In 2026 the United States will mark the 250th anniversary of American independence—the Semiquincentennial. It would be the understatement of two-and-a-half centuries to suggest that it will likely be a busy year for the history profession across the nation and even internationally. Of course, history professionals are not the only people interested in how to commemorate the anniversary or contextualize the landmark of 250 years. And it is far from too early to begin thinking about plans. In fact, many organizations are already several years into their thinking.
This post focuses on a crucial element for understanding how the Semiquincentennial will be celebrated: the federal and state government commissions overseeing commemorations. Scholars play an important role, but it’s vital to understand the structures that will shape the public’s perception of the event. Much of the energy for the commemoration will come through these commissions, which are planning events and overseeing funding and grant opportunities. And they are organized in ways that may be unfamiliar to many scholars and other professionals.
As John Garrison Marks recently argued, politics and the sharply partisan debate about history currently underway in the United States are forcing museums, history sites, teachers, professors, and others to re-evaluate how they approach the past and the Revolution specifically. Marks notes that this poses obvious peril for historians, but also opens avenues for exploring the past because people are interested and engaged. Scholars absolutely can play a role, but they need to know how to get in the door.
National Commission and Foundation
First, commissions are a common way for governments to address standalone issues such as a major anniversary. They focus attention on the particular issue at hand, coordinate efforts among existing government agencies (which obviously have their own agendas to manage), and channel public and private funding into programming. In this case, both the federal government and many states have established commissions.
At the federal level, Congress created the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission (USSC) in 2016 to oversee work across the United States through the end of 2027. Its membership includes a number of Cabinet secretaries in ex officio roles. Some are charged with roles related to history, memory, and cultural knowledge already, such as the Librarian of Congress, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and the Archivist of the United States, and others not, including the Secretaries of State, Defense, Education, Interior, and the Attorney General. The Commission also includes four members of the Senate and four from the House, as well as sixteen private citizens.
The enabling legislation (Public Law 114-196) envisions a largely ceremonial role for the Commission. Congress proposed a relatively narrow focus on the American Revolution in order to promote “the ideas associated with that history, which have been so important in the development of the United States, in world affairs, and in the quest for freedom of all mankind.” The law requires the Commission to hold all of its meetings at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, “to honor the historical significance of the building as the site of deliberations and adoption of both the United States Declaration of Independence and Constitution.” It does not meet frequently. Finally, public monies are not appropriated to the Commission; instead, the Department of the Interior was charged with contracting with a private, non-profit organization to fundraise and support the Commission’s work.
After a lengthy public process, the USSC signed a contract with the America 250 Foundation to oversee fundraising and planning. The Foundation has taken a broader view of the 250th, seeking to organize “the largest and most inclusive anniversary observance in our nation’s history,” according to its website. As such, America250 plans to commemorate the past two-and-a-half centuries as much as the events of 1776. It has already begun supporting partnerships with local organizations, and initiated a program of America250 Awards in partnership with the National Football League to honor Americans during the one of the Thanksgiving Day games. However, it is important to note that as of this writing, America250’s work is largely on hold over allegations of harassment and discrimination within the organization.