President of the National Association of Scholars Peter Wood writes about what makes a nation and tells us that contrary to modern conceit America Isn’t Make-Believe. This is a little bit of a longer entry, so I’ve left here early on Saturday morning for your weekend perusal.
What is a nation? The no-sooner-established-by-President-Trump-than-abolished-by-Presidient-Biden “President’s Advisory 1776 Commission” understandably by-passed this question in its initial report. The report deals with a particular nation—our own—and had enough to do without entering the deeper thicket. But what is a nation?
In his 1983 book, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, the political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson proposed what has become the most popular answer among social scientists. A “nation,” in Anderson’s view, is a kind of myth. People imagine a community, larger than any actual community, and imagine themselves part of it.
This doesn’t happen by accident, says Anderson. Their imaginations are stirred by people who have something to gain by persuading people that a large collective “we” exists, where in reality people are truly connected by networks and small face-to-face social units. The folks who manipulate us into believing in nations were once the revolutionaries who were intent on overthrowing the kings. But in time, scheming capitalists saw the advantages of creating larger markets by manufacturing national identity.
Anderson’s idea has built-in appeal to post-modern intellectuals who see the purchase in brand positioning as “citizens of the world” rather than as citizens rooted in a particular nation. It also has a magnetic charm to those whom we might call “post-Americans,” who wander around as deracinated individuals and who define themselves by likes and dislikes instead of any core set of commitments.
If America is just an “imagined community,” we can choose to imagine it any way we want to, or even not at all. We could, for example, imagine it as a 400-year-old system of racial supremacy. That’s the narrative that Nikole Hannah-Jones and the New York Times have put on sale in the 1619 Project. That the historical claims in that Project are preposterously false is not an obstacle. It may even be an asset—a way of liberating believers from the tyranny of facts. The imagined community need only stir the willingness to believe. It need not rest on foundations of actual fact. Sophisticated people know, or at least “know,” that history itself is just story-telling, replete with events that never really happened.
The 1619 Story
Hannah-Jones does not mention the “imagined community” conceit, but she deploys it by describing the ideals of America as “false when they were written.” That is, America’s founders hoodwinked people into believing they were a nation because their real intent was to establish a durable race-based tyranny.
Whether Hannah-Jones sees her own history-telling (which she has now demoted to “a narrative”) as laying the foundation for a different “imagined community” is a perplexing question. She has sometimes written strident assertions that her account is based on real facts, but she has also played fast and loose with well-established facts and altered her own account as convenient. At one point she claimed on PBS that “our fact checkers went back to panels of historians and had them go through every single argument and every single fact that is in here…. So it’s really not something that you can dispute with facts.” This is demonstrably false. One of those fact checkers, Northwestern University history professor Leslie M. Harris came forward in March 2020 to explain that she had informed The Times in advance of publication that Hannah-Jones’s assertion about the cause of the American Revolution was flatly false, and Hannah-Jones and The Times declined to correct it.
In short, Hannah-Jones granted herself the license to tell the stories she believed to be useful, including the story that her assertions had passed rigorous inspection. This is the inevitable destination of all imaginers of community. They offer stories that are meant to sound plausible even if they are wholly or mostly fictions, because those kinds of stories give them a shortcut to power.
Anderson’s idea, despite its popularity with the intellectual Left, is flimsy. Real communities often have charter myths, but such myths buttress underlying commonalities, interests, and ideals. Romulus and Remus play their part in imagining the origins of the ancient city of Rome, but Romans from the earliest days of the republic had a well-developed civic identity rooted in concrete practices and particular mores. (Many centuries later, the citizens of Rome would have to work harder to conceive what gave the sprawling Roman Empire, surfeit with subgroups, a cohesive identity. Even still, an answer was at hand: Roman law.)
Nations, like almost any human social unit—tribes or clans, for example—defy easy and neat definition. So too with ethnicity. Consider the idea of a “tribe.” What counts as a “tribe” in Madagascar differs considerably from what counts as a tribe in the Amazon. Tribe, after all, derives from a Latin word that itself acknowledges the multiplicity (at least tres) of people living near Rome (Latins, Volsci, Hernici, etc.). It certainly does not denote some form of social organization that happened to apply to the rest of humanity. If we ask how communities actually organized themselves, the answers are bewilderingly diverse. Tribe is no more than a convenient placeholder word for a bunch of people whose sense of themselves and whose manner of governance is a blank until we get down to details.
Likewise with “ethnicity,” “nationhood,” and other such concepts. We need to examine not just what makes them distinct from one another right now, but how they originally realized and built upon the possibilities of some kind of unity or commonality. For example, many nations trace themselves to a conquest or a series of conquests, with a founding king. France, England, and Spain offer origin stories of this sort. The United States, by contrast, frames itself as a unity achieved by a revolution against a king.
This might seem too obvious to warrant my emphasis, but it is apparently not obvious enough to prevent many modern Americans from stumbling over its implications. After all, our rebellion against a kingly power was our common liberation from a vast reservoir of culture and custom. We began not with a Romulus and Remus, or a Norman invasion, or a war to expel the Saracens, but with a decision to break with a good portion of the history of civilization—a history that frowned on self-governing republics.
This is where the United States, We the People, came in. We collectively defined ourselves in opposition not just to a British king (and more generally the divine right of kings), but to a whole social order. America was born from recognition of an emerging collective identity—and out of “self-evident truths” that were not yet self-evident to much of the rest of the world. Smart as Thomas Jefferson and the other founders were, they were hardly able to sell the inhabitants of the thirteen English colonies in North America on a self-evident lie, i.e., imagining themselves into a unity that had no basis in fact. Imagination counts for something, but it must discover and work with what is real.
Jefferson fully owned this when he wrote to Henry Lee in 1825 that the object of the Declaration of Independence was not “originality of principle or sentiment,” but to find an “expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All it’s [sic] authority rests on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, & c.”
Stirring the imaginations of Americans to recognize and act on the facts of common interest and shared identity was the work of the Revolution, but the “American mind” had already been formed by common experience.
The 1776 Report, issued by President Trump’s 1776 Commission on January 18, reflects this fact-based understanding of history. The report, however, was not long for this world. Two days after its issuance, on the day of President Biden’s inauguration, Biden abolished the Commission and de-commissioned the report from the White House website. It has been archived in the documents of the former administration and re-posted in several places (including the website of my own organization, the National Association of Scholars), so it has not simply disappeared.
I understand that the Commission intends to carry on its work in the private sector, perhaps under a modified name. Its forty-page report, after all, is more a preface to the work at hand than a final statement. It begins by saying that the Commission’s “first responsibility” is to summarize “the principles of the American founding, and how those principles have shaped our country.” And so it does, in spare, lucid, and only lightly argumentative prose. Three appendices, on faith, identity politics, and teaching are presented in a more disputatious tone, but the document as whole speaks with quiet confidence about what America is and where it came from.
One might not know that from reading accounts in the press. Kevin Kruse, writing for MSNBC, opined that “The Trump administration’s thinly-veiled rebuke of ‘The 1619 Project’ is a sloppy, racist mess.” Slate declared, “Trump’s ‘1776 Report’ Would Be Funny if It Weren’t so Dangerous.” The Daily Beast headlined, “Trump Admin Compares Racial Justice Activists to Slavery Apologists.” CNN wailed, “Trump Administration Issues Racist School Curriculum Report on MLK Day.”
One New York Times headline, by contrast, sounded almost sober: “The Ideas in Trump’s 1776 Commission Report Have Long Circulated on the Right.” But the first sentence in the article castigates the report for lacking “input of any professional historians of the United States” and for eschewing a bibliography. This is no doubt the Times winking at readers who remember that its 1619 Project lacked both professional historians and a bibliography.
It is a comparison the Times would be well-advised to avoid. The 1776 Commission included eminent scholars such as Larry Arnn, Victor Davis Hanson, and Charles Kesler, and its named sources include Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Cicero, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Karl Marx, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Frederick Douglass, and Ronald Reagan, among others. This report was written primarily by political scientists. It does not pretend to be history, as does 1619, or anthropology. It might be criticized for the paucity of the latter.
Various left-leaning historians joined in savaging the report. A roundup of their jibes can be found on Wikipedia, which is a fitting repository for them. A sample:
James Grossman, the executive director of the AHA, criticized Trump’s push for so-called “patriotic education,” writing that genuinely patriotic history is a rigorous effort to study the past honestly and acknowledge complexity, rather than “cheerleading”; “nationalist propaganda”; or “simplistic and inaccurate narrative of unique virtue and perpetual progress.” Grossman described the 1776 Commission’s report as “a hack job” that was “not a work of history,” but of “cynical politics.” Grossman said, “This report skillfully weaves together myths, distortions, deliberate silences, and both blatant and subtle misreading of evidence to create a narrative and an argument that few respectable professional historians, even across a wide interpretive spectrum, would consider plausible, never mind convincing.”
Let me seize Grossman’s inadvertent compliment, “skillfully weaves.” It is something to ponder that a “hack job” is also an act of skillful weaving. But it is hard to extract much from the eructation of people like Grossman, who as executive director of the American Historical Association has remained steadfastly mum about the historical validity of the 1619 Project—which of course has had vastly more publicity and reach than the 1776 Commission’s report.
I will let the critics in the popular media and in the stagnant ponds of academe rest where they are. The report itself, however, deserves some attention, both for what it says and what it doesn’t say.
The True Report
The 1776 Report runs twenty pages and has four appendices that add another 20. In view of its brevity, I would have thought a summary unnecessary. But clearly some readers, including some highly educated ones, have struggled with the text. So here is the extra-condensed version. The report notes that Americans today are “deeply divided about the meaning of their country, its history, and how it should be governed.” But “the facts of our founding are not partisan.” Read the actual record and you will discover Americans have “ever pursued freedom and justice.” Of course we have made mistakes along the way. True American history is “the story of this ennobling struggle.”
America is a nation like other nations, but it has some unusual features. First of all, it is a “republic,” which historically is a fragile form of government. Knowing that, our founders took steps to counteract the forces that make republics typically fail. An important and original “step” was the separation of church and state. America is also unusual in having been founded on principles that its founders held to be “applicable to all men and all times”—those being Lincoln’s words. And, unlike most foundings, details of the American founding are well documented. Unlike most countries, our founding is a big part of our national identity.
We can pause here to observe that all the points I have summarized can be and in fact are disputed by the partisan Left. Even the idea that we are “deeply divided” can be shunted aside by sneering at those who dissent from the Left’s preferred narrative as ignorant folks whose views don’t warrant inclusion in the coming “Unity.” Are the facts of the founding nonpartisan? Replies the Left, there are no such things as “facts”; the founding is open to all sorts of interpretations. It could be seen, for example, as yet another effort of highly privileged white men to gain even more privilege. “Freedom and justice” were merely rhetorical flourishes intended to distract people from the real agenda of those oligarchs.
This post-modernist rejection of the founding ideals—the thesis that our received history is mostly myth—is one way of reading the 1619 Project. But given Hannah-Jones’ assertions about her accuracy, it is possible to read the 1619 Project as simply a profoundly mistaken account of our history. The ambiguity is in the original and may well be baked into the criticisms of the 1776 Report as well.
The report does little to defend itself against these sorts of cynical dismissals. That is a wise tactical move. Anticipating and answering the pseudo-sophisticated jibes of Marxists and post-modernists would only have diverted the 1776 Commission from its purpose, “to enable a rising generation to understand the history and principles of the founding of the United States in 1776 and to strive to form a more perfect Union.” The real problem is that a significant number of Americans now simply have no interest in that history, those principles, and a more perfect Union. What do they want? If it’s the 1619 Project, what they want is a newly invented history that rejects the significance of the founding and the republic as fatally flawed constructs, and dreams of a more complete Union imposed from above, by the experts, rather than perfected in the hearts and minds of everyday Americans.
There follow some key points in the report: that the U.S. made Americans citizens, rather than subjects; that the new country had a large share of common ethnicity and religion but chose not to make ethnic identity or religious affiliation central; in other words, that America’s founding was not, unlike that of virtually every other country in the world, based on blood and soil. Rather it was built on a principle—all men are equal—that the founders made into their nation’s core assertion. They built on the established idea that civil law and religious law were separate, still protecting religious freedom; they upheld the “rule of law;” they conceived that the role of federal government should be limited to performing those tasks that only a national government can do. The founders understood they had guard against both the tyranny of the government and the tyranny of the majority of the people. To these ends, they included a series of protections for those in the minority (most notably in the Bill of Rights) and established “separation of powers” achieved by “checks and balances” among the branches of government.
Back to Basics
In other words the 1776 Report offers what not so long ago was a basic primer on the American Founding. It doesn’t say anything that would have challenged the intellect of an average middle school student—which is a point some of its critics, including on the Right, hold against it. They ignore that this average middle school student I conjure would not have been subject to seven or eight years of contemporary dis-education that emphasizes above all the need to combat global warming and to pursue social justice initiatives. For our actual middle school students—indeed, most of our college graduates —this primer might almost have been ancient Greek.
Page ten of the report begins a chapter on “Challenges to America’s Principles”: slavery, progressivism, fascism, Communism, and racial and identity politics. The arguments set forth under these headings are nothing novel. They are crisp and compelling. The last of them bears special emphasis. “Identity politics” is to be seen as a new form of “explicit group privilege,” and is a “stepchild of earlier rejections of the founding.” As a consequence, it makes “racial reconciliation and healing” less likely.
Imagined, Invented, or Recognized?
In drafting the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson drew on a body of learning, including historical, philosophical, and political thought far above the level of most of his countrymen. The educations of the men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1776 for the Continental Congress could have set them apart from their compatriots, but the founders chose instead to put their learning in service of the common cause. They were able to put into refined words the prevailing sentiments of ordinary Americans. When the Declaration was written they were counting on the power of these new words to help crystalize America’s national identity out of the shared resentments, beliefs, and aspirations of colonists who were not yet formally a nation.
That is where the idea of “imagined community” comes into play. Were Jefferson and the others just imagining? Or were they molding into political shape a national identity that had already emerged but not fully defined itself? The question is pertinent today because so many post-Americans are busy trying to talk us out of our national identity.
“Nationalism” is now seen as a destructive ideology, next-door to or perhaps cohabitating with “fascism.” Our would-be liberators hold that the Declaration and the Constitution are instruments of tyranny, and that taking them seriously poses a grave threat to the kind of wise, benevolent government that the experts are earnestly trying to “deliver” for us. A nation, after all, has borders and other kinds of boundaries. If it is a republic, it expects its citizens to take responsibility for electing its leaders and helping to shape its laws. These are unquestionable goods in the eyes of those who uphold the teaching of the American Founding, but they are obstacles to progress in the eyes of those who are eager to move us into a new historical epoch.
What that epoch would look like is hard to say. Biden, in his first steps as president, gave us some hints. He abolished the 1776 Commission. He announced steps to open our borders to illegal immigrants and to offer citizenship to 11 million illegals already here. He decided that “transgendered” individuals would have novel legal rights. He cancelled a major oil pipeline project. He said he would re-open America’s participation in the Paris Climate Accord. These may sound like a grab bag of leftist policies, but all of them lean heavily against the sense of American identity. Thus they are all of a piece with the Left’s project to restructure our national identity, our traditional way of life shared by the 74 million or so nationalistic Trump supporters—and, I suspect, many others.
In his September 2020 speech announcing the creation of the 1776 Commission, Trump evoked the need for “patriotic” education. Biden and his fellow travelers believe patriotism works against the Left’s project. The word “patriotic” elicited hoots from leftist intellectuals, but it didn’t go down easily with conservative intellectuals either, who tend to see “patriotism” as too crude a form of nationalist sentiment. It evokes flag-waving and enthusiastic crowds rather than thoughtful essays (like this one!).
But Trump surely hit the right chord. Americans who see themselves as part of the American nation, and not as citizens of the world or as participants in the great post-national flux, do indeed look for spirited patriotism, not just enunciations of an abstract creed. A national identity is felt as much as it is thought. This feeling scares those whose identity rests on feeling themselves to be thinkers. They don’t know how to control those who do have it. And so they resort to thuggish techniques to shut it down.
The new social media censorship, the Nationally Guarded inauguration, the withering scorn visited on anyone who mentions election irregularities are all parts of this anti-patriot agenda. They are also excellent reasons why Americans who do love their country, and are not ashamed to wave a flag now and then should read the 1776 Report carefully. It is subversive literature—the kind of thing that circulated in the years before the revolution that gave the Declaration of Independence an audience, one which understood and welcomed that birthday of Freedom.