Biden Should Avoid America’s Toxic History Wars

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Hours after being sworn in as US president last week, Joe Biden scrapped Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission. Rarely has a reversal of leadership been more richly deserved.

Mr Trump launched the body – named for the year the American colonies declared independence from Britain – shortly before the election in an attempt to change voters’ attention to American cultural wars in the midst of a pandemic it has failed to contain. Its stated aim was to promote the teaching of “the miracle of American history“. His real problem was to arouse outrage at the left’s emphasis on the inheritance 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 United States now has a president whose top priority is to defeat the pandemic. But racial injustice is at the heart of how Mr. Biden views the coronavirus, and many other things. This may push him to follow the abolition of what he called the “offensive, counterfactual»1776 Commission by approving what is considered to be its opposite – the 1619 project. This series of articles, which brought the New York Times a Pulitzer Prize, argues that historians should date the founding of the United States to the year that slaves first arrived on its shores.

These are irreconcilable stories. America is seen as essentially good; the other like most of the time bad. The choice is between seeing the story as glory or bloody. It is not an academic question. When countries question what happened yesterday, they debate who owns tomorrow. As countries like India can attest, wars in history often turn deadly.

It can hardly be disputed that the Commission’s 1776 account of the history of the United States is laundering. In a report released on Martin Luther King Day – two days before Mr. Trump left office – the commission portrayed America’s Founding Fathers as blameless individuals who drafted an unmovable constitution. the 41 page report, written almost entirely by non-historians, contained no footnotes. He attributed the philosophical origin of left-wing “identity politics” to John Calhoun, a slave-owning senator from the mid-19th century. His list of threats to democracy also grouped the early 20th century American progressive movement with Italian fascism. From an academic point of view, he did not pass the laughter test.

There is nothing laughable about Project 1619. It was a detailed effort to reassess American history that has sparked debate among accredited historians. But it’s explanation of the war of independence had factual errors and made the very controversial argument that it was prompted by British plans to abolish slavery. Yet the project’s basic case – that slavery has been closely tied to American history from the beginning and that its legacy remains today – is hard to dispute.

Conservatives see the 1619 narrative as a threat to America’s exceptional belief and something to be exploited. The country’s demographic trajectory is unstoppable – it is set to become a majority minority country within a quarter of a century. The Republicans can’t do anything about it. But they can exploit the deep patriotism of the American electorate if Democrats fail.

In five years, the United States will mark the 250th anniversary of its declaration of independence from Great Britain. By then, it is conceivable that the celebration of 1776 will be as busy as honoring Christopher Columbus. Many now refer to the day named after the explorer as Indigenous Peoples Day due to the catastrophic effect Europeans have on the Americas (mainly via smallpox).

By 2026, will the American left have renamed Independence Day to Slavery Day? To raise this possibility is to highlight the inflammatory potential of the debate. That’s one of the reasons Mr. Biden should avoid it. There are two more. The first is that he has his hands full of government. In his first week, Mr Biden issued a record number of executive orders. In his first 100 days, he wants to make forays into four overlapping emergencies – the pandemic, the economic crisis, global warming and racial injustice. Mr. Trump has confused the politics of gestures with government. Mr. Biden shouldn’t. The best thing he can do for American 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. Neither can the Republican Party. Some suggest that Mr. Biden should set up a presidential commission on American history. It might help defuse the tension. A better solution would be to leave the debate to others. If there’s one thing the 1776-ers and 1619-ers might agree on, it’s that the U.S. government isn’t equipped to study history – let alone teach it.

edward.luce@ft.com

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