Get Ready Now for the Storm of Takes Coming at America's 250th BirthdayRoundup
tags: public history, Founding Era, Semiquincentennial
John Garrison Marks is the Senior Manager, Strategic Initiatives and the Director of the Public History Research Lab at the American Association for State and Local History. He is the author of Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery: Race, Status, and Identity in the Urban Americas. He is on Twitter at @johngmarks.
The big event is still more than four years away, but from federal agencies to local museums, the nation’s history community has already begun planning for the 250th anniversary of the United States. Beyond simply celebrating the Revolution, the “Semiquincentennial” commemoration is also an opportunity to share American history in ways that fully explore the diverse people and complex events of our country’s past.
As debate over what history is and who controls the nation’s historical narrative continues to be a partisan lightning rod, it is a minor miracle the 250th has so far taken shape beneath the radar. Although the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission and its private, nonprofit partner the America250 Foundation have been accused in recent weeks of a variety of misdeeds (including discrimination, which the foundation denies), the actual content focus of the 250th—its approach to history—has remained out of the limelight. That peace seems unlikely to last long.
Over the next few years, as planning for 2026 collides with the Presidential election of 2024, the attention of both politicians and the public will turn more directly to the Semiquincentennial. The controversies sure to ensue stand to have a profound effect on the way many Americans understand our shared national past for decades to come.
After all, major anniversaries have a remarkable ability to shape public engagement with history. Nearly 50 years ago, as historian M.J. Rymsza-Pawlowska has shown, the 1976 Bicentennial transformed how Americans connect with history and understand our national story. When President Richard M. Nixon tried to steer federal Bicentennial planning toward an unquestioning celebration of American achievement, communities across the country responded with a vision of American history that included a wider range of voices, correcting gaps and silences in the mainstream historical narrative. Grassroots efforts led to the creation of thousands of new museums, historical societies, and history programs that shared a more complete story of the American past. These institutions and programs form an important part of today’s history infrastructure, and a more expansive conception of history has become core to professional historical practice.
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