuasive. Our story is one of constantly striving towards “a more perfect union” in which the natural rights of all men and women are respected and protected by their government. Throughout our history, we’ve failed to live up to that. America had slavery. American settlers destroyed Native American tribes. The U.S. Government interned Japanese Americans during the Second World War. But, every time, we atoned for those sins and struggled to do better. We freed the slaves, won the Second World War, and passed the Civil Rights Act. We’re the nation of John C. Calhoun, and the nation of Martin Luther King Jr.; the nation of George Wallace, and the nation of Abraham Lincoln.
So, our complex history contains both the spirit of ’76 and the spirit of ’19 within it. And so, as we shall see, does the history of Bacon’s Rebellion.
Some Background on Bacon’s Rebellion
Some historians see Bacon’s Rebellion as an early intimation of the spirit of independence that led to the American Revolution. After all, it contains within it some stirrings or echoes of that spirit. Frontiersmen rose up against a colonial governor (William Berkeley). A declaration was written about the corruption of the King-appointed colonial governor and the arbitrariness with which he used his power.
But on the other hand, Nathaniel Bacon wasn’t such an admirable figure himself. Other historians argue that Bacon’s Rebellion was really just a power struggle between two privileged, upper-class, white, English, colonial landowners. And, even worse, it involved fights between local Native American tribes and white colonists.
There is also the fact that some historians have argued that Bacon’s Rebellion marked the shift from indentured servitude in the American colonies to widespread slavery. Or, at least a shift in race relations which furthered the institutionalization of African slavery.
In other words, the story of Bacon’s Rebellion is a complicated history with flawed individuals. It contains within it both the ideals of liberty and a fight against tyranny, and also sullied facts that tie it to slavery and tensions between white settlers and Native Americans.
So, it is with American history. Our history is the story of the flaws and sins of all the times we failed to live up to the ideals laid out in the Declaration of Independence. But it’s also the story of the times we redeemed ourselves and tried and tried again. Historians differ on which they emphasize, but I say we can – and should – emphasize both. Both liberating Europe (and ending the Holocaust), and the Tulsa Massacre. Both the enshrinement of the freedom of speech into the Bill of Rights, and various unconstitutional attempts to infringe on that freedom.
Most Americans are Already on the Same Page on This
A lot of Americans know about both the Trail of Tears, and the Emancipation Proclamation. And most Americans aren’t hardcore ideologues on either side of the political aisle. Most parents want their kids to learn and understand both the flaws and the virtues of American history. Most teachers don’t want to teach a one-sided version of history. They’d rather not whitewash the past, but they’d rather not trash it either.
The most vocal proponents of antiracism will argue that most white teachers are racist, and that America is irredeemably racist, and that public schools (especially in the South) are trying to whitewash the past.
But I grew up in the South. Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee were both buried in my hometown. If anyone was going to encounter a whitewashed version of history in school, it was me and my peers. Sure, I had a few teachers who taught that the Civil War “wasn’t about slavery,” but was instead about “states’ rights” (an argument contradicted by the actual case made for secession by the most ardent secessionists in 1860). But my teachers also taught that slavery and Jim Crow were wrong. They taught us that racism was evil. I won’t deny that I saw racism growing up, nor that there are some places in which teachers do whitewash American history. But, by and large, most teachers are trying to do their best to teach the American story in full – warts and all.
At the same time, many on the Right claim that the Left hates America and her history (and the loudest voices in the antiracist movement help them make that case).
But I’ve traveled in enough circles to have a large number of friends on the left side of the political aisle. I know leftists who will talk a great deal about all the bad things America has done. But at their best, most of them still have some natural patriotism and love for the ideals of America.
In truth, I think the majority of the American public would rather have the complicated story of American history rather than a dumbed-down version. They don’t want the simplified MAGA version, but they also don’t want the simplistic “America is the source of all that is evil” version peddled by the anti-patriotic Left.
I’m not actually seriously proposing a “1676 Project.” And I definitely wouldn’t suggest we use Bacon’s Rebellion as the “true founding” of the United States. Nor would I suggest that we use that single event as a framework through which to view all of the past 400+ years. But I do think it’s instructive and useful to note that – by combining half of 1619 with half of 1776, and by looking at what actually happened in 1676 – we can come to an understanding that both projects contain at least a little bit of truth.
History doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. It can be a both/and account. The false dichotomy of 1619 vs. 1776 forces Americans to choose between self-loathing and self-deception. But the reality of American history is not only more complicated, it’s richer and more satisfying. The more I learn about American history – warts and all – the prouder I am to be an American citizen.
Coda: A Brief Word on Which of the Two Projects is Closer to the Truth
If you must know, I think American history is more the story of 1776 than 1619, especially since much of the 1619 Project was baseless and ahistorical. But I also think the American story is definitely marked by failure. We’re a work in progress, an experiment. We’re constantly trying to improve, and that implies that we have to fail along the way to “forming a more perfect Union.” In fact, that very phrase implies imperfection, because it implies that we are not yet perfect and perhaps never will be. But in the spirit of 1776, we will always try to do better.
Some readers may quibble that “to form a more perfect Union” was written in 1789, not 1776. But the document written in 1789 was the best attempt by mankind to put into practice the ideals laid out in the document signed in 1776 which stated that “all men are created equal” and that all human beings were endowed with certain natural rights, among which are “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” So, I’ll rest my case that “the spirit of 1776” includes forming “a more perfect Union.”