The 1836 Project Is an OpportunityRoundup
tags: Texas, teaching history, Texas history, 1836, 1836 Project
Brian Franklin works at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, where he is the associate director of the Center for Presidential History and a lecturer in the Clements Department of History.
Historians across the country are criticizing Texas House Bill 2497—which, after Gov. Greg Abbott signed it on Monday, establishes the “Texas 1836 Project”—as yet another rhetorical volley in the culture wars, aimed at inflaming already-high tensions and asserting partisan political power. And they’re not wrong.
But as a historian, a Texas history professor, and a proud born-and-raised Texan, I applaud the new law’s call to “promote awareness” of the founders and founding documents of Texas. For teachers, this is an opportunity to read and analyze history with students. And speaking from my own experience, there’s one thing I can tell you: It’s not going to turn out how the politicians who applauded at the signing ceremony think it will.
H.B. 2497 mandates only two things. First, it calls for the creation of a nine-member advisory committee “to promote patriotic education” and Texas values. Second, it requires the committee to provide a pamphlet to the Texas Department of Public Safety, which will give an overview of Texas history and explain state policies that “promote liberty and freedom.” The DPS must distribute this pamphlet to everyone who receives a new Texas driver’s license. Another bill, H.B. 3979, which bars teachers from linking slavery or racism to the “true founding” or “authentic principles” of the United States, is now on Abbott’s desk.
The text of H.B. 2497 is itself relatively tame. It wants to promote history education—a cause that every history teacher would champion. But the context of the bill is much more troublesome. Abbott and much of the Republican-led Texas Legislature have joined a battalion of state leaders across the country who have declared war on ideas they believe aim to destroy society. They’ve identified two scapegoats: the New York Times’ 1619 Project and critical race theory, or CRT, a set of ideas coming from legal academia that is rarely directly taught in K–12 and college classrooms but has become a favorite dog whistle for the right. (If you’ve lost track of the many anti-CRT/1619 bills in play across the country, the situation is outlined in this New York Times piece from earlier this month.)
Enter the 1836 Project, and Greg Abbott’s rallying cry as he signed the bill: “Foundational principles” and “founding documents”! As a history professor, I say we take Abbott up on that challenge, especially the “documents” part. Time to start reading!
Let’s read the 1836 Texas Declaration of Independence. It not only exposes the tyranny of Mexican leader Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, but also describes how Anglo Texans consistently bent and broke Mexican laws. In class, we can talk about how one of the laws that Texans violated was Mexico’s decade-old abolition of slavery. The declaration also describes Stephen F. Austin’s incarceration. In discussing what happened there, we can discover that Mexican officials rightly suspected Texans of fomenting illegal revolutions for years.
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