The 1776 Commission’s approach to American slavery

The 1776 Report’s call for “restoring patriotic education” (Report, p. 16) is a positive initiative to reverse the growing divide in America. Unfortunately, calling it an “illusion that slavery was somehow a uniquely American evil” oversimplifies the complex history of America and the transatlantic slave trade (Report, p. 10). The report factually states that “the institution of slavery has been more the rule than the exception throughout human history” but proposes a degraded context for key American social and political practices (Report, p. 10). As an ethnically diverse global superpower pursuing freedom for people worldwide, teaching a history that justifies why “neither America nor any other nation has perfectly lived up to the universal truths of equality, liberty, justice, and government by consent” (Report, p. 1) falls short of America’s high international status. This underlies the contention with the report’s proposal to educate its citizens through narrow historical interpretation.  

The report’s labeling of critics as “prey to the false theories that have led to many nations to tyranny” amplifies that contention (Report, p. 16).  That insinuation implies that embracing the history of American slavery somehow conveys disloyalty to the ideals of the United States. This contradicts my experiences during two decades in uniform “defending the fundamental truths of human liberty” of America, navigating the impact of its influence in Caribbean, Latin American and other nations (Report, p. 1). It also challenges my lived experience in a home where cultural tensions between a matriarchal Afro-Caribbean Black British immigrant and a patriarchal descendent of American slaves were evident. Foreign officials often ask pointed questions about “the Black perspective” of American values, either to refine domestic policies impacting their indigenous or marginalized populations or to hypocritically criticize America’s model of freedom and liberty. In both cases, the most effective answers require historically comprehensive and individually authentic foundations. 

A survey of slavery via museums, libraries and historic sites in key hubs in Jamaica, Haiti and Brazil reveals facts relevant to America’s history often omitted from an “accurate history of how the permanent principles of America’s founding have been challenged and preserved since 1776” (Report, p. 17).  First, most American slavery happened within the U.S. homeland, whereas British, Portuguese and French slavery was primarily practiced on external colonial holdings. This skewed the domestic basis of the master/slave, White/Black American power balance as these countries transitioned from slave to egalitarian nations. This power imbalance in the United States was the impetus for American identity politics which leverage “White guilt” as an instrument of power for American political elites. 

Second, American slavery stripped slaves of their native identity, in contrast to slaves under British, Portuguese and French control who retained their drums, religious figures, and self-governance systems at the local level. Black Americans were not a part of the “one united people — a people descended from the same ancestors” but gained a common legacy as descendants of freed Blacks and post-Civil War Whites under chattel slavery (Report, p. 3).  Many established a new ancestral history derived from the lived experience within the American slavery system; the struggle to end, elude or preserve it; or the traditions for resisting, conforming, or exploiting its demise. 

Third, perpetuating slavery decades after the British (1833), French (1794) and Portuguese (1761), further entwined it into America’s identity.  Though President Lincoln led the nation to end slavery in 1865, the three-fifths compromise served as a catalyst for identity politics by “prevent[ing] the South from counting their slaves as whole persons for purposes of increasing their congressional representation” (Report, p. 11).  America’s internationally publicized journey from the mandating equal rights in 1868 via the 14th Amendment, through denouncing Jim Crow Laws, to pursuing political harmony “assert the true principles of political legitimacy and justice” as a manifestation of “those principles among an actual people, in an actual government, here on earth” (Report, p. 6).   

Teaching a comprehensive history has relevance to domestic and international affairs. America needs narratives and counter-narratives to “reject any curriculum that promotes one-sided partisan opinions, activist propaganda, or factional ideology that demean American’s heritage, dishonor our heroes, or deny our principles” (Report, p.17).  It also empowers U.S. legislators, diplomats, and senior military leaders with the empathy to address suppressive power dynamics in foreign lands and the insights to assist foreign governments to preempt obstacles to democracy.  Marginalizing America’s uncomfortable historical facts contradicts the report’s “necessary — and wise — cautions against unrealistic hopes and checks against pressing partisan claims or utopian agendas” (Report, p. 1).   

There is no need to dye the Chicago River red on Juneteenth to commemorate the bloody days between emancipation and notification or for Blacks to establish “Little Plantation Towns” as cultural enclaves in major cities. Instead, providing comprehensive American History classes educates citizens throughout the year and gives them the ability to choose to either celebrate or abstain from African-American heritage events, just as Americans do with descendants of the Germans during Octoberfest, the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day or the Chinese on the Lunar New Year.   

Americans should not omit facts, suppress opinions or craft a historical fiction to make themselves seem so. Leveraging The New York Times’ 1619 Project as a counter-narrative, rather than vilifying it (Report, p. 36), may allow both documents to vector Americans back toward America’s Founding Fathers, like Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, as “hallmarks of how differences of opinion, expressed within the guardrails of the Republic, are essential to democracy” (Executive Office of the President). 

• Eldridge R. Singleton, a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, is a 2020-2021 National Security Affairs Fellow at the Stanford University Hoover Institution. He has served for 22 years in Infantry, Special Forces, and Foreign Area Officer assignments and will return to international relations duties supporting the Department of Defense (DoD) this summer.

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