Celebrating our founding ideals: A Q&A with Celebrate Freedom author Bill Mattox

Written by Derek Monson

October 8, 2021

“In an age when many want to tear down America – and question its exceptionalism,” says Celebrate Freedom curriculum author Bill Mattox, “this curriculum explains why our nation’s founding ideals are truly worth celebrating.” The curriculum, he says, “focuses on the key passage in the Declaration of Independence that begins ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident’” and helps students “understand concepts like God-given rights, ordered liberty, the consent of the governed, and equality (of persons and opportunities, not outcomes).”

For a little over a decade, Florida think tank James Madison Institute (where Mattox works) has partnered with the Tampa Bay Times at the request of the Florida Department of Education to produce the curriculum. It has reached more than a million Florida high school students during that time.

“As one would expect, our publication gives prominent attention to the contributions of our nation’s leading founders,” says Mattox. “It also seeks to help students understand that many of our nation’s most distinguished African-American leaders … unashamedly embraced America’s founding ideals, yet lamented our failure, at times, to live up to these ideals.” It helps students “recognize that good citizenship extends well beyond the political realm” into things like organizing through voluntary associations to solve local community problems.

But Celebrate Freedom is not out of touch with modern political trends. According to Mattox, “it (often subtly) counters the false narratives that have gained considerable traction in recent years without sugarcoating American history or pretending that America’s founders were somehow flawless.” The 2021 version of Celebrate Freedom is free and can be accessed online here.

You can read the entire interview between Bill Mattox and Sutherland Institute Vice President of Policy Derek Monson below.

Monson: What is the purpose of Celebrate Freedom and where did the idea originate?

Mattox: Nearly 12 years ago, our organization decided to launch a multifaceted civics initiative to help Florida students better understand our nation’s founding principles. At the request of the Florida Department of Education, we agreed to produce a supplemental curriculum designed for use during Celebrate Freedom Week (which is commemorated annually in a number of states, including Florida).

Our curriculum primarily focuses on the key passage in the Declaration of Independence that begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” It is designed to help students understand concepts like God-given rights, ordered liberty, the consent of the governed, and equality (of persons and opportunities, not outcomes).

Over the last decade, we’ve distributed Celebrate Freedom to more than one million Florida high school students. We recently released a new-and-improved “250th Anniversary” edition of the publication and plan to distribute it to at least 250,000 students each year – and at least 1,776,000 overall – between July 4, 2021, and July 4, 2026.

Monson: How is Celebrate Freedom designed to be used? (e.g., in classrooms, in homes, both, etc.)?

Mattox: Our publication is produced in collaboration with the News-in-Education department at the Tampa Bay Times (which distributes our content to schools around the state in both print and digital form). It is designed for use in traditional classrooms but can be used in many nontraditional settings as well. Indeed, many homeschoolers incorporate this supplemental curriculum into their studies, and a number of Scout troops have used it as well with those working on the Citizenship in the Nation merit badge.

Monson: Celebrate Freedom includes a variety of thought experiments and highlights of a diverse set of American historical figures. How do you decide which thought experiments and people to feature?

Mattox: As one would expect, our publication gives prominent attention to the contributions of our nation’s leading founders (Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, etc.). But it also seeks to help students understand that many of our nation’s most distinguished African-American leaders (including Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, MLK, etc.) unashamedly embraced America’s founding ideals, yet lamented our failure, at times, to live up to these ideals – and continually challenged us to become “a more perfect nation.”

The thought experiments (individual and group exercises) in Celebrate Freedom are designed to help students gain a new appreciation for their country and the founding principles that make it exceptional. We want students to see that part of the founders’ genius was that they understood the fallibility of man (which is why they took such care to disperse powers and to establish checks and balances). And we want them to recognize that good citizenship extends well beyond the political realm – that, indeed, the best citizens “ask not” what government can do for them, but ask instead what they can do to help solve problems through voluntary associations and community-based enterprises (such as those that so impressed Alexis de Tocqueville).

Monson: What sets Celebrate Freedom apart from other civics curricula?

Mattox: Celebrate Freedom presents America’s founding ideals in a manner that is very mindful of the spirit of our age. It (often subtly) counters the false narratives that have gained considerable traction in recent years without sugarcoating American history or pretending that America’s founders were somehow flawless.

As such, it helps give students an understanding of their country that is honest, balanced, measured, and apt to elicit honor and respect. In an age when many want to tear down America – and question its exceptionalism – this curriculum explains why our nation’s founding ideals are truly worth celebrating.

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