The Invisible American Founding
In 2019, the New York Times and the Pulitzer Center combined their formidable brands in support of the 1619 Project, a mix of journalism and school curricula intended "to reframe U.S. history by marking the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived on Virginia soil as our nation's foundational date." This bold act of revisionism escalated a long-running battle over how U.S. history is taught. Because it was more journalism than history, the 1619 Project oversimplified a complex tale and got some key facts wrong. Prominent historians pointed out errors, and much subsequent criticism focused on the project's inaccuracies.
The real problem with the 1619 Project, however, is not what it gets wrong, but what it erases. The project removes beliefs and ideas from our history, presenting the American story as a series of tactical moves carried out by groups trying to maximize their own economic advantage. What our forebears believed about what they were doing, how those beliefs motivated them, and how they influenced later generations is simply not part of the story.
This aspect of the 1619 Project is not new. For decades, young Americans have learned an increasingly Marxist version of their nation's story in books and videos, and have advanced the plot to the present day in classroom discussions. Principles like equality, governance by the people, and natural law now make only rare and unexplained appearances in even the most advanced U.S. history curricula. Like the three witches of Macbeth, our most consequential ideas show up at key moments, but their relationship to the main action is never clear.
We need to restore the connection between what Americans did and what they believed — to take their words seriously on the question of why they made the decisions they made. A look at today's dominant history texts suggests we should focus as much on restoring what is missing as we do on correcting what is wrong.
ERASING OUR IDEAS
The Declaration of Independence's claim that all men are created equal is so central to American identity that it should transcend the particularities of any moment. So, too, the Constitution's "We the People." These two ideas are among the core premises underpinning arguments about what America is. Such ideas inspired abolitionists, Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and the civil-rights movement. It is natural to bring them to the foreground when we teach U.S. history.
But we don't. The ideas at the heart of the American founding — equality, natural rights, the consent of the governed — have gone missing from U.S. history textbooks.
America's History ranks among the leading textbooks for Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH), a rite of passage taken by half a million young Americans each year. America's History is 1,035 pages long, but its treatment of the Declaration of Independence runs to a total of 344 words:
In the Declaration, [Thomas Jefferson] justified independence and republicanism to Americans and the world by vilifying George III: "He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burned our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people." Such a prince was a "tyrant," Jefferson concluded, and "is unfit to be the ruler of a free people."
Employing the ideas of the European Enlightenment, Jefferson proclaimed a series of "self-evident" truths: "that all men are created equal"; that they possess the "unalienable rights" of "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness"; that government derives its "just powers from the consent of the governed" and can rightly be overthrown if it "becomes destructive of these ends." By linking these doctrines of individual liberty, popular sovereignty (the principle that ultimate power lies in the hands of the electorate), and republican government with American independence, Jefferson established them as the defining political values of the new nation.
A third paragraph states that the Declaration was celebrated at home and abroad, and an accompanying graphic shows a painting in which the Declaration is presented to John Hancock. Aside from a few scattered mentions, that ends the student's encounter with our nation's — and perhaps the world's — most consequential political document until it appears in an appendix 858 pages later.
America's History is a college-level text with more than 200 maps, tables, and graphics. It contains around 90 "Special Features" on topics such as marriage in colonial America, the management of indigenous minorities in China's Qing Dynasty (part of a recurring "global context" theme), the fate of the American and Indian textile industries, and "Dance and Social Identity in Antebellum America." These are all potentially worthy topics. But America's History never mentions the Gettysburg Address, and it treats Lincoln's Second Inaugural in a manner so cursory that students will surely be surprised to find it carved in limestone in Washington, D.C.
America's History is not unusual. The most widely adopted APUSH textbook is The American Pageant — another thousand-page doorstop co-authored by historians from Stanford and Harvard. It, too, subordinates ideas in favor of a story of identity groups and factions fighting for power and economic advantage. Its "Road to Revolution" chapter, to take one example, includes 16 review questions, nine of which concern trade, taxes, and budgets; five concern military jockeying; one addresses republican and Whig ideologies; and one asks about the material conditions that led to revolutionary ideas.
Like that of America's History, The American Pageant's treatment of the Declaration of Independence is wafer thin. It offers a general description and ends by noting that Jefferson "owned many slaves, and his affirmation that 'all men are created equal' was to haunt him and his fellow citizens for generations." The quotation marks distance the book's authors from the anachronistic idea of natural law — they clearly don't believe that ideas, anachronistic or not, matter much anyway.
The American Pageant devotes 13 paragraphs to the development of the Constitution — just a bit more space than it allocates to transcendentalism. Twelve of these paragraphs describe the machinations and compromises of that hot summer in Philadelphia, and only one touches on the Constitution's ideas. It reads as follows:
[T]he new charter also contained democratic elements. Above all, it stood foursquare on the two great principles of republicanism: that the only legitimate government was one based on the consent of the governed, and that the powers of government should be limited — in this case specifically limited by a written constitution. The virtue of the people, not the authority of the state, was to be the ultimate guarantor of liberty, justice, and order. "We the people," the preamble began, in a ringing affirmation of these republican doctrines.
This is a positive description of ideas not really discussed, followed by half a paragraph on The Federalist. Later in the chapter, Charles Beard's Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States receives about twice as much treatment as The Federalist, which is scarcely mentioned again. Beard's discredited conspiracy theory about the founders' financial motivations for writing the Constitution provides mood music for the rest of the story.
Mainstream historians present the founders as motivated by money and power, but how do they describe their own motivations? The authors of our most ubiquitous text, The American Pageant, say only that their work is meant "to cultivate critical thinking skills." Such skills may be necessary for effective citizenship, but that would be equally true in Russia or Canada. Critical thinking can also be developed by reading Charles Dickens, studying the Cultural Revolution, or learning higher math. Why do we learn American history?
The authors of America's History gesture at their answer by saying they want to "teach our students to think like historians" and "explain to students not just what happened, but why." Their answers to "why" are cultural, economic, political, and more, but they ignore or dismiss the avalanche of written testimony from key protagonists detailing what they believed and why they did what they did. The main characters in this story have all been silenced, presumably because they have been deemed unreliable narrators.
This raises the question: Should we believe what our establishment historians say about what they are trying to do? The authors of A People and a Nation — another common APUSH textbook — grasp this problem, and then revel in it: "Like other teachers and students, we are always re-creating our past, restructuring our memory, rediscovering the personalities and events that have influenced us, injured us, and bedeviled us."
U.S. history isn't a required course in nearly every state so students can "restructure their memories," whatever that may mean. U.S. history is required because, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, we live in a republic — if we can keep it. Teaching our history is how we keep it.
THE FAULT IN OUR STORY
America's History and The American Pageant are prominent resources, but they are not the most influential purveyors of an idea-free account of U.S. history. That role belongs to America's most popular history teacher, John Green.
Green is the author of The Fault in Our Stars, a young-adult romance novel and national bestseller. As every student of U.S. history well knows, he also created Crash Course U.S. History, an online video series with well over 50 million views to date. Since U.S. high schools collectively graduate 4 million students a year, it is safe to say that nearly everyone watches Crash Course at least a little, and for many, it replaces the textbook and probably the teacher. Green's video on "The Constitution, the Articles and Federalism" has 8 million views, and while it is decidedly condensed, at 13 minutes it's 12 minutes longer than the average TikTok video. By contemporary standards, it's a deep dive.
Green introduces the Constitutional Convention with a discussion of Shays's Rebellion, emphasizing that the Articles' weakness was a threat to American elites. "[W]hen rich people feel like something has to be done, something is usually done," says Green of a group of framers gathered in support of a stronger national government while attempting to prevent tyranny from the ruler and from the ruled. In Green's brief account, no new ideas were developed in Philadelphia: The framers simply pulled federalism, bicameralism, the separation of powers, and checks and balances off the shelf and snapped them like Lego bricks into a form of government.
Of The Federalist, Green says only that it was "a powerful and ultimately persuasive argument for why a strong national government is necessary and not a threat to people's liberty." He does not suggest that it was in any way pathbreaking. He goes on to read a brief excerpt from Federalist No. 29 to illustrate that the ideas of the late 1800s are outdated, and concludes by dismissing the Second Amendment as a relic from a bygone era.
With that, the typical high-school student knows as much as he will ever know about the American founding — and then it's back to TikTok.
LOSING OUR RELIGION
Contemporary history books' dismissal of ideas extends to scrubbing religious ideas out of America's story. But it is hard to explain some of our most important moments without describing widely held religious beliefs. We can explain the slaveholder's motivations in purely materialist terms, for example, but how can we explain what motivated the abolitionist? For that, we need to know what abolitionists believed.
Mainstream history texts mention that abolitionists had religious motivations, but they never describe their beliefs, saying only that they were Christians. Slaveholders were Christians, too, so it would seem necessary to account for a difference of belief so stark that it led to our nation's most catastrophic moment. Similarly, an ideas-free curriculum can describe Lincoln's determination to preserve the Union, but it can offer little on why he understood union as necessary for free government. Surely it had something to do with what he believed about slavery, equality, and the American project as a whole, but those beliefs are never explored. Because our history texts refuse to take faith seriously, they never wade into the most consequential beliefs. Faith doesn't fit the narrative, and in a secular culture, it is easier to erase religious beliefs than to explain them away.
More recently, the civil-rights movement was led by clergy and coordinated through a network of churches. But since mainstream historians refuse to put faith at the center of any political story, students receive a papier-mâché account. The American Pageant introduces Martin Luther King, Jr., as a skilled speaker passionately devoted to "biblical and constitutional conceptions of justice" whose "devotion to the nonviolent principles of India's Mohandas Gandhi was destined to thrust him to the forefront of the black revolution." We never learn anything about King's conceptions of justice or how his faith influenced his ideas. We are told that King adopted the ideas of Gandhi, but whatever he learned in 11 years of Christian higher education, culminating in a Ph.D. in systematic theology, goes unmentioned.
Most APUSH books entirely omit King's most widely circulated political essay, "Letter from Birmingham Jail." The letter's richness and contemporary relevance make its absence not only sad, but almost inexcusable. Today's secular scholars apparently cannot abide its language of faith; King's erudite defense of civil disobedience in the face of unjust laws invokes Isaiah, Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Saint Augustine, Paul Tillich, the early Christian martyrs, and Jews in Nazi Germany. He echoes, paraphrases, and directly quotes scripture throughout, and closes with a passage that casts America's history in terms of explicitly political and religious ideas:
We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America. Before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson scratched across the pages of history the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, we were here. For more than two centuries our foreparents labored here without wages; they made cotton king; and they built the homes of their masters in the midst of brutal injustice and shameful humiliation — and yet out of a bottomless vitality our people continue to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.
To his credit, John Green calls this epistle "one of the great letters of American history" — but he does not say why, and never even alludes to its contents. The American Pageant's 37-page topical index contains no entry for King's famous letter.
That said, not every spiritual idea is missing from our history books. Every APUSH book has a section on transcendentalism, and many have a section on Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, and the Beat Generation who, as America's History says, "glorified spontaneity, sexual adventurism, drug use, and spirituality." Move over, Jonathan Edwards.
LINCOLN'S ANCIENT FAITH
The stakes of teaching our history are high; they are no lower than the perpetuation of our political institutions. Abraham Lincoln understood this.
In his 1838 address to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln described the threats to American republicanism. Only 28 years old at the time, Lincoln declared the founders' "edifice of liberty and equal rights" had delivered a personal, legal, and political prosperity hitherto unknown on the stage of human history. But every regime has its pathologies, and popular government can descend into mob rule only too easily. On the other hand, preoccupation with physical well-being may lead citizens to vest their freedoms in a despot who promises security at the cost of liberty.
How, then, to fortify the founders' edifice against these evils? Lincoln believed it could be done, and done so soundly that, "as has been said of the only greater institution, 'the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.'" His prescription was to teach the founders' legacy to each generation:
Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap — let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs; — let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.
The language of reverence and political religion is no accident. Passive enjoyment of rights granted by the laws, Lincoln knew, might generate a propensity to welcome whatever tyrant could secure them. Americans needed to cherish their liberties as the fruits of an inheritance received from their forefathers. Like any inheritance, the American project required careful stewardship if it was to be passed down to successive generations. Each generation would have to be catechized to embrace its shared bequest of freedom and equality before the law. Put differently, we must not tell our story in terms of group conflict or class struggle, because the American project is not ordered toward those ends. It is ordered instead toward revering, and thereby preserving, what we have received as Americans.
Forming Americans, like any catechetical project, must begin at the source. For us, that source is the Declaration of Independence. More than an apologia for revolt against Great Britain, the Declaration shows us what it means to be American. It does so by setting out what Lincoln would later call "the definitions and axioms of a free society." And not only of a free society, but reality itself: The Declaration is a charter of fundamental truths about the nature of man, the foundations and ends of governments, and the situation of both in an ordered universe. Its signatories believed that these truths made government of, by, and for the people possible. By declaring independence, the founders would enable such a society — our society — to grow.
The Declaration's chief axiom is its pronouncement that "all men are created equal." In choosing these words, Jefferson did not mean equality of station, property, or faculty of mind; a glance at Federalist No. 10 illustrates the founders' conviction that government should not disturb, and indeed must protect, such inequalities. Rather, the equality asserted by the Declaration is rooted in human nature: All members of the human family share a Creator, who bestowed upon them inalienable rights, including rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Each person, no matter his station in life, has dignity as a creation of God.
This ontological equality has implications for communities of men. As a matter of natural justice, no man is fit to murder or enslave another, or to take the bread he has earned. "[T]he mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their back, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them," Jefferson wrote elsewhere. Governments instituted among men must reflect this truth. As all stand equal in the eyes of God, all should stand equal in the eyes of the law.
The most frequently recited objection to Jefferson's words, which appears in leading U.S. history textbooks and animates the 1619 Project, is that all men were not treated as equals at the time he wrote them. Racialized slavery existed throughout the American colonies and featured in the personal lives of many of the founders. This institution denied natural dignity and legal rights to an entire class of persons and grew in strength during Lincoln's generation.
From this fact, most textbooks and the 1619 Project authors extrapolate that Jefferson did not mean to include black persons in "all men," and that the "We the People" in the Constitution referred only to some people. Here, modern critics of the founding documents find an ally in Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney, who drew the same conclusion in Dred Scott v. Sandford and used it to hold that the protections of the Constitution did not apply to black Americans. Using similar logic, many states still allow violence against a class of persons simply because they are unborn.
The point of axioms, however, is that their truth doesn't depend on whether we acknowledge or respect them. They are statements about the nature of reality. And the Declaration recurs to the language of natural law: A "Supreme Judge of the world" stands as the final governor of humanity. His divine edifice contains fixed truths that men can ascertain even when their observance (as with the slaveholding founders) falls short. Laws given by men should, accordingly, conform to those given by nature and nature's God.
The founders were influenced by the Enlightenment but also steeped in a classical tradition stretching back to Athens, Rome, and Sinai. As much as they believed in the light of natural reason, they also knew it was imperfect. In fact, one of the founding generation's most lasting contributions lies in its members' cautions against human and political perfectibility. "If men were angels," goes the aphorism from Federalist No. 51, "no government would be necessary." Men are not angels — to the contrary, they are, according to Federalist No. 6, "ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious." Publius spills much ink defending various constitutional provisions not as attempts to eradicate these vicious tendencies of men, but as controls to check them. The founders' cosmos is one where original sin persists and systems of government will not make men angels, even if they can temper their worst inclinations.
Even so, some methods work better than others. Practicality guides the path to greater justice, and in the American system the Constitution supplies the sine qua non of practicality. Lincoln warned in his Lyceum address against the rise of a Napoleonic figure willing to emancipate slaves outside the provisions of the founders' edifice. Such a good act done wrongly, he contended, would result in the dismantling of the edifice itself. And without the edifice of liberty and equal rights, even freemen would not long be free. For this reason, Lincoln did not favor imposing abolition on the Southern states, believing the Constitution did not permit it in normal circumstances. Instead, he sought to put slavery on the course to extinction via abolition in new territories admitted to the expanding Union.
These caveats only make the miracles at Philadelphia more deserving of our reverence. The founders proclaimed a truth received from natural law — universal equality before the Creator — and through the provisions of the Constitution gave future generations the tools to secure it. In Lincoln's famous speech at Peoria, Illinois, he referred to equality, including for enslaved Americans, as his and the founders' ancient faith. And what is faith, if not the substance of things hoped for but not seen?
Perhaps most miraculous of all is how our forefathers invite us to be active participants in that faith. It was in 1859 that Lincoln called the equality of the Declaration axiomatic. Four years later, at the height of the Civil War, he stood at Gettysburg and described a nation "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." In Euclid's Elements (Lincoln drank deeply of Euclid), an axiom is accepted without proof; a proposition must be proved. Was Lincoln, once a champion of ontological brotherhood, now demanding some proof of the equality of all? Quite the opposite. What had to be proved was whether a nation established upon the truth about human nature "could long endure."
Our potted history of America sees emancipation as historically pre-determined, whereas in reality, the government became virulently pro-slavery during the antebellum period. In that sense, slavery did not "have" to end. Instead, it was ended by those who, like President Lincoln, took up the tools of our ancient faith and cooperated with the same divine Providence whose protection the signatories of the Declaration sought. And so it is for each generation of Americans, who must continue our unfinished work with the founders' ideals as a compass.
OUR UNFINISHED WORK
The work of refocusing Americans on our shared ideals is daunting given how long we have omitted them from our story. The erasure of these ideas from mainstream U.S. history began at least as early as 1981, when Daniel Boorstin's A History of the United States dismissed the Declaration as "cribbed from various books and declarations that Englishmen had written a hundred years before" and said little more about it. Instead of putting ideas in the spotlight, Boorstin described a practical America with few ideological commitments. Other historians have since used similar approaches in service to varying agendas. The nadir (so far) has been the 1619 Project.
But all is not lost. Among APUSH books, Eric Foner's Give Me Liberty! is a relatively popular text. In the introduction, Foner says the central theme of Give Me Liberty! "is the changing contours of American freedom." His account focuses on minorities and marginalized groups, and he unremittingly criticizes America's history of racism. Yet he also faithfully and positively portrays the role of American ideals from the colonial era to the 21st century. Many U.S. history teachers like Foner's approach, but it is not widely adopted in APUSH courses because the ideas Foner emphasizes play such a limited role on the APUSH test.
A more conventionally conservative history is Wilfred McClay's Land of Hope, which does not follow the APUSH curriculum — presumably because the curriculum is part of the problem. McClay says he wrote the book to "inform and deepen [Americans'] sense of the land they inhabit and equip them for the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship." While acknowledging the nation's shortcomings, Land of Hope shows how our founding principles are still the solution to those shortcomings.
America badly needs a restoration of our shared, conventional account of American ideals. The public conversation is stuck on issues of race, but without a coherent political philosophy, we cannot even say why racism is wrong. Instead, our discussions focus on lazy and dangerous questions: Whose ox is being gored? Who is being victimized?
Telling such a divisive national story to young people who belong to dozens of different identity groups is a recipe for civil strife. We cannot ignore historical conflicts, but we desperately need our young people to accept the inheritance that can set them free: the knowledge that they are each created equal, that free government can be good government, and that their choices have the power to shape human events for good or ill. This requires educators to articulate what we have received and teach students to confront the country's problems in a manner true to her guiding principles. In our public discourse, those principles still occasionally rise to the surface. In Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard — a recent Supreme Court case on the use of racial preferences for college admissions — Justice Clarence Thomas closed his concurrence with the following passage:
While I am painfully aware of the social and economic ravages which have befallen my race and all who suffer discrimination, I hold out enduring hope that this country will live up to its principles so clearly enunciated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States: that all men are created equal, are equal citizens, and must be treated equally before the law.
How we teach these precepts determines how we will move forward. Will we handle national crises on Justice Taney's terms? Will we diminish our disagreements over matters like racial preferences into nothing but a tussle over symbols? Or will we follow Lincoln in setting these moments against our country's first things?
King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" references the arrival of African slaves in 1619, but then does what the 1619 Project refuses to do: hold the principles of the American founding and the teachings of the Jewish and Christian faiths as the twin standards against which to judge the 350 years of slavery and injustice that followed. By so doing, King showed that Lincoln's response to injustice is still possible. It will only remain possible if we teach it.