A Constitution Day Like No Other
The Founders’ Dangerous Words for Tyrants Everywhere Should Not Be Classified as ‘Harmful Content’ by America’s National Archives.
September 17 is the day Americans commemorate the adoption of the Constitution in 1787. It is also Citizenship Day, a time to reflect on what we owe one another, and what we owe the nation.
In 2021 this date is marred by the perplexing judgment of the agency entrusted to safeguard our fundamental national documents.
After two-hundred-and-thirty-four years, the National Archives has lost the plot. This little-known bureaucracy has slapped a “harmful content alert” on the digital catalog of our nation’s historical documents.
In this way, the remarkable progress of the United States—leading the world—in advancing individual sovereignty and freedom is subtly transformed into an indictment of the documents and institutions that make it possible.
Applying contemporary standards from 2021 to the past, the curators have determined that readers should be protected from materials that may:
• reflect racist, sexist, ableist, misogynistic/misogynoir, and xenophobic opinions and attitudes;
• be discriminatory towards or exclude diverse views on sexuality, gender, religion, and more;
• include graphic content of historical events such as violent death, medical procedures, crime, wars/terrorist acts, natural disasters and more;
• demonstrate bias and exclusion in institutional collecting and digitization policies.
Rather than preserving history—the good and the bad, the glorious and the inglorious—the curators are assuming an unaccountable role as censors of our national story. They declare that they “will seek to balance the preservation of this history with sensitivity to how these materials are presented to and perceived by users.”
America’s Charter Documents
Pursuant to Executive Order 13985, issued by President Biden on his first day in office, January 20, 2021, the National Archives issued “The Archivist’s Task Force on Racism” on April 20, 2021.
Referring to “100 milestone documents of American history,” the report dismisses “adulatory and excessive language to document the historic contributions of White, wealthy men.” [p. 84]
The Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom—showcasing the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights—is to be “reimagined.” [p. 18] This is intended to “address the lack of representation and predominant focus on the men who framed the founding documents.” It would also
explore the roles of women, enslaved Africans, and Indigenous Americans to the founding of the United States along with contemporary views on the men who framed the founding documents and their participation in and positions on slavery.
Presentism Run Amok
We should welcome the ongoing expansion of our understanding of the American story, including the recognition of the contributions of previously overlooked or undervalued individuals and groups.
So, too, we should apply the stern standards of the ideals of the Declaration as we strive for continued progress to “a more perfect union.”
Those ideals remain threatening to tyrants and would-be tyrants everywhere.
What we should not do is to heedlessly apply the standards of our moment to the past. This is self-serving if not delusional. Their examples are of greatest value when evaluated by reference to the worlds in which they lived.
The fact is, you're not better than Washington, Jefferson, or Franklin because you know how to use an iPhone, and they didn't.
One can honor the service of additional individuals and groups without denigrating the service of the founders. Throughout our history, our national ideals have spurred us to displace unjust hierarchies based on group identities. It would be a step backward to reconstitute such hierarchies, with redefined group identities and relative positions. [See, e.g., pp. 28-32] The best course is to continue progress toward the ideals of individual equality within a surpassing, expanded national identity.
We can thread the needle of achieving our ideals—and taking reparative actions—without sacrificing the ideals themselves, or the institutions that enable progress.
We can ensure that the American people are educated in the fullness of our history, so that citizens can render our own evaluations of the merit and weight of various accounts. Americans are a strong people—and certainly need not be treated as schoolchildren.
We must also bear in mind that we, too, will be judged by future generations. From their perspective, we will doubtless have fallen short in various ways.
A Citizenship Day to Celebrate
If Constitution Day lacks clarity this year, Citizenship Day is stronger than ever.
From Asia to Africa to Europe to Haiti to Central America, people are seeking inspiration in American ideals and institutions.
Afghan mothers are passing babies over razor-wired walls, to give them the chance for life in America. Thousands more Afghans are seeking the same safe haven, often with extraordinary daring and courage.
Amid the looming darkness of totalitarian rule by the Chinese Communist Party, protesters in Hong Kong summon courage from the principles of the American Declaration.
Hundreds of thousands of would-be immigrants are coming through our southern borders each month, on top of the more than a million legal immigrants admitted to the United States annually.
Millions upon millions more would come if they can find a way.
The dangerous words on which we are founded convey the vision on which their hopes are cast. They are not “harmful content” in their eyes.
A Nation Built on Audacity and Humility
From the start, our Constitution combined stunning audacity with humility. Benjamin Franklin’s wise words resonate as surely today as in the hot summer of 1787.
Mr. President: I confess that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them; for having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise….
In these sentiments, sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general government necessary for us, and there is no form of government but may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe further that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other. I doubt too whether any other convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution. ...
On the whole, sir, I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the convention who may still have objections to it would with me, on this occasion, doubt a little of his own infallibility and, to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.
History as a National Security Issue
The United States is self-created. Each generation stands on the shoulders of its predecessors. America is a living thing, reflecting and molding our national character.
Our newest citizens comprehend its magnificence far better than blinkered bureaucrats at the National Archives.
As Theodore Roosevelt said in 1912:
Those who tell the Americans of the future what the Americans of today and of yesterday have done, will perforce tell much that is unpleasant. This is but saying that they will describe the arch-typical civilization of this age. Nevertheless when the tale is finally told, I believe that it will show that the forces working for good in our national life outweigh the forces working for evil, and that, with many blunders and shortcomings, with much halting and turning aside from the path, we shall yet in the end prove our faith by our works, and show in our lives our belief that righteousness exalteth a nation.
Image Credits: The Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom, 2014. (Photograph by Jeff Reed, National Archives)