Manifestos & Counter-Manifestos: An explainer for the 1776 Commission

by | 21 Jan 2021

The President’s Advisory 1776 Commission, which reported in the last days of the Trump Administration in the US, is a direct retort to the New York Times 1619 Project. In contrast to the 1619 Project which centred on slavery and its role in shaping the US, the Commission were tasked with ‘summarising the principles of American Founding… truthfully recounting the aspirations and actions of the men and women who sought to build America as a “shining city on a hill” – an exemplary nation…’ It aims to present a better education in American principles and begins with the Declaration of Independence. The Report concludes by stating that ‘[a]n authentic civics education will help rebuild our common bonds, our mutual friendship, and our civic devotion. But we cannot love what we do not know.’ According to Donald Trump its aim was to create a document to contribute to ‘patriotic education.’

The 1776 Commission would like US children to answer the following question as part of their proposed educational reforms: ‘Why did Elizabeth Cady Stanton look to the form and substance of the Declaration of Independence in crafting the Seneca Falls Declaration?’

In 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton led the writing of the Seneca Falls “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions”, calling for equality of all men and women, and women’s suffrage. The “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions” mirrors the structure of the Declaration of Independence; the 16 ‘facts’ of King George and Great Britain’s ‘injuries and usurpations’ against the states of America, are replaced with the ‘facts’ of mankind’s ‘injuries and usurpations’ towards women. Whilst the 1776 Commission seek to suggest that Stanton was celebrating the US Declaration of Independence, to answer the question they pose we argue you must have a history of manifestos and understand their relationship with law and constitutionalism. 

Manifestos are hortorical devices for claiming political space and voice. The most familiar are written texts but nevertheless come in a myriad of forms. They are very often political, directed at change, revolution, and rebellion. The 1776 American Declaration of Independence is counted amongst them. It sits amongst other manifestos such as the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) and the Haitian Declaration of Independence (1804) as documents intertwined with the advent of modern constitutionalism and they are entangled with the constitutions that followed them, the exercises of constituent power and so-called constitutional moments. 

As we have said, the 1776 Report and its Commission is a direct response to the New York Times 1619 Project. In this these contemporary reports mirror the tendency of manifestos to lead to counter-manifestos – manifestos that ridicule or mimic the original or contest the veracity of claims made in previous documents. War manifestos are a prime legal example of this process, but there are many more. The 1619 Project aimed to bring issues of slavery to the fore and to juxtapose the idea of liberty and freedom contained in the American War of Independence with the continuation of slavery. As an educational project, its central claim that the history of slavery is central to US history, including that of its War of Independence, its Constitution and events since would appear uncontroversial. However, the Trump Administration set up the 1776 Commission to rebut the 1619 Project. We will leave the issues around US exceptionalism, historiographical methodology and claims around critical race theory to others more qualified, here we want to focus its invocation of the 1776 manifesto and those manifestos that followed.

As a constituting document, the Declaration of Independence is not often read as a manifesto and as such contemporaneous claims to constituent power and voice are eschewed. For example, in 1768 Hannah Griffitts published the The Female Patriots. Address’d to the Daughters of Liberty in America. This manifesto, in the form of a poem, calls for women to participate in boycotts protesting the Sugar Act 1764, the Stamp Act 1765 and the Townshend Duties 1767. It can be read as evidence of women’s contribution in achieving independence, as Griffitts writes they are as patriotic as the men. This poem highlights the omissions from the 1776 Declaration of women’s contributions. As such, reading it in dialogue with the Declaration, exposes some of the deficiencies in that Declaration and what has occurred since. As a Quaker, Griffitts was also eschewing the violence, which would later be claimed as legitimate in the 1776 Declaration. Reading these together, challenges the linear narrative of this constitutional moment as depicted within the Report. 

Manifestos are often in dialogue with each other and with constitutional, legal and political texts. Olympe de Gouge’s Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen (1791) points to the omission of women from the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, which itself is in dialogue with the American Declaration. Here de Gouge uses the same form and repeats part of the text to point out the problems with the original, not to lavish praise on it. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was not alone in mirroring a previous manifesto, but rather was tapping into an established form of protest, and she was also not writing alone; a history of feminist manifestos shows how increasingly feminist manifestos were collective endeavors without a sole author, and the “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions” is signed by 68 women and 32 men. Placed within this history of dialogue across manifestos, the Seneca Falls “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions” should be read as exposing the exclusionary nature of the Declaration of Independence and the constitutional arrangements that followed; it acts to expose what was omitted in the text and highlight oppressions that remained. The “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions” mirrors the claim to constituent power in the Declaration of Independence because claims to be constituent power holders by women and people of colour were ignored in 1776 and beyond. Mimicry here is a form of protest, it points to problems, it does not celebrate. This is the opposite of how manifestos that came after the 1776 Declaration of Independence are portrayed within the Commission’s report. 

Martin Luther Kings’ iconic I Have A Dream (1963) speech is used in the 1776 Report and it is stated that

It seemed, finally, that America’s nearly two-century effort to realize fully the principles of the Declaration had reached a culmination. But the heady spirit of the original Civil Rights Movement, whose leaders forcefully quoted the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the rhetoric of the founders and of Lincoln, proved to be short-lived.

The Report elides quoting the Declaration of Independence with approval of its content and its interpretation. On a very basic level and as Martin Luther King was making clear, the Declaration, the Constitution and the founders did not intend everyone to be equal, as such fulfilling their intentions would not lead to the freedom that he rightfully sought. He replaced the language of the 1776 Manifesto, with his own Manifesto, he talks of Lincoln’s intent in the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation, but immediately points to the failures that followed. His own manifesto in ‘I have a Dream’ is in dialogue with those moments, 1776 and 1862 and points to the ongoing harms, including mass racism and slavery. Manifestos, like ‘I have a Dream’ point to the failures of earlier manifestos, they do not celebrate them, otherwise a new manifesto would be unnecessary. 

The 1776 Report entirely misses a key point. Manifestos that are in dialogue with earlier iterations are not automatically in praise of them. Often, they use the same form to point out the inequity of omissions or a continued tyranny. Sometimes they entirely satirise earlier iterations. Feminist, queer, anti-racist manifestos are in dialogue with documents that have been given constituting roles within a society, they are bringing attention to their inadequacies. 

For further reading on manifestos: 

  • Penny Weiss (ed) Feminist Manifestos: A Global Documentary Reader (New York University Press, 2018)
  • Janet Lyon, Manifestos: Provocations of the Modern (Cornell University Press 1999, edition 2018)
  • Breanne Fahs, Burn it Down!: Feminist Manifestos for the Revolution (Verso, 2020)

Ruth Houghton (Newcastle Law School) and Aoife O’Donoghue (Durham Law School)

1 Comment

  1. baziou thinking is cringe


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