What’s Next for 1776 Commission and the Fight to Preserve US History

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One of President Joe Biden’s very first executive actions was to disband the 1776 Commission and remove the commission’s report from the White House website. 

Mike Gonzalez, a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and member of President Donald Trump’s Advisory 1776 Commission, joins the show to explain the purpose of the new report and why Biden was so quick to discredit it.

Read the full report here.

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Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.

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Virginia Allen: I am joined by Mike Gonzalez, Heritage Foundation senior fellow in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy and a member of President [Donald] Trump’s 1776 advisory commission. Mike, thanks so much for being here.

Mike Gonzalez: Virginia, it’s always a pleasure to be on with you on these podcasts.

Allen: Oh, thank you. It’s such a pleasure to have you back. The 1776 Commission and the report you all just released Monday has received a lot of attention.

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We’re going to get into President [Joe] Biden’s action against the commission in just a moment, but for anyone who’s not familiar with the commission or the report, could you just explain a little bit about President Trump and why he specifically created the 1776 Commission at the end of 2020?

Gonzalez: Sure, he created it in November and we were selected sometime in December. And the purpose of the commission was to restore the teaching of history to its proper role throughout America, not just at the school level, but as a civic engagement of all Americans.

And the reason for that is, we’re very open about it, is that the left has been using history as just another instrument in order to advance its purposes to the left, especially the culturally Marxist left.

There is no fundamental truth. The way we are taught history is just one narrative that can be replaced with another narrative. So there’s no transcendent truth. Facts did not happen.

It’s just in the telling of the facts and what they would call the hegemonic narrative can be replaced and ousted by a counternarrative, and that is not really the proper use of history.

Facts are bipartisan and nonpartisan things happened, bad things happened, good things happened.

By looking at what we, as a commission and in the report proposed, is looking at the primary sources, looking at the Constitution, looking at the declaration, looking at the Federalist Papers, the Northwest Ordinance, all the important documents, looking at the letters that were written at the time, the speeches, what the Founders said in analyzing that.

And of course we can have a debate about what these things mean, and we have to be humble about that. Historians should be humble about how to debate historical facts, but the thing that cannot be had is a political agenda.

History is very important. History is to a nation what memory is to an individual. And we can imagine how dislocated we would be if we were to wake up one morning and not have any memory of who we are or where we came from.

Allen: So really in an effort to remind the American people of our history, of that, of where we have come from, the commission released a report on Monday.

I don’t know if President Biden read the report, but I don’t think that he’d even taken the oath of office yet before the report was pulled down from the White House website and then President Biden announced shortly after he was sworn in that he would be disbanding the commission.

Why do you think Biden took these actions?

Gonzalez: Yeah, so, it was amazingly quick. It was lightening. …

And early this morning, I got up really early. I’m working on another book and I was reviewing an interview that Angela Davis had with Alicia Garza, the founder of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Angela Davis, of course, is a communist. She’s still a communist member of the Communist Party USA who was in prison in the ’70s as a Black Panther and she’s a strong influence on Black Lives Matter. …

The interview took place just three days after Trump’s inauguration in 2017. And she was telling … Alicia Garza the reason he won is because the other candidate, by whom she meant Hillary Clinton, was not seen as properly expressing the views of your movement, the views of the new movement, meaning … the Black Lives Matter movement.

And I think Biden, who was vice president then, rather just prior, I think he’s internalized this and he’s given every indication that he is going to side with the very extreme, woke left in his party for the reasons that Angela Davis spoke of.

Allen: Well, that’s certainly disturbing to hear you say that. If you had the opportunity to sit down with President Biden, even this afternoon, and talk with him about the work of the commission, why it’s so important to our nation, about the report, what would you want to tell him?

Gonzalez: Yeah, I don’t know Joe Biden, I’ve never been in a room with him I don’t think. My very first column as a journalist, my first opinion column in 1987, was about Joe Biden. And I still have it in the drawer of my desk right here at home. But I have an impression of him as actually an amiable guy. I don’t think he probably has a single woke bone in his body, just Irish Catholic guy from Pennsylvania.

I’d love to have a beer with Biden. I don’t agree with his policies, I don’t think I’ve ever agreed with a single thing he’s done, but I would love to sit with him and try to explain to him why having a nonpartisan approach to history, not viewing history as a cudgel to change America, to change our future, to take over history and change the narrative of history in order to change our future, why that is so important and why he may believe that it is politically intelligent for him to do so, but it would be very bad for the country.

Allen: So considering what we’ve seen from President Biden so far, do you think it’s possible that he’s going to create his own commission to look at America’s history? Do you expect liberals, including lawmakers, to make any moves to promote their views of history in the near future?

Gonzalez: He doesn’t need to do that. The left has already done that. The left has done that with the 1619 Project of The New York Times, which is the very epitome of what I have been describing, this attempt by the left to take over history, change it according to its likes so it can change our future.

In the case of the of the 1619 Project, it’s an interpretation of history by looking at all the worst things of America and believing that this is who we are, that America does not begin in 1776 when the declaration is signed or does not begin with the Constitution when it’s ratified in 1788 or drafted, framed, as we put it, in ’87, but it begins in 1619 when the first group of Africans arrive on a pirate ship to what is now Virginia, and that all of our history since then has been about slavery and it is still the central issue of our time. And that is just not the case.

The 1619 Project, which is the equivalent of the 1776 Commission for Biden, actually claimed, began to claim that the Revolution was waged because they thought that Britain, the colonial power, was going to take away the slaves and the power of Southern colonies to have slaves.

And then they have to pull back from that because they came under withering criticism from historians of all sides.

Before the 1619 Project, you have Howard Zinn with his very influential “The People’s History of the United States,” published in 1980. And it’s still one of the top selling books on Amazon.

And Howard Zinn is just not a historian, he’s a fabulist, he makes up stuff there. [There] isn’t a single footnote in his book.

So Biden has no need to create this because all of this has been created for the left by the left already.

Allen: And so much of the purpose of the commission and of the 1776 report is really to do exactly that, to push back on the narrative of the 1619 Project, to say, “Wait a minute, we need to look at what we’re teaching our kids in school. We need to look at this radical left agenda, where it’s coming from, what the effects are that it would have on our nation.”

So going back to the report for a moment, could you just explain a little bit further of what exactly is in this report and what the 18 members of the commission were really seeking to achieve by creating this report?

Gonzalez: We were just trying to give a forthright nonpartisan view of history—what happened, describe the ideals that pushed men such as Jefferson and Madison and Washington to create the constitutional republic that we now call home, talk about the compromises they had to make, the horrible compromises they had to make, slavery being the most important one.

But also explaining, as Abraham Lincoln said in the Third Debate with Stephen Douglas, that neither the Founders nor any of the people of the United States in the 1770s or in 1780s believed that slavery would still be around in the mid-19th century.

And the reason [for] that … is because the Southern slave owners understood the threat inherent in the ideals of the declaration and the rights defended by the Constitution.

And they set out starting in the 1820s, or even earlier, to really try to undo all of that, just like they un-did the Northwest Ordinance and its prohibition on the importation of the institution of slavery to the new territories and the new states. That goes away with the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and so forth.

So we get to a point where this can hold no longer. And that point is obviously 1861, and the states seceding and the beginning of the horrible war that cost 600,000 lives. So that is really what we want to describe what this is about.

And we also go ahead and describe identity politics, to which I myself devoted a book, “The Plot to Change America,” which was published in July, and unfortunately selling quite well. I say unfortunately because although I like my book is selling well, it is selling well because our nation erupted into violence and riots in the summer of 2020.

So we also describe identity politics and things like that, modern things that are taking place, contemporary things, not just history.

Allen: And those who make up the 18-member commission, it’s a really powerful group of individuals. … Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, he’s the chair of the commission. Carol Swain is the vice chair.

Victor David Hanson, who writes a number of pieces on The Daily Signal website, is also on the commission and is a historian. And I want to read just a piece of what he wrote about the report in his recent column for The Daily Signal.

He writes, “The report does not whitewash the continuance of many injustices after 1776 and 1787, in particular, chattel slavery centered in the South and voting reserved only for free males.”

So how did the report handle America’s past mistakes and failures, especially on the issue of slavery? Could you just speak to that a little bit more?

Gonzalez: Sure, one of the attempts to explain is that, obviously, the Founders in ’76 believed that if they had said, “No, we must remain consistent with our principles, the principles we have stated. And none of the 13 colonies once we have liberated ourselves from Britain can continue to have slaves,” if they had said that, if the Northern colonies, as they wanted to, had said that, the Southern colonies would not have waged war, would not have united themselves with the Northern colonies.

That is the reason why the Northerners accepted what the Southern colonies insisted upon. But we do strive to demonstrate that they believed that this was going to be solved very, very quickly.

For example, the people who say, “Well, the Constitution enables slavery,” but the Constitution actually, Madison goes out of his way to make sure that the word “slave” or “slavery” are not mentioned in the Constitution. So he uses euphemisms and he states clearly that he does not want to honor this institution by mentioning it in the Constitution.

Jefferson, likewise, in his first draft of the declaration, is very strong against slavery. And then that is taken out in the editing again, because you had Southern colonists who insisted on this and the men who were leading the Revolution, who wanted to lead the Revolution, needed to eject Britain from North America, or at least from the 13 colonies.

Allen: And despite the fact that the report does point these things out and, at least in my view, I think creates a very balanced view of history, not denying the sins of the past, but also saying, “OK, how can we move forward?”, the report has still received a lot of criticism from the left.

CNN called it racist. The New York Times said that there were no historians on the commission. What’s your response to the criticism that the report has received?

Gonzalez: That is untrue. Victor Davis Hanson is a historian. He’s a classical historian. And that CNN article that you referenced, I actually went right away on social media and tweeted at the author.

It is a tenant of journalism that if you make a claim in the headline or the lead, it should be backed up somewhere in the body of the article, but the body of the article makes no attempt at pointing out where there’s any racism in the report. It was astonishing to me to read that.

And I just think even the AP report that I saw today— you know, the wires used to be a place, I’ve worked in the wires in my day, I used to be a journalist, where you could just get the straight facts and that is just no longer the case.

Allen: Yeah, it has been wild to see the response has been so vocal and oppositional from the left to this report. I think it’s very telling.

I think most Americans can agree on the fact that facts don’t change. History is history. What has happened has happened. Where the disagreement and the contention really comes is in the perception and the interpretation of those events.

So, Mike, how do you respond to those who say we’ve been interpreting American history and the founding wrong?

Gonzalez: Well, I think interpretation can only go so far and you need to produce evidence. And if you’re going to make a claim—such as the 1619 Project does—that the main goal of the Founders was to preserve slavery, you do need to have a document where they discuss this. And there is none, there is no evidence.

Nowhere do any of the Founders say this, nowhere in the newspaper articles at the time is any of this discussed.

So you have to go to the primary sources and produce evidence. You have to produce evidence in court and you have to produce evidence in history. And when the left does this, when Howard Zinn does this, they don’t feel like, as I said, Howard Zinn does not have footnotes.

Allen: Yeah. So how do we move forward? We’re seeing this battle between the far left, with things like the 1619 Project and now this wonderful report presented by the 1776 Commission. Do you think we’re going to continue to see this pitched battle between the left and the right over history?

Gonzalez: Oh my God, yes. I think that the left, this horrendous event that took place [Jan. 6] where a violent mob attacked our Capitol, now the left is going to use this to drive their agenda forward and to try to repress any hint of not just conservatism, but anything that is center lane or in the center of the spectrum or not sufficiently hard left.

So I think that we’re going to have to really dig and defend the truth. We’re going to have to defend American values, American principles against an onslaught from a left that now feels that [it] has got all the levers of power and that it can do anything it wants.

Allen: So what, ultimately, I guess, is at stake and specifically in the classroom? When we look at what is being taught to our students, what curriculum is being promoted, what are your thoughts on how we move forward on that front?

Gonzalez: I think that these battles are waged locally. We don’t want to have a national curriculum like some countries do. … The Constitution does not have education as a federal matter. It is really not just a matter for the 50 states, it’s a matter for the 14,000 school boards that we have in the country.

And that makes it hard because you have to have 14,000 strategies, and the hard left is content to have one strategy. They do want to have a national curriculum and one that makes Americans hold their country and the finding documents in contempt. But we don’t want to have as a solution a national curriculum. …

Look, already educators, people forming study groups have already contacted me because I’m doing a lot of media on the 1776 Commission. And hopefully what we’ll see is people sharing this and using it as a study guide.

If you’re a parent and you see that your child is taught Howard Zinn, as two of my three kids have been—and the other one has not been taught Howard Zinn yet because he’s still in middle school, but he will be soon taughtHoward Zinn as he enters the latter years of middle school—if history is any guide, you have to contact the teacher, as I have, and point this out.

And the teachers know because you’re not the first parent who’s picked up the phone and asked, “What the heck is this?”

Allen: Yeah, well, I’m glad that you’re one of those parents, Mike, who is picking up the phone and calling. Being involved is so important.

For the future of the commission, even though President Biden has just disband[ed] the commission, Dr. Larry Arnn, he’s the chairman of the commission, he says your work is going to continue. So what are the next steps?

Gonzalez: Well, we’re talking about that just now. It hasn’t been 24 hours yet. As we said, we’re going to continue to meet. And we’re hosting the report.

In one of its first acts, the Biden administration stripped the commission’s report from the White House website. It’s an amazing display of where the priorities are. So what we did is we moved it to The Heritage Foundation, where we’re very proud that it can be downloaded for free, Heritage.org, or people can also go to Hillsdale College, they have it too, but they can see it on our website.

Look, this is going to be a very long battle. As I said, I wrote a book, “The Plot to Change America,” on this. And I will continue to write about this, and that’s us individually, but as commissioners, hopefully, we will continue to meet, yes, and pursue our work.

Allen: We’ll be sure to put the link in today’s show notes for the full report, where you can find it on The Heritage Foundation website, as well as a link to Mike’s book, “The Plot to Change America.” Mike Gonzalez, thank you so much for joining us today.

Gonzalez: It’s entirely, as always, always, always, a pleasure. Thank you.

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