The 250th Birthday of the U.S. Is Coming—Cue the Controversy

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. This peace does not seem likely to last.

As the Presidential election in 2024 and 2026 come to an abrupt halt, politicians as well as the general public will be more focused on the Semiquincentennial. These controversies will have an impact on Americans’ understanding of our national past over the next few decades.

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Major anniversaries can have an extraordinary effect on public engagement in history. M.J. Rymsza–Pawlowska, historian, has demonstrated that the 1976 Bicentennial changed how Americans understand history. The federal Bicentennial planning was directed by President Richard M. Nixon towards a unquestioning celebration American accomplishment. However, the response from communities all over the country was a more inclusive vision of American history, which included more voices and corrected gaps in the main historical narrative. Through grassroots efforts, thousands of museums, historical societies and history programs were created that told a fuller story about America’s 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.

The U.S. Semiquincentennial Committee has embraced the Bicentennial Legacy and is planning a local commemoration. Incorporated by Congress in 2016, it includes heads of the major federal agencies responsible for history and education as well 16 individuals appointed by both sides. Together with America250, the Commission has set the ambitious goal of making the Semiquincentennial “the most inclusive commemoration in our nation’s history.”

This effort to examine history from many perspectives also extends to state level planning. 21 states created commissions over the years to help plan commemorations for the 250th anniversary. In addition, 11 additional states introduced legislation in order to establish state commissions by 2022. In South Carolina, the state’s 250th commission plans to share history “from all points of view,” including “the beauty and the warts and the terror of it all.” Expanding on traditional commemoration approaches, the Nebraska 250th commission will “promote under-represented groups from the American Revolutionary War, including, but not limited to, women, American Indians, and persons of color.” Many other states have similarly prioritized an approach to the 250th that includes diverse perspectives, leaning on their state’s history and museum community to develop the commemoration program for 2026.

Despite these efforts at the state and national level avoiding overt politicization of history engagement, they have had several close calls.

When Donald Trump established the “1776 Commission” in the final months of his presidency—part of his effort to narrowly define the terms of “patriotic” history—he left out mention of the federal Semiquincentennial Commission, which, during his tenure as President, had advanced plans for a broad commemoration of the American Revolution. As part of an anti-Semitic backlash, Senator Tom Cotton from Arkansas proposed a bill that would ban 1619 Project teaching in schools. The 1619 Project tells American history via the lens of slavery and is seen as disrespectful to the Founding Fathers as well as the Revolution’s legacy. Cotton made no mention, however, of the upcoming 250th anniversary—despite being an appointed member of the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission.

Continue reading: Echoing Decades of Fighting Over U.S. History Classrooms, President Trump Announces a Push for ‘Patriotic Education’

The disconnect between the 250th planning process and wider history wars at the state level is more pronounced. Many of the same legislatures that passed bills to create 250th commissions dedicated to exploring the full depth of the American past have also introduced hundreds of so-called “divisive concepts” bills to restrict the teaching of slavery, racism, and violence in U.S. history. These bills treat almost all of the shameful aspects of American history as minor deviations from progress and liberty.

Although the anniversary has been more than four decades away, it is not too close to the date for either elected officials nor the public. State history agencies conducted audience research and found that very few people think ahead to 2026. So, although Semiquincentennial plans are developing alongside broader arguments over what history is or should be in recent years—providing plenty of tinder for turning the 250th into a political fire—the immediacy and passion of education issues seem to have offered lower hanging fruit, leaving 250th planning largely unscathed.

Although they have been proceeding in parallel, the Semiquincentennial and history wars seem to be intertwined over the next few years. Yet for history professionals, advancing Semiquincentennial plans against the backdrop of current controversies has been strategically useful, offering new perspective on the effort required to bring to fruition a commemoration that shares a more honest story of our nation’s past.

Utah’s 250th anniversary celebration is under way amid national discussion about history and which stories matter. To fortify efforts to share the full history of the state, Utah’s Division of State History is deliberately working in concert with a broad range of stakeholders and community partners. That includes collaborative efforts such as “Peoples of Utah Revisited,” a project supported by the state’s leadership that demonstrates a strong commitment to amplifying diverse voices.

“We know and fully understand the arc of the national dialogue,” Division Director Jennifer Ortiz told me recently. “If we do this work together, we’re going to be stronger.”

Similar efforts are being taken by other organizations across the nation to gradually shift the public’s understanding of U.S. History towards greater detail. Though some in the field want to see a wholly unapologetic approach, these more deliberate strategies can help maintain public trust, and—amid heated partisan controversy—provide the strong foundation required to sustain programs that encourage critical engagement with history.

It is today a minority who actively resists the creation of more accurate and nuanced historical narratives. Recent research reveals that most Americans see the value of including multiple perspectives in history, think it’s acceptable for people to feel uncomfortable when learning difficult subjects, and believe an increased focus on the history of race and slavery is good for society. Museum audience researcher Susie Wilkening has calculated that fewer than 20% of Americans have truly “anti-inclusive” attitudes.

It is likely to prove difficult planning for 2026. As 250th programming comes into sharper focus over the next few years, both legitimate debate bad-faith point-scoring will drive a major public conversation about how we commemorate the nation’s complex past. Yet as plans for the Semiquincentennial progress, today’s partisan debates about history enable government agencies, museums, scholars, and the public at large to more effectively chart a path forward for history work that is both inclusive and sustainable.

As 2026 draws near, the museums must be prepared to work with all stakeholders. This will help them recognize history as detective work. Americans among the majority that values deep, thoughtful history can voice their desire for a commemoration grounded in that approach—particularly in states that have not yet created 250th anniversary commissions.

All Americans can help overcome political attempts to delegitimize the anniversary. They still have four years to plan. By working together, we can ensure the Semiquincentennial can help us make progress toward a more just society by providing a widely shared and complete understanding of our nation’s history—one that endures as a lasting legacy of this anniversary.

John Garrison Marks serves as the Senior Manager for Strategic Initiatives and is also the Director for the Public History Research Lab of the American Association for State and Local History. His books include Black Freedom: Race, Status and Identity in Urban Americas in the Age of Slavery You can find him at @johngmarks on Twitter.

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