Video: Understanding ‘All Men Are Created Equal’—1776 Commission’s Dr. Matthew Spalding
In the founding of America, some suggest the idea that “all men are created equal” was a lie, written by hypocrites in a time of slavery. When the New York Times’ controversial “1619 Project” was first published, its introduction stated that it “aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding.”
How should we understand America’s founding and its promise that “all men are created equal”?
Today, we sit down with Dr. Matthew Spalding, a professor of constitutional government and Dean of the Van Andel Graduate School of Government at Hillsdale College. He was the executive director of the 1776 Commission, created by executive order by former President Trump. It recently published a report defending America’s founding aspirations.
This is American Thought Leaders, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Jan Jekielek: Dr. Matthew Spalding, so great to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Dr. Matthew Spalding: Great to be with you.
Mr. Jekielek: You are the executive director of the 1776 Commission, commissioned by former President Trump. Tell me about what problem this group was charged with, exactly.
Dr. Spalding: The commission was created by an executive order, that comes out of a conversation in September, the anniversary of the Constitution—they did a conference. An executive order is written in November. I took leave from my job at Hillsdale College to go and be executive director. The executive order really calls for advice. It’s an advisory commission for the president, written for one president, but it’s written in general terms, which says it advises any president about the importance of 1776, the principles of 1776, the ideas of 1776, and how those principles inform American history. It’s not all American history, but how those principles have shaped it, and what that might mean.
Why is that important? What significance does it have for where we are right now, given the fact that we are soon approaching the 250th anniversary of the Declaration, which is also a more of an urgent push towards looking towards that anniversary in the future, and what implications does this have for the federal government? How should it do its operations? What concerns should it have? How should this play out in other aspects of government? So what the 1776 report was really the first of what should be many reports to your commission to do several things to help advise a president in preparing for the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, so what exactly is the core concept or promise of the Declaration of Independence as you outline it?
Dr. Spalding: First of all, that’s a great question. That’s actually the question we think that Americans should be thinking about. Not like what is the core promise, but is that still the core promise of what America means? What the Declaration of Independence did was it really changed the grounding of politics, both in terms of its legitimacy and its promise. As Lincoln said, it was applicable to all men in all times. Martin Luther King called it a promissory note.
Well, what is it? It’s a claim that we’re all equal. No one is born king. No one is born subject. Also, no one is born a slave, and one is born a master. That’s a fundamental, inherent, deep moral truth at the core of America. That doesn’t mean we always lived up to it, or we weren’t flawed, or we’re not perfect, … or that we are imperfect. But that’s our aspiration. That’s the principle.
That’s the promise of the Declaration of Independence. That’s why our politics has always been about living up to our principles. That’s what we want to remind Americans about. We are all equal. You can understand equal by nature, equal in the eyes of God, equal before the law, that notion that none of us have more rights than someone else. We all have the same opportunity. We all have the same humanity that demands respect. That is the core of what America means. We think departures from that are both flawed intellectually and wrong historically, but also get us onto very unstable moral grounds as we move ahead.
Mr. Jekielek: You lay out a whole suite of challenges facing the nation in this report. You outline several. Tell me a little bit about what the challenges are.
Dr. Spalding: I should probably start with pointing out the general structure of the report really does begin noting its authority. It really begins with a long discussion of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the two documents which were the founding documents of the American regime. What it does do, and some critics have pointed this out—which I actually think is somewhat ironic, but it’s a badge of respect, I suppose—is that we present those arguments as a claim that they’re true. That is, it’s not merely an assertion, but as the Declaration says, these are understood to be the self-evident truths at the heart of the American nation.
We take that as our starting point. That’s how the Founders understood it. That’s how Lincoln understood it. That’s how Martin Luther King understood it. The report was released on Martin Luther King Day, which is to say it’s those ideas that we look back to and always define ourselves in light of. So we approach this question about challenges to those things not in a comprehensive sense of covering every possible basis, but what are the key things that challenge the heart of the matter, that really go after those principles?
And here, the principle really being that the idea that all men are created equal, the heart of the Declaration. One of the obvious ones is slavery. We discuss slavery at some length, not only in and of itself and how the Founders understood slavery and how they dealt with this barbaric institution and the challenge to the American founding, but we raised the question about John C. Calhoun, the great defender of slavery, who, in the defense of slavery, attacked the Declaration of Independence and introduced this idea of group rights, which we’ll come back to, in the narrative so to speak.
We talk about progressivism, … not in a sense that it is all-encompassing on this one point, but the point we emphasized amongst various elements is the intellectual element, which is progressivism really does take as its heart a rejection, if you will, of the idea that there can be truth, simply. Carl Becker, one of the great progressive historians, the great progressive historian of the Declaration said, “To ask if the Declaration is true or not is a meaningless question.” That’s an intellectual challenge. Not as barbaric, not as violent, but it’s clearly an intellectual challenge.
It’s the same thing [when] we talk about fascism and communism abroad very much denying the humanity of all men. Violent in a very different way, but still the same intellectual challenge. Then we carry that through to today, we talk about race, meaning both the challenges of race after the Civil War and Jim Crow in the South and the problems inherent in all that, which was terrible. Then the rise of the early civil rights movement, which was an attempt to go back to the principles of the Declaration. That’s what Martin Luther King did.
But more recently, it’s kind of gotten off on the wrong foot, moved in the wrong direction, rejected that grounding in the Declaration of Independence, moving towards we should look at each other in light of our group definition, or identity, or what we call today identity politics, which we noted intellectually, is also a challenge to the principles that all men are created equal and is also oddly akin, not as barbaric as slavery, but it’s akin to Calhoun’s intellectual argument that rather than looking to all men being created equal as the principle—which was Martin Luther King’s principle, Lincoln’s principle, the Founders’ principle—it looks to group rights.
You have rights because of your group, your ethnicity, your race, some other category. That we see as an intellectual challenge, that’s a problem. Historically, once we start going down the road of group rights, that tends to be problematic, because one group might have rights today, but they might not have them tomorrow, and it might change. We’d prefer it to be grounded in an intellectually and morally firmer ground, in an idea that is just inherent in human nature. That’s what the Founders did. That’s the great advantage they gave us in our inheritance, and that’s why the report keeps coming back to that core principle.
Mr. Jekielek: One of the big criticisms of this idea, both with respect to slavery and with respect to, frankly, the realities of the opportunities that people have across America. They are certainly not equal. With respect to slavery, the argument has been that America was founded on a lie. This institution was active at the time when the Declaration of Independence was written. So how do you square that exactly?
Dr. Spalding: I think that’s a very legitimate question. It’s a question we should all grapple with. I think the way to answer that is how can we come to understand [this.] It’s this general question about how to think about history. Today, we tend to be dominated by two extreme positions, if you will. Either everything has to be perfect and without flaw, or we look back and see flaws and we resolve that everything is flawed and bad and not worth studying.
But history is more complicated than that, and I think we all know that. Can we hold something to be true—a principle, an aspiration—but also simultaneously have something that is a deep flaw, indeed, to point of being a rejection, in the case of many people, a rejection of that principle? I think that’s what happens at the time of the American founding. Slavery clearly existed. They were arguing about it at the time.
Jefferson held slaves at the same time he wrote a condemnation of the slave trade in the draft of the Declaration of Independence. George Washington owned slaves, but by the time he writes his final will, he frees those that are in his estate because he has come to detest slavery. The American founding occurs at a particular time in history in which there’s a transformation going on. It has something to do with the Enlightenment, has something to do with the rise of moral sentiments, a change. Actually, the American founding has something to do with that. They’re right on that cusp, if you will.
I think we need to look at it that way. Now, slavery comes to be defended later in a more robust way. It comes to be much more embedded economically, say, with the invention of the cotton gin. We have the expansion of the Southern argument, which ultimately is John C. Calhoun’s argument, the positive good of slavery, and that’s to be condemned. But that’s not necessarily growing out of the founding itself. At the time of the founding, I think one could safely say that the principle had been established—this was Lincoln’s—the principle had been established, so they can then carry it out at the appropriate time. They made compromises, but we have to understand that they were compromises.
Compromises in light of what? Compromises in light of the Declaration of Independence. That’s the only way to understand it. Because otherwise, you must condemn the whole thing. That’s just not good history, and that’s not fair to them. Let’s try to understand what they were doing. Imperfect, flawed, not the way we would do it, but we have to understand the circumstances in which they found themselves. They were trying to found a nation, to start a nation.
The more radical thing, the more miraculous thing, if you will, is that in a nation where slavery existed, they all agreed to put at its very core, at its center, a principle that all men are created equal. That’s the great thing they did. That’s the seed that was laid there that Lincoln, among others saw, also Frederick Douglass, and also did Martin Luther King look back to that. That’s the thing that they put there that put slavery on, as Lincoln said, the road to ultimate extinction, which is where the Founders wanted it in the first place, and they placed it there. It was by going back to the principle that they embedded in the founding that allowed that to happen.
So the idea that this was merely hypocritical and … it was all about slavery and racism at the core of the founding, it’s just not historically correct, but also it doesn’t take them at their word. We should at least give them the opportunity to explain what they’re doing. One can do that if you look at the historical records, and see what they wrote and what they’ve said and how they thought about it and how they’ve argued about it, and how they came to their conclusions.
That’s what the report is trying to do. It’s not comprehensive, but it puts a marker down. It puts enough there to remind us that’s the story that we should go back to and learn and think about and take into consideration. That’s the history that has been the dominant history until relatively recently when we decided to just throw the whole thing out. I don’t think that’s where the American people are. So we were really writing it for them.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s very interesting. In the report, you describe the dispute about the ultimate meaning of America. You’ve started alluding to that. So tell me about that. Exactly, what is the dispute now?
Dr. Spalding: Well, I think there are a lot of disputes now, I suppose. There’s the general dispute, which is the backdrop to all this, of how to understand our own history. The claim of the American founding, and the claim of history growing out of the American founding, is that we are a people united around these principles and this form, this Constitution, which is the form to uphold those principles, and that forms a nation.
American history is a playing out of that principle as we aspire to live up to it. That was the principle that informed not only abolition, the movement against slavery [which] begins in this country—it later informs women’s suffrage, the early civil rights movement, the pro-life movement today, and anti-communism. It’s all informed by a look back to the principle, and that really is the driving force of American history which led to our great success.
The dominant view today is more that history doesn’t matter as much. The idea that you can have an idea that is true, or as Lincoln said, applicable to all men at all times, and can transcend history, is broadly denied in the modern academy and among elite thinkers. So as a result, they just don’t see this argument at all. Instead, they see a flawed past that’s not worth studying. In doing that, they are unfair to their students in the sense that they don’t allow them to see the flaws, see the problems, and also see what they actually accomplished by putting those principles there, and trying to live up to them.
There’s also a greatness and nobility in American history even with those flaws, and the overcoming of slavery is part of that history as well. We’d like to see a more complete history, a fuller history, a more accurate history, and then let people realize that despite all these flaws, there’s something about American history and America that is lovable. That’s what we mean by patriotic education. It doesn’t mean America, no matter what, it’s always right, it’s always true, it’s always perfect.
It means that despite its flaws, despite its imperfections, despite the messiness of history, there is something actually lovable, and what’s lovable are its principles, its ideas, what it means, and we can still appeal to that. Americans can all appeal to that, and that unifies us. That’s a wonderful, wonderful thing. It’s something that we can be patriotic about.
Mr. Jekielek: When I hear the term “patriotic education,” I often think of, for example, what they have as patriotic education in communist China, which is the Chinese Communist Party is always right, and there are the evil aggressors, and so on and so forth—a very specific narrative. You’re saying that patriotic education is actually something quite different than that.
Dr. Spalding: I agree with your point. You think patriotic education must be like North Korea, or China, or the Soviet Union, where the regime actually imposes one’s beliefs, and you were told to believe that and that’s your patriotic duty. No, absolutely, that’s not at all what we have in mind. Probably the best advocates of patriotic education were the Founders themselves. They begin with the premise that you must know something in order to love it, and you must come to know your own history.
It’s also recognizing the essential quality of American history, which is why America is unlike all those other regimes, especially the ones we just referred to, like China, and the Soviet Union, and North Korea. America is different. Why? It’s a regime in which we have this freedom to govern ourselves, but the one thing that unifies is not the party government. It’s not the national apparatus or the administrative state. It’s not the Supreme Court telling us what to do. The thing that unifies us is that we are all, in common, dedicated to this idea, this principle.
So part of knowing our history is knowing that part of the story—the founding, what they meant by the Declaration, how the Constitution tries to embody a great framework to bring about the Declaration, how we fought a war to correct the record, if you will, and prevent the splitting of our country, and also to free these enslaved people. That’s all part of our history.
A patriotic education for Americans is learning the actual history accurately. When you do that, you realize that at the center of that history is this idea, this claim, this self-evident truth. We think that’s actually a truth, and that is something that we can be in love with, not in the sense that we love our family, but actually because that love is for the heart of human freedom. So you can love this country despite its flaws, because it has done so much to advance that cause, and that’s what makes it a great and wonderful, successful nation.
Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned how education is a key element and also a challenge here, and that the academy has taken on a very different approach than what you just described in terms of how to view America. How did that happen exactly, and what are you imagining as solution to change that, to shift that?
Dr. Spalding: There’s a much longer discussion there, I suppose. The way we approach it—the short answer is, some of these challenges themselves brought about some problems in our educational system. At least within education that has a lot to do with what we call, modern progressivism—the idea that education is no longer about transferring knowledge, this old fashioned quaint idea that history, and classical learning, and literature has something to tell us and that a teacher’s obligation is to pass that down, so that the student can come to know themselves and make their own decisions. That’s no longer what we think of as education anymore.
Education has become, to use their own term, progressive. It’s really about looking at this notion of where’s it going and what’s the most up to date, current thinking. There aren’t truths in the past that we can go back to. Education itself is historical or historicist in the sense that there aren’t permanent things, there’s not a truth that we somehow are seeking, which is the old notion of educating in terms of liberating the mind, to seek that truth.
It really is about teaching what history tells us, which unfortunately, oftentimes, becomes a certain kind of indoctrination or at least has a lot of ideological baggage associated with it, because now it’s not history itself, but it’s kind of history backwards. We look back in history. If we want to see evils, then history is evil. If we want to see a trajectory that leads to where we are today, we’ll see our trajectory. It’s not history in itself anymore. We tend to use it as a tool in order to get to where we want to go.
There’s a lot more there, it’s a lot more problematic. There’s a lot more going on, and this report doesn’t suggest that we answer that full question completely, but there’s a problem. There’s something going on in our educational system that we think an honest history would be a large corrective to, but also we need to re-think what we mean by education. What is a genuine education? What the report is especially concerned about is, what is an education about civics? What does one need to know to be a good citizen?
There, I think, the report really has some very, very particular things it wants to at least place on the table or in our conversation here. In America, to be a citizen means you actually need to know something about American history, how American government works, the debates or what the Declaration means, alternatives, great figures in history, those kinds of things. That’s not the way civics is taught much anymore, and we think a recovery of that would be a large step in the right direction.
Mr. Jekielek: One of the things that you mentioned in here, I just thought of this. You’re talking about the influence of progressivism. You suggest in the report that progressivism is what actually gave rise to larger bureaucracy or the administrative state, as you described. I thought that was a pretty curious, interesting observation.
Dr. Spalding: We note that in passing. One of the things that’s interesting about the progressive movement is, and there are different elements of progressivism and the things that happened at the time, and we can’t put them all into one big category, I suppose, but having said that, there’s a large intellectual point they make and a large practical point they make.
The intellectual point they make is that the idea that there are truths isn’t true. There are only historical truths, or truths that progress with time. That undercuts, intellectually, the claim of the American founding. But instead, what they turn to—at least the early progressives turned to, are science, expertise, or bureaucrats, people that have been specially trained to run things, whether that’s in the academy or in government.
This is how they reshaped and rethought government. They, themselves, enter into this term: administrative state. The government’s about administering things. It’s no longer about the fundable ends of government, it’s about the process. So they very much introduced in its place, in the place of a constitution granted on the principles as understood by the Founders, they unmoored it from the principles and they invented this new way of thinking about how to run things, and they write [about it at] great length.
Woodrow Wilson in particular, and other progressives write at great length about this notion of what administration means and what bureaucratic or expert rule means. I think that’s something that has stuck in American history and politics. We continue to have, as a troublesome problem in our politics, fights over bureaucracy, the so-called fourth branch of government.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s really interesting. One of the things that I caught in reading the report, which isn’t necessarily obvious to everybody, certainly to people that aren’t American—I’m a Canadian, for example—it was really interesting reading the report and learning a number of things about the American founding and the vision. One of the things I read was the idea that the government needs to be strong enough to have the power to secure rights, but not have so much power so as to infringe on rights. There’s some kind of medium to be found there and that’s the ideal. That’s really fascinating to me.
Dr. Spalding: Really, in many ways, there’s so many things that report brings up that are fundamentally important, that sometimes we take for granted, so it’s always good to hear someone point these things out. But when you really think about it, what’s so unique about the American government is the extent to which these two documents, the Declaration and the Constitution, are also a back and forth on these great questions.
The Declaration is about the rights that we all have, inherent in our nature, to be secured. Legitimate government will secure these rights, it says. But then, of course, the Constitution creates the actual government. It’s the relationship between those things that really matters. So you want the government strong enough to secure the rights, which includes national defense, but also a justice system to make sure that your actual rights aren’t taken away, but it can’t be so strong that overwhelms those rights.
So a lot of American history is also about a back and forth between that, like the questions we’ve been talking about here. Obviously, slavery is the most obvious and the most barbaric example of that, a whole group of people whose rights are taken away. The report also talks about religious liberty. There’s a whole appendix about the role of faith and the importance of religious liberty as being a core right. All of those things really become fundamentally important in that relationship between securing rights, but not having government overwhelm them.
One thing I would point out is that in the American understanding of these questions, it should always default not to government, but to the rights themselves. If there’s any question here, I think the claim of the right should garner the most respect and protection. That’s always how we resolve these questions. Especially now, when government is getting bigger and more complicated, and doing more and more things, we need to be especially cognizant of that.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s talk about this question of religious liberty. Of course, that’s in the First Amendment and also freedom of speech is in the First Amendment. Something that struck me and this is actually referenced in the report earlier, but again, as I’ve been learning about the American founding and those principles, there were a number of different religious groups that had their own ideas about their relationship with God and how to enact that, and some of them were actually quite different. Part of the founding is actually trying to figure out how to be able to allow all these different, quite strongly thinking people and approaches to work together on the backdrop of religious persecution in Europe.
Dr. Spalding: A great point and actually it’s extremely important. We wanted to have an appendix dedicated specifically to this question. The establishment of religious liberty was, for the American founding, probably one of the most important questions, the idea that civil and religious liberty actually went together. They were part and parcel of the same thing. You couldn’t have true civil freedom without religious freedom, and you couldn’t have religious freedom if you didn’t have civil liberty.
So coming to understand that is really crucially important to understanding the founding, and part of this has to do with their understanding of history, especially in Europe with religious persecution and establishments that lead to religious wars. They were very cognizant of that.
But also, it’s important to understand one of the reasons why we wanted to have that appendix—one of the common notions is that when they establish religious liberty, they were pushing religion to the side—that’s not quite true, either. They did have a sense of the separation of church and state as a formality, that there would be no established religion in America, there would be religious liberty—that is true.
But they did have a very robust sense of what religious liberty meant. It meant free exercise, in the sense that religious people would participate in American politics and they actually welcome their participation in American politics. But also, it’s a recognition that religion, the revealed tradition itself is a source of truth and deep understanding about the human condition.
So it also raises the question or presents the point that to really understand the principles of the Declaration, that all men are created equal, it’s not absolutely necessary, it’s not conditional, but there’s a profound way in which revelation, especially Christianity, sees all as equal in the eyes of God, that that somehow contributes to our understanding of all men being created equal. So the founding is also a great way in which the traditions of reason, the enlightenment and thinking going back to the Romans and the Greeks, that whole grand tradition of the rule of law coming through British constitution, and also the regulatory tradition, all come together.
These great traditions of the great revealed religions really come together in a way that can come to this solution, at least this practical solution, and that’s how the American Founders understood it. So we actually thought that that component of this argument was crucially important for us to also understand, because among other things, that gives us an added way to appeal to and recover these deeper truths of the Declaration of Independence.
Mr. Jekielek: You also have an appendix about identity politics in the report. Why did you think it was so important to include that?
Dr. Spalding: We definitely wanted to include something about identity politics. I don’t think we intended it to be final, or comprehensive, or conclusive, but we wanted to put on the table that there’s this idea out there that’s problematic. It’s problematic in the same way that these earlier challenges were. It’s not clear where it’s going, it’s not clear what ultimately it means or what form it will take, but the general notion that we should divide people into groups according to their racial identities, but then also combine that with an understanding of the past that has to do with oppressors and the oppressed, and that we should categorize people and somehow that has something to do with the extent to which they do, or do not, have political rights or standing—we found all that to be very problematic, and disturbing, and misguided.
We think the better argument is to appeal back to the principles of the founding itself, for the principle of human equality, the idea that we’re equal before the law, and that our civics and our citizenship should be understood in that sense. It’s not a definitive answer to that question but really, it is intended to juxtapose, if you will, this modern sense of identity politics with the principles and ideas of these foundational principles of the American regime itself. I’m not sure you’ve noted, that appendix is actually a question mark. You’ll create equality or identity politics—we actually see those things as really being juxtaposed.
Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating. Why do you think the report was removed from the White House website when the new administration stepped in?
Dr. Spalding: I think a couple of reasons. The main one is there is a divide, there’s an argument in America right now. It has something to do with all of the things we’ve been talking about, history, and the status of the principles of the founding. But the more immediate debate has to do with this question of how to bring about equal justice, or “equity,” as the modern term used. It is [then tied] back to these questions of identity politics, critical race theory, and it’s all a mishmash of these ideas. We’d like that to be an open conversation, a discussion about what are the nature of those rights, [and] how we should understand them.
I think the new administration wanted to go in a different direction when it came to policy matters in terms of equity within the federal government, which I believe is what the executive order was really about. But in order to get there, they had to separate it out and cut off at the knees, if you will, this other argument, which is the commission’s report and the commission itself. I think that because of the nature of the argument that was made in the report, because of the laying out of this alternative way of looking at our history, and reminding people that there is this broader history that includes the defense of those principles, reminding Americans that really, the claims of justice that we see throughout our histories, in particular, most recently, with Martin Luther King, the claim of civil rights was actually the claim of the Declaration, which is that all men are created equal.
It was too much in the current policy environment for those things to coexist, which underscores why this is a fundamental debate that the American people really need to come to, to think through, and understand. Why we wrote this, really, was primarily for the American people to realize that there is a better way of understanding their own history that’s more accurate, and it could open the door to that, reminding them that the principles of this regime are not only defendable in and of themselves, but even within the context of a very flawed history, something that is quite noble and something that you can be patriotic about.
It’s a long answer to my short answer, which is that I think there’s a divide and that the report really struck a nerve right at that point, such that they had to, I think, incorrectly and astonishingly, abolish a commission writing report on 1776.
Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned equity. There’s a lot of discussion about what equity actually means vis-à-vis equality, and that they’re actually not the same thing. Can you clarify that, please?
Dr. Spalding: I’ll give you a short answer. Both these are claims of justice. The claim of equality is that we begin with some sort of equal status inherent in our nature. That’s the most important thing, that we are equal in our possession of rights despite a lot of inequalities, whether we’re handsome or not, or tall or short, or whatever it might be. We’re obviously unequal in many ways, but we are fundamentally equal in terms of our humanity and that gives rise to certain rights, but also duties and responsibilities.
Equity is a much more modern term that somehow [asserts] that equality can only be understood as equality of outcomes and conditions, and somehow it has to be brought about and it rejects the inherent equality or at least overlooks that as less important. It’s really more about creating equities and so it’s much more focused on outcomes, overcoming things, changing things, in which someone else on the outside determines and tries to bring about some understanding of equality, separate from that more fundamental idea of equality that I already explained.
Mr. Jekielek: Given these realities, what is the future of this report or work in this direction? Obviously, this is a summary of a summary in a sense, [a very] succinct document. What happens next?
Dr. Spalding: By abolishing the commission and removing the report, they actually drew more attention to it, thank you very much. It’s available. Other institutions have posted it. Hillsdale College has posted it, as have several other members of the commission and outlets, and so it’ll be available. I encourage the American people to read for themselves.
I can say that the commission, in some form, will carry on, mostly because the members of the commission, especially speaking for the chairman, the vice chair, and myself, but also several other members [in the] commission, we have spent large periods of our adult careers writing about and thinking about these questions. They’re not going to go away. You can even abolish a commission, which in Washington, D.C., that’s what we do in politics. If you abolish something, it’s supposed to slowly go away. You can abolish a commission, but you can’t erase history. You can’t get rid of these principles.
That’s what we’re dedicated to, and that’s what we will continue teaching and working to defend. There are some things out there, but there aren’t a lot. I recognize the problem which you point to there. The question which we want to put to the American people is, what kind of education do they want for their children? Do they want their children to be educated in this way of thinking about American history or that way of thinking about American history? Do they want them to hear the whole story? At that level, I think we must understand the problem.
Yes, the academy and the modern educational system is deeply problematic and has become increasingly flawed because of recent trends in popular education. The question here is actually to the American people themselves, because at the end of the day, they are the legitimate source of authority, they themselves are the ones who vote people into office, they control school boards and state curricula, the places that do make these decisions, and so we really put the question to them.
There are alternatives out there and we hope there will be more. But the one thing we need to do is remind them and awaken, if you will, the American mind, as Jefferson said, to the importance of these ideas. I think that’s what the report especially did. It pointed us in that direction.
Mr. Jekielek: Any final thoughts before we finish up?
Dr. Spalding: One thing that is important to keep in mind here is the extent to which the claims of the American founding themselves were revolutionary. It was a revolution after all, not in the sense that we think of the French Revolution, that it tore everything down and started from scratch. It inherited a lot of these arguments and ideas, but it did overthrow its mother country and start its own nation. These were radical ideas.
What is radical about them and why is that thing still important for us to study? We’ve heard this a million times. Every July 4 when their ads go up on TVs about mattress sales, we hear about the Declaration. Why is it still important to us? That, of course, begs the question. Are these things true or not?
The claim of the American founding is, not that it invented it, but it was the first nation to begin its life saying that we’re going to found our nation on the claim of a truth that all men are created equal. Some are not less equal and more equal. Different groups don’t have rights and others don’t. It doesn’t matter the color of your skin. It’s a simple truth. All are created equal and out of that comes consent, which is the basis for legitimacy of government.
If that was true in 1776, it’s still true today. If it wasn’t true in 1776, then I guess it’s not true, and where does that leave us? The question is, is that true? What I find shocking is that’s actually not the question that the academy, the modern academy, the professionals in the academy, that’s not the question they think is important, because from their point of view, education is not about seeking the truth.
They look back at this history and merely see dusty old documents, and that’s not how we want to look at it. That’s not how we think Lincoln looked at it. That’s not how Martin Luther King looked at it. That’s not how the Founders looked at it themselves at the time.
It’s a claim, or a proposition as Lincoln said at Gettysburg, that all men are created equal. Is that true? Is that true? We think it is. We ask the American people, is that true? Because if it is, then we should be guided by that and not be frittering around the latest claim of rights somehow emanating from something else that’s artificial. Are all men created equal? That’s the question.
Mr. Jekielek: Matthew Spalding, such a pleasure to have you on.
Dr. Spalding: Great being with you.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.