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The Importance of 1776
A Follow-Up to the 1676 Thought Experiment
Earlier this year, I wrote a guest piece for Self-Evident in which I floated the trial balloon of a “1676 Project,” that combined the history of 1776 with the history of 1619 for a broader, more all-encompassing perspective on American history. I was being a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the argument I advanced left me (and others) a bit unsatisfied. Although I pointed out up front that I was dealing with the spirit behind both projects (and the best version of each, rather than the worst), rather than the letter, I still felt the need to correct the impression that piece left. I stand by what I wrote about American history being a complex story that contains both good and bad, and about the need to take the good with the bad.
But, upon further reflection, I wasn’t actually dealing with the spirit behind the 1619 Project. Because the spirit behind the 1619 Project was a lie. Had the 1619 Project merely focused on the truth of American slavery, rather than on fabricating, disseminating, ,and pushing falsehoods about it, perhaps it would have contributed to an interesting discussion about shining a light on the not-so-rosy aspects of American history.
Of course, that isn’t what the project did. It was premised on the assertion that the American Revolution was fought to preserve slavery. When this was shown to be demonstrably false by historians across the political spectrum, the New York Times stealth-edited the website to remove evidence for this premise, and the founder of the project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, prevaricated about ever asserting it.
Moreover, the 1619 Project was premised on the notion that Americans didn’t know enough about the worst aspects of their history, that schoolchildren weren’t being taught about slavery and Jim Crow. This was, as any intelligent person could tell you, nonsense. A couple decades ago, when I was in elementary school, we were spending months on slavery, Jim Crow, the Civil War, the Civil Rights era, abolition, and the complicated interactions between white settlers and Native Americans year after year. I’m sure millions of schoolchildren had similar experiences.
Finally, the other reason that I felt it was important for me to write a follow-up to the thought experiment was that I realized I did not make one important fact clear: when you take the entirety of American history, the good and the bad, the good still far outweighs the bad. Yes, sometimes the bad was really bad.
But the founding of the nation Lincoln called, “the last, best hope” for the human race, was one of the best things that ever happened to humanity. After centuries of religious wars, serfdom, desperate squalor, brutal oppression, barbarism, plague, chaotic violence, tribal squabbling, feudal infighting, and tremendous suffering, a group of human beings established a new nation that worked. It wasn’t perfect – but rarely in human history has a revolution not backfired tremendously into anarchic inquisitions, mob chaos, and tyranny worse than what had gone before. The American Revolution didn’t backfire.
The story of American history is the story of both 1776 and 1619, but it’s far more the story of 1776 than 1619 – and it isn’t even close.
The 1619 Project was Ahistorical
I won’t waste my time debunking the 1619 Project or pointing out its many factual and analytical errors. More serious scholars have already done that ad nauseum. I linked to a few in my earlier piece.
Many people know by now that the New York Times refuses to issue retractions or corrections (i.e., admit fault) for errors, as well as the fact that the impetus for the 1619 Project was a disingenuous attempt to rewrite American history through the lens of Critical Race Theory (yes, actual CRT, not the air-quotes variety we keep hearing about in credulous places).
To actually posit that 1619 is the most important date for understanding the American Republic is unserious. To argue that slavery is central and integral to American history, rather than an important and unfortunate blemish, is also unserious. And to discount the American Founding, as many Americans do today, is to commit a grave historical error.
Because in many ways, the American Founding still matters, and it matters more than the Middle Passage or the cotton gin.
The Founding was the Seminal Event
I’d argue that the American Founding ranks in the top ten most important events in the history of the human race. It’s easy to look around today and think that free societies just happen and “it was only a matter of time.” In 1776, those societies didn’t exist.
Whether we mark 1776 or 1789 (my preference), as the more important date, we can’t make the error of ignoring how truly revolutionary the Founding was. It was an experiment that attempted to do something never before successful in human history.
Just a few years later, the French Revolution, ostensibly fought for the liberal ideals of freedom, equality, and the brotherhood of mankind, resulted in some of the gravest depravity, tyranny, and crimes against humanity in the 18th century. Rather than succeeding in establishing a free society, the birthplace of Montesquieu devolved into despotism and mass murder. And that was before Napoleon.
Democracy, hitherto unknown in human society, was invented by the Greeks. But democracy often devolved into mob tyranny, and the history of Athens is the history of that devolution. A democratic people put Socrates to death because they didn’t like what he said (a point anti-First-Amendment types would do well to remember).
The Romans also had a great experiment in human liberty. Their Republic was, perhaps, a republic without liberalism, which translated to an oligarchy, but they still broke important ground in areas like the invention of a Senate and the hallowing of the rule of law. There was corruption and populism and slavery and torture and decadence and gladiatorial combat. But there was also Cincinnatus and Cato the Elder and Cato the Younger and Cicero and manumission and a belief that men were capable of self-government. Until 1776, Rome was the most successful republic in human history.
But the Roman Republic collapsed into an Empire. And though the Romans were committed to liberty and the rule of law, America achieved both on a far greater scale than Rome ever did.
While we shouldn’t worship the Founders as gods, neither should we pretend they weren’t giants. King George III said that if George Washington voluntarily relinquished the presidency (as Cincinnatus had relinquished dictatorship millennia earlier), he would be the greatest man in the world. Washington did.
Lin Manuel Miranda has done yeoman’s work educating a new generation about the goodness of Alexander Hamilton, the most important Founder who never held the presidency. But much as I appreciate what Hamilton did, my partiality is to James Madison. Of all the founders, Madison deserves a place in the canon of political philosophy. His constitutional democratic-republic represented a new form of government, hitherto unknown upon the Earth – one that combined the best of liberalism and the rule of law, republicanism and democracy, federalism and civic nationalism.
And as a graduate of the University of Virginia, I can’t help but admire Thomas Jefferson, the man who gave us the title of Justin’s newsletter, and the words, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Jefferson was a flawed man (like all of the Founders), and I certainly don’t agree with everything he wrote or said or did. But America wouldn’t be the nation that it is without Thomas Jefferson, and we owe him a debt of gratitude (especially all my fellow UVA alumni). Jefferson’s commitments to education, religious freedom, and the new nation shaped this country in deep ways. And, perhaps of all the Founders, Jefferson was a man deeply aware of his own sins. On the subject of slavery, he wrote, “I tremble for my country, when I reflect that God is just.”
John Adams took many actions as president that I condemn. But his willingness to represent in court the defendants (the British soldiers) after the Boston Massacre set an important precedent for the legal profession and civil liberties. His unpopular but selfless action helped enshrine due process and the right to counsel into the American political tradition.
While I disagree with many of the political stands that Patrick Henry took, he gave us the immortal words, “give me liberty, or give me death,” which stir the hearts of all red-blooded American patriots.
I could go on. Franklin, Jay, Hancock, and so many others (even Thomas Paine) deserve our respect. It wasn’t altogether clear in 1776 that a democratic-republic could survive. It wasn’t clear that the American Revolution wouldn’t devolve into tyranny and brutality.
But the American Founders made freedom work. Some assert today – against all available evidence – that liberalism failed, or that the Constitution was broken from the start.
But there is no perfection in human institutions, in human societies, or in human actions. We live in a world of flaws and imperfections, which is why the praise belongs to the doers of deeds – those who try, knowing they might fail, knowing their attempts will never be perfect, but who do the best they can – rather than the cold, timid critics.
Was the American Constitution perfect? No, but it contained within it the seeds for improvement. I would argue, as others have more rigorously than I ever could, that it was designed for the eventual removal of slavery. The word “slave” never appeared in the Constitution until the 13th Amendment was added. The Founders left the work unfinished, but they knew that it was better to put in place something that worked and could be revised than to hold out vain hope for human perfection upon Earth. They did what they could and left the work to men and women who were yet to come – for many of the most worthwhile tasks are those we take up from those who passed before and those we will pass on to those who come after us – men such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. and Fredrick Douglass, and women such as Susan B. Anthony and Sandra Day O’Connor and Rosa Parks. Madison and Hamilton sowed the seeds for the eventual removal of slavery, though they would not live to see it.
Now, I can already anticipate the objections rising in the minds of some readers. “But what about…?” they want to ask. To which I say, “I know.” Were there problems in the American Founding and its aftermath? Are there still problems, deep problems in America? Does America have sins, terrible sins?
Of course. Read that earlier piece I wrote. You’ll see that I’m not interested in whitewashing history. I believe we can have reverence without blinders. We can acknowledge the flaws and love America and its founding documents all the more, because all human endeavors are flawed.
I challenge the skeptics to name one institution or nation without flaws and sins. There are none. I challenge the critics to do, to attempt to build something even a hundredth as complex and difficult to establish as a new nation. Any fool can point out flaws. Few men and women succeed in building even a new club, let alone a new country.
By all means, we must teach about the bad and the evil in American history. Just like every society must know its shortcomings. If every society were to be judged by its worst crimes, all members of the human race would live in shame, self-loathing, and oikophobia.
That would be a terrible way to live. Leftists love to talk about natural emotions that right-wingers are supposedly repressing. But patriotism, or love of one’s homeland, is as natural to the human heart as almost anything else, and to deny that love would be a grave repression.
And luckily, we don’t have to live that way. Nor do we have to tell ourselves lies and myths about the Founding, or about the rest of our history, just to scratch that patriotic itch. All we have to do is look at the reality of it, and we will see that there is so much on the good side of America’s ledger that it outweighs the bad – and it’s myopic to suggest anything less.
Coda: But How Can the Founding be so Important if the Constitution Doesn’t Matter in 2022?
Because it does still matter in 2022.
I recognize that many on both Right and Left believe (or would like to believe) that the U.S. Constitution no longer matters, except as a piece of nostalgia. But they’re wrong. It would take a book to defend that statement, but those books have been written. In many ways, most of our problems today stem from the ways in which we have departed from fidelity to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, rather than from anything inherent to either.
Are those departures evidence that the Constitution no longer matters?
The Constitution defines the structure of the American government. Unconstitutional actions are readily recognizable as such – and even if they sometimes go unstopped, they do not go unnoticed or unchallenged. American presidents and legislatures have been overstepping their constitutionally prescribed bounds since shortly after the document was ratified, just as there have been people bending the rules of games since there have been rules and games. Madison – and many of the other Founders – knew that would happen. They weren’t fools. They didn’t seek to control all actions of Americans for all time to come, but to guide and shape the structure of the government in which those actions would be channeled.
On that score, they have been remarkably successful. Does the Constitution still matter? Of course, it does. The Congress, the Courts, and the Executive Branch still recognizably take the shape given them by the U.S. Constitution. Challenges – from the Wilson administration to the Civil War to Donald Trump’s utter disregard for the rule of law (including on January 6th, 2021) – have been successfully overcome whenever they have arisen. Departures from the Constitution are often temporary, and in time those errors are often corrected. The correction comes, as it always does, from within the system, not from without.
Because the goal was never to prevent all departures or all illiberal government actions for all time. The goal was to create a system in which such things could be dealt with and remedied.
And that has been exactly what has happened.
Ben Connelly is the author of “Grit: A Practical Guide to Developing Physical and Mental Toughness.” He is a writer, long-distance runner, and former engineer. He publishes a weekly newsletter called Grit in a Free Society, and puts out four short stories and two essays each month on his Substack, Hardihood Books.