Vivek Ramaswamy is invoking '1776 ideals' on the campaign trail: What does that really mean?

One historian said there have always been "vast disagreements" on the issue.

July 14, 2023, 5:07 AM

A familiar date -- 1776 -- has repeatedly been invoked on the campaign trail by Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy.

A biotech entrepreneur, Ramaswamy has rallied supporters around what he calls the "ideals of 1776," arguing that people should embrace a "1776 moment" to ignite a fight against "wokeness," referring to progressive policies around identity and social equality.

Other conservatives, including former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have made similar arguments in years past, seeking to contrast how they describe the spirit of America's founding revolution with the values of today.

Here's what they've said and why, and what experts say about the lessons of 1776.

'A new kind of American Revolution'?

"I think the work that you all are doing is the beginning of a new kind of American Revolution in our country, reviving the ideals of 1776," Ramaswamy said in a June roundtable with House Anti-Woke Caucus members. "That's how we defeat the woke agenda."

He's not the only conservative making that pitch, and such rhetoric stretches back years before it got a new campaign spotlight.

For example DeSantis' 2011 book, "Dreams from Our Founding Fathers" -- published before he was in office -- critiqued former President Barack Obama's "transformational change agenda," calling it "a far cry from the dreams bequeathed to us by the Founding Fathers, who created a constitution based on enduring truths about individual liberty and the role of government."

Later, as governor, DeSantis signed a bill to require collegiate general education core courses to "whenever applicable, provide instruction on the historical background and philosophical foundation of Western civilization and this nation’s historical documents" without teaching "identity politics."

Trump, too, has invoked the nation's founding, as seen in the controversial 1776 Commission he started while he was president "to better enable a rising generation to understand the history and principles of the founding of the United States in 1776."

"Our youth will be taught to love America with all of their heart and all of their soul," he said in 2020, announcing the commission, which successor Joe Biden ended.

More broadly, outside groups have cropped up, including 1776 Unites, the 1776 Project PAC and 1776 Action, which styles itself as a successor to Trump's commission.

PHOTO: A US bicentenial flag hangs from fence outside a home during Memorial Day in the Queens borough of New York City, May 25, 2020.
A US bicentenial flag hangs from fence outside a home during Memorial Day in the Queens borough of New York City, May 25, 2020.
Anthony Behar/Sipa USA via AP, FILE

Former 1776 Commission Vice Chair Dr. Carol Swain told ABC News that the group arose "out of a concern about America's true history" and as a response to "The 1619 Project."

First published by The New York Times in 2019, "The 1619 Project" set out to "reframe" the history of America beyond the revolution back to when slaves were first brought to the country. "No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully," the project's introduction states.

Swain, a political scientist and legal scholar, said in an interview that she took another view.

"We've lost connection with our founding principles," she said, adding that she thinks the rhetorical revival of 1776 is rooted in an attempt to mend this.

"I believe that the candidates and the individuals that are pushing a return to 1776 are really talking about a return to a time when we believed that there were some universal truths that were eternal," she said. "That we believe that there was a higher power, which was God. We believed in equality, liberty, justice and the consent of the governed."

While supporters see this as conducive to a unification around positive nationalism, other experts say this approach is uninhibited by critical consideration of past wrongs -- and the way founding ideals have been implemented over the centuries is not so straightforward.

What history shows about 1776

In short, it "was a revolutionary moment," said American Historical Association Executive Director James Grossman.

The United States' beginning revolved around the execution of ideas based on "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," as described in the Declaration of Independence, Grossman told ABC News.

"You had people thousands of miles away from a 'mother country' [Great Britain] standing up and saying, 'We're not taking this anymore and we're going away,'" he said. "They were participating in an international exchange of ideas, and the ways in which those ideas were implemented were new and important and quite threatening, quite frankly, to people across the ocean. So you had something obviously very important happening."

Even so, there were real limitations on how that same liberty was practiced in the nascent country. It took nearly 200 years, and the passage of a series of constitutional amendments and laws, to broadly enforce the ability of all men and women to vote, for example.

And the continued practice of slavery after the country began eventually led to the Civil War.

Grossman acknowledged the tensions and contradictions between the promise in the nation's founding documents and the centurieslong fight over whether and how to implement "liberty."

"We have, from the very beginning, had vast disagreements of what the spirit of '76 is," Grossman said. "If you read the declarations of secession [that started the Civil War] in 1861, what you will see is they use the language of the Declaration of Independence. The declarations of secession in most of the southern Confederate States drew directly on what they consider to be the spirit of 1776."

"If you look at the early- to mid-19th century, what you will see are vast debates over whether the Constitution was a pro-slavery or anti-slavery document. You'll see vast debates over whether the Bible is a pro-slavery or anti-slavery document," Grossman said.

That moral dilemma "is what 'The 1619 Project,' in a way, was pointing us to," he said.

The Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and then the Constitution "are all written by men who mostly -- not all, mostly -- owned, bought and sold other people. That's a fact. That's not a theory," Grossman said. "They were written by men who grew up in a world where it was considered normal and acceptable to own, buy and sell other people."

'Grapple with that history'

"The 1619 Project" has been widely lauded, winning numerous prizes. It has also been challenged by some historians for its analysis of the American Revolution as a means of preserving slavery and continues to be criticized by conservative lawmakers as a work of "revisionist history." The Times has vigorously defended its work, while also making a clarification to an essay in the project.

Grossman, who participated in an American Historical Association forum reviewing both "The 1619 Project" and a report from the former 1776 Commission, said that "1619" as a series presented points that he did not agree with but it "stimulated useful conversations about the role of slavery and racism in American history."

He also sought to draw a distinction between the country's "origins" and its "founding."

"To argue that 1619 represents the founding of the nation is a problem because the founding of the nation has to do with a series of documents and a series of creation of institutions," he argued. "The origins of the United States over time -- that's very different. And it's not hard to argue that you can't understand the origins of this country without understanding the very beginning of the system of chattel slavery."

PHOTO: "The 1619 Project" has been adapted into a docu-series by Nikole Hannah-Jones on Hulu.
"The 1619 Project" has been adapted into a docu-series by Nikole Hannah-Jones on Hulu.
ABC News

In a January interview with ABC News, reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, who conceived "The 1619 Project," responded to the backlash the report received, saying then that the project and Black history in the U.S. challenge the "narrative of American exceptionalism" and democracy.

"If you are to grapple with that history, then you have to grapple with the common identity that most Americans want to believe in," she said. "And that is very difficult for people, and particularly people in power, who benefit from us believing this narrative about America."

The 1776 Commission's report, issued in the final days of the Trump administration, has itself been condemned by historians.

Grossman told ABC News that "it did not reflect any serious historical research."

"It was something that seemed to be hastily thrown together for the purposes of instilling a narrow idea of patriotism, rather than actually wrestling with the founding documents," he said.

Swain, who was the commission's vice chair, rejected that criticism.

"I would disagree that there were any historical inaccuracies in our report," she said, adding, "Part of the purpose and goal of the 1776 Commission was really to urge Americans, especially students, to read the original documents .... read for themselves the state constitutions, rather than have everything filtered."

She acknowledged, "We had less than 20 days to produce a report, so it was not perfect."

The founding of the United States and the ideals of the time cannot be extricated from their context and the reality of who was excluded, and how, if progress and productive conversation are to be sought, Grossman said.

"For someone to stand up now and say, 'Your ideas are contrary to the spirit of the founding, and my ideas are consistent with the spirit' -- I'm happy, and students should be happy, disagreeing about this. But do it with the text in front of you, do it with an understanding of the context of the text," he said. "And that context includes knowing that these men owned, bought and sold other human beings."

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