Within hours of being sworn in as US president last week, Joe Biden scrapped Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission. Rarely has an executive reversal been more richly earned.
Mr Trump launched the body — named for the year the American colonies declared independence from Britain — shortly before the election in an attempt to shift voters’ focus on to America’s culture wars amid a pandemic he failed to contain. His stated goal was to promote teaching of “the miracle of American history”. His real one was to stoke outrage about the left’s focus on the legacy of slave ownership. He believed that if the election could be more about the Black Lives Matter protests than Covid-19, he might have a chance. The gambit failed.
The US now has a president whose overriding priority is to defeat the pandemic. But racial injustice is at the heart of how Mr Biden views coronavirus, and much else. This may tempt him to follow the abolition of what he has called the “offensive, counterfactual” 1776 Commission by endorsing what is seen as its opposite — the 1619 project. That series of articles, which brought the New York Times a Pulitzer Prize, argues that historians should date the US’s founding from the year slaves first arrived on its shores.
These are irreconcilable narratives. One sees America as essentially good; the other as mostly bad. The choice is between seeing history as glory or gory. This is no academic matter. When countries re-litigate what happened yesterday, they debate who owns tomorrow. As countries such as India can attest, history wars often turn lethal.
There can be little dispute that the 1776 Commission’s account of US history is a whitewash. In a report published on Martin Luther King Day — two days before Mr Trump left office — the commission depicted America’s founding fathers as flawless individuals who wrote an unimprovable constitution. The 41-page report, written almost entirely by non-historians, contained no footnotes. It attributed the philosophical origin of leftwing “identity politics” to John Calhoun, a mid-19th century slave-owning senator. Its list of threats to democracy also grouped America’s early 20th century progressive movement with Italian fascism. From an academic point of view, it did not pass the laugh test.
There is nothing laughable about the 1619 Project. It is a detailed effort to re-evaluate America’s history that has sparked debate among accredited historians. But its explanation for the war of independence had factual errors and made the highly contentious argument that it was provoked by Britain’s plans to abolish slavery. Still, the project’s basic case — that slavery is entwined in America’s story from the start and its legacy remains today — is hard to dispute.
Conservatives see the 1619 narrative as a threat to America’s exceptionalist creed and something to exploit. The country’s demographic trajectory is unstoppable — it is set to become a majority-minority country within a quarter of a century. There is nothing Republicans can do about that. But they can tap the US electorate’s deep patriotism if the Democrats make missteps.
Five years from now, the US will mark the 250th anniversary of its declaration of independence from Britain. By then, it is conceivable that celebrating 1776 will be as loaded as honouring Christopher Columbus. Many now refer to the day named after the explorer as Indigenous Peoples’ Day owing to the Europeans’ catastrophic effect on the Americas (chiefly via smallpox).
By 2026, will America’s left have renamed Independence Day as Slavery Day? To raise that possibility is to highlight the debate’s incendiary potential. That is one reason Mr Biden should avoid it. There are two more. The first is he has his hands full with governing. In his first week, Mr Biden issued a record number of executive orders. Within his first 100 days, he wants to make inroads into four overlapping emergencies — the pandemic, the economic crisis, global warming and racial injustice. Mr Trump mistook gesture politics for governing. Mr Biden should not. The best thing he can do for America’s minorities, especially African-Americans, is to focus on economic security and criminal justice reform.
The second reason is that Mr Biden is not a historian. Nor is the Republican party. Some suggest Mr Biden should set up a presidential commission on US history. That could help defuse the tension. A better course would be to leave the debate to others. If there is one thing on which 1776-ers and 1619-ers might agree, it is that the US government is not equipped to study history — let alone teach it.