Will America be ready for its 250th birthday?
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Will America be ready for its 250th birthday?
Fireworks during the Independence Day celebration in New York, July 4, 2014. History is a partisan battleground. A troubled national planning commission is attempting a reboot. Here comes the Semiquincentennial, ready or not. (Victor J. Blue/The New York Times)

by Jennifer Schuessler

NEW YORK, NY.- For those planning the United States’ Semiquincentennial in 2026, the past few years have sometimes felt like one long winter at Valley Forge.

They’ve had to battle public apathy toward the impending 250th anniversary of American independence, which has hardly been helped by the false starts, recriminations and lawsuits plaguing the federal commission charged with coordinating the celebration.

And then there’s the tongue-twisting word itself, which has left more than a few people puzzling over not just what a semiquincentennial is, but how the heck you say it.

Still, as July 4 approaches, the effort is stepping into overdrive, as planners hit what some wryly call the annual panic button. On Tuesday, the rebooted United States Semiquincentennial Commission, also known as America250, will roll out a public engagement campaign at American Family Field in Milwaukee, where the Chicago Cubs will face the hometown Brewers. And so far, at least 33 states have created commissions, while institutions across the country are steaming ahead with plans for exhibitions and events of their own.

In some places across the country, there’s a sense of excitement and cautious optimism, along with no small amount of worry over how to create a unifying commemoration at a moment when fighting about American history seems to be the real national pastime.

“The effort to do inclusive history is bumping up against this other view of history, which is exclusive, exclusionary, simplistic and whitewashed,” said John Dichtl, the president and CEO of the American Association for State and Local History. And now it’s all coming together, he said, “in a ferocious and fascinating way.”

Partisan political battles have yet to embroil Semiquincentennial planning specifically. “But as we talk to people,” Dichtl said, “the No. 1 thing they want is more help navigating these times, which are probably only going to get worse.”

In May, unease ran through the historical community when former President Donald Trump released a campaign video pledging to hold a yearlong “Salute to America 250,” including a “Great American State Fair” with pavilions from all 50 states, nationwide high school sports competitions and the construction of his proposed “National Garden of American Heroes.”

And a growing number of state-funded historical institutions have come under political fire. Last month, Republican lawmakers in Alabama threatened to defund the state archives after it hosted a lecture on LGBTQ history.

In Texas, where the state’s historical association has been mired in discord for months, the executive director, J.P. Bryan Jr., a billionaire energy executive, has filed a suit alleging that the group’s board is illegally stocked with left-leaning academics who want to distort authentic Texas history.

But Rosie Rios, the chair of America250, said politics had not been an issue for the federal commission, which includes both Democratic and Republican legislators.

The commemoration will be “bipartisan, nonpartisan, all-partisan,” she said, adding, “All constructive voices are welcome.”

In some ways, the messiness of the planning is a back-to-the-future moment. Today, the Bicentennial — with its painted fire hydrants and explosion of 1776-themed products — is mostly remembered through a hazy lens of nostalgia. But the period preceding 1976 also came during a polarized moment after the Vietnam War and Watergate.

In 1973, Congress disbanded the original federal Bicentennial commission, after leaked documents suggested that President Richard Nixon was seeking to manipulate it for political gain. In 1975, The New York Times reported that the impending celebration featured a crowded calendar but “an uncertain focus.”

And the history on view was not just a whitewashed celebration. There was a growing attention to complexity, contradiction and dissent, thanks to groups like the Afro-American Bicentennial Corp. and the left-wing People’s Bicentennial Commission (which disrupted the official commemoration of the Boston Tea Party and even hanged Ronald McDonald in effigy from a Liberty Tree).

One of the biggest legacies of the Bicentennial, scholars say, was increased popular interest in history, and what the scholar M.J. Rymsza-Pawlowska in her book “History Comes Alive” calls a more emotional, personal engagement with the past.

The anniversary also generated major investments in history-related infrastructure, and not just in the places where Paul Revere rode or Betsy Ross sewed. According to an 1982 survey, as many as 40% of the nation’s roughly 23,000 historical organizations were created in the Bicentennial era.

Whether there’s still time, or money, for similar projects is uncertain. And the stumbles by the federal commission, established by Congress in 2016, haven’t helped.

In June 2022, Meta, then the sole corporate sponsor, withdrew from a $10 million partnership, amid concerns over leadership. Several months earlier, four female employees of the commission’s supporting foundation filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the group had fostered a sexist environment, while engaging in “cronyism, self-dealing” and “mismanagement of funds.” (The foundation denies the allegations, noting in its most recent annual report that an independent investigation did not find support for them.)

In July 2022, the commission’s chair, Daniel M. DiLella, a Philadelphia developer, was replaced by Rios, a former U.S. treasurer in the Obama administration. This past March, DiLella, who remains on the commission, filed his own lawsuit, alleging that three fellow commissioners had conspired to oust him.

Rios, who has served on the commission since 2018, declined to comment on the lawsuits. But she said the commission was now united and ready for a “fresh start.”

There are new partnerships with Nextdoor (which helped coordinate celebrations across Britain for Queen Elizabeth II’s platinum jubilee) and YWCA USA. And at the Brewers-Cubs game, the commission will roll out “America’s Invitation,” a campaign encouraging people to share personal stories and “hopes and dreams for the future of the country.”

The event, Rios said, was deliberately Middle American — “baseball, hot dogs and apple pie,” she said — as befitting the desire to keep the effort broad and bottom-up, with reach “from Fairbanks to Philadelphia.”

“We want this to be the most comprehensive and inclusive commemoration this country has ever seen,” she said.

In the meantime, other groups have been coordinating on their own. In March, some 300 people from three dozen states gathered at Colonial Williamsburg for a three-day convening, timed to the 250th anniversary of the Committees of Correspondence, which fostered communication among the growing number of colonists angered by British policies.

The gathering — which will be repeated in 2024 and 2025 — was intended to create a sense of cohesion. But for some, the decentralized, ad hoc nature of the planning is a strength — or at least a useful metaphor.

“It’s messy, because democracy’s messy,” said Nathaniel Sheidley, the president and CEO of Revolutionary Spaces, which operates the Old South Meeting House and the Old State House in Boston. “There’s something fitting about it playing out in this way. If it were boxed and top down, it would feel inauthentic to the history.”

At the gathering, there were presentations of research showing that Americans’ views of history are far less polarized than news coverage might suggest. And there was plenty of good-natured ribbing among attendees from Virginia, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania over whose revolutionary legacy was bigger and better.

But overall, the emphasis was less on soaring oratory than the nuts-and-bolts of legislation, funding and, for states beyond the original 13 colonies, ways to link the Semiquincentennial to their own histories.

During a lightning round of state updates, Jason Hanson, the chief creative officer at History Colorado, said his state’s commission hoped to piggyback on the positive energy around Colorado’s 150th anniversary on Aug. 1, 2026.

“Everyone loves Colorado, so that feels safe,” he said.

In a later interview, he elaborated. “That’s not to say we don’t have people in Colorado who have different views,” Hanson said. “But so far, we’ve been able to stay on this more constructive ground.”

For some, looking back at the Bicentennial itself can help connect past and present. In Utah, the Division of State History has organized a project called “The Peoples of Utah Revisited,” which brings together professional and community-based scholars to update a Bicentennial-year book.

It is also holding “scanning events” across the state, where people can bring letters, scrapbooks (like one documenting the Chicano movement in Utah in the 1960s and ’70s) and other items to be digitized and added to the state’s online collections.

“We’re trying to make sure the community sees itself reflected in a historical society, which can be really challenging,” Jennifer Ortiz, the history division’s director, said.

But even as mainstream institutions diversify, some public historians say it’s important to recognize the role of culturally specific institutions.

Noelle Trent, the president and CEO of the Museum of African American History of Boston and Nantucket, said that having robust Black history woven through the Semiquincentennial was important. “But my bigger concern is not just having Black history in predominantly white spaces, but continued support of Black museums,” she said.

Many planners are careful to describe the 250th as a “commemoration,” rather than a celebration. Others disagree.

“It has to be a celebration: not an observance, not a memorial, not a wake, not an occasion for national gloating or repentance,” said Wilfred M. McClay, a professor of history at Hillsdale College and a member of the federal commission.

But McClay, the author of the textbook “Land of Hope,” also said it didn’t have to present a “false front” of unity. “Part of what we are, at our best, is a nation that protects the freedom to dissent and disagree,” he said.

Hanson, of History Colorado, also said there should be room for shared joy.

“We all talk about doing inclusive history, and this is our greatest opportunity in a generation to really show what that looks like,” he said. “But also, we want this to have moments where it feels like when the Nuggets win the NBA,” a reference to Denver’s recent championship.

“I just want to be high-fiving strangers,” he said. “Because we are not strangers. And we’re all out here for the same reason.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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