Opinion | 1776 Is Not Just What Ron DeSantis Wants It to Be7 min read
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By Jamelle Bouie
As part of his ongoing war on public education and so-called wokeness, Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, wants to put the state’s colleges and universities under strict political control.
Last week, Republicans in the state’s House of Representatives introduced legislation that would, with DeSantis’s approval, escalate and expand an already aggressive effort to politicize higher education. The proposal, House Bill 999, deals with both administration and curriculums.
It would make illegal the use of any “diversity, equity, and inclusion statements” as part of the hiring, promotion and tenure process, as well as give the governor-appointed state university Board of Trustees the right to “review any faculty member’s tenure status.” The bill would also give the trustees final say over hiring decisions, sidestepping faculty member input as well.
When it comes to teaching, House Bill 999 would remove gender studies and critical race theory, “or any derivative major or minor of these belief systems,” from college and university instruction.
There’s also a requirement that those same general education courses not “suppress or distort significant historical events or include a curriculum that teaches identity politics” or define “American history as contrary to the creation of a new nation based on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.”
There is much to say about this bill, and the Florida governor’s larger educational agenda, as an attack on free speech and academic freedom. For now, though, I want to focus on this requirement that colleges and universities teach American history as consistent with “the creation of a new nation based on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.”
This requirement is obviously partisan. But it rests on a bipartisan and widely shared vision of the Declaration and the American founding, in which 1776 — and the statement of principle at the heart of the Declaration of Independence — is an engine of progress that leads inevitably and inexorably to everything from the Constitution to the abolition of slavery.
The founding fathers, in this telling, may not have lived up to the ideals of the Declaration, but their words would shape and inspire the struggles to come. “The assertion that all men are created equal was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain,” observed none other than Abraham Lincoln, “and it was placed in the Declaration, not for that, but for future use.”
That is the standard narrative. But what if the standard narrative is off? What if, as the legal scholar Kermit Roosevelt III argues in “The Nation That Never Was: Reconstructing America’s Story,” “the standard story gives us an understanding of American history that is not wrong so much as backward,” one that “misleads us about who the heroes of our history are” and about “who we are, and who we must be to become the heroes of our story.”
In particular, Roosevelt, who is a professor of constitutional law at the University of Pennsylvania, says that we get the Declaration wrong. “The Declaration of Independence was not a statement about human rights in the abstract,” he writes. “It was not a declaration of concrete human rights, either.” Instead, the Declaration of Independence was about, well, independence:
It first explains the origin and nature of legitimate political authority. It then explains when the exercise of political authority ceases to be legitimate. And then it endeavors to show that the situation of the American colonists fits the criteria that justify rebellion.
According to Roosevelt, Jefferson’s assertion of equality was not an assertion of the need for equal treatment under the law, or a declaration of the rights of individuals to enjoy liberty and equality. Rather, it was a standard account of Enlightenment social contract theory, brought to bear for use in the Anglo-American conflict. In the Declaration’s political philosophy, “People start out equal,” Roosevelt writes, “endowed with natural rights but lacking the means to protect them. They create governments to secure those rights, and the government’s legitimate authority comes from their consent. If the government fails to do its job, the people may reject it and start anew.”
Jefferson’s equality, writes Roosevelt, “is a precise and limited concept.” It exists in the hypothetical state of nature, not the real world of political life. People may start out equal in the abstract, but do not stay that way when they enter into society.
There’s an obvious response to this: So what? What difference does it make what Jefferson meant when what matters is what later Americans heard? As written, the Declaration of Independence may not have been a statement of universal equality, but it became one in the struggles against slavery and race hierarchy, as activists and politicians used it for their own ends.
The problem, argues Roosevelt, is that tying our modern egalitarian commitments to the Declaration and the founding is to say, in no uncertain terms, that our values can survive, even thrive, in a world of profound inequality and injustice. “In asking modern Americans to see the founding as an Edenic movement, to see the founders as role models who stated our deepest ideals, we are asking them to accept that those ideals can coexist with slavery, with rape, with enslaving one’s own children because of the color of their skin.” We are saying, in short, that justice can always wait since we’ll eventually reach the destination of our ideals.
But if not the Declaration, then what? Where, and with whom, should we root our values?
Roosevelt’s answer lies in the Civil War and Reconstruction. It is Lincoln, after all, who claimed the Declaration for a “new birth of freedom” in his Gettysburg Address and gave it much of its modern meaning. But to do that, he and the United States had to overturn the old order. “Many people,” Roosevelt writes, “following Lincoln’s cue, think of Reconstruction as a process of better realizing founding ideals, through the process of change set out in the founders’ Constitution. We would do better to think of it as a revolution that destroyed Founding America.”
The results of that revolution — the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments — transformed American society. They were intended, as Frederick Douglass wrote in 1872, “to give full freedom to every person without regard to race or color in the United States.”
“In order that this intention should be carried out and acted upon,” Douglass continued, “power for that purpose was given by conferring upon Congress the right to enforce the amendments by appropriate legislation.”
And among those amendments the 14th was a truly radical revision to the basic structure of the American republic. “There will be, its first sentence says, no perpetual outsiders,” Roosevelt notes. “No hereditary exclusion from our political community.” If the Declaration is about an abstract people in a hypothetical state of nature, then the 14th Amendment is “about real people born in the United States and possessing legal rights and citizenship,” guaranteed by the power of the federal government itself.
The Reconstruction story, Roosevelt argues, is a more honest one. It puts the struggle for liberation at the center of our national political imagination, and it doesn’t ask us to rationalize, defend or even justify the worst actions of the men who founded the United States.
We are not the heirs to the first American republic, Roosevelt writes, “We are the heirs of the people who destroyed it.” Our political community is based on an “inclusive equality” and not an “exclusive individualism.” It is the difference between Patrick Henry’s cry of “Give me liberty, or give me death!” and Julia Ward Howe’s great imperative, “Let us die to make men free.”
By no means do I think that any Florida legislator has this particular argument in mind to condemn or reject. (In any case, under House Bill 999, Roosevelt’s book would be unteachable in Florida’s colleges and universities.) But as everyone in this conflict over history understands, education is as much about the creation and maintenance of a social order as it is the dissemination of skills and knowledge.
Whether you accept the standard story of the Declaration of Independence or want to root our values in the Civil War and Reconstruction, it is true that our embrace of equality as a national ideal in the 20th century has been a powerful force for a fairer, more expansive view of individual freedom and personal autonomy in American society.
The question, then, for Ron DeSantis is not which allies he hopes to empower or which elections he hopes to win, but what order he hopes to create and usher into being.
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