On July 1, the American Association of State and Local History (AASLH) issued guidelines for the Semiquincentennial. These guidelines are not an official document as AASLH is not a government entity. However it does work closely with the Federal Commission. Also it is a national organization so it has its finger on the pulse of what is going on with state and local museums throughout the country.
As part of the release of the guidelines, John Dichtl, president and CEO, AASLH, conducted a virtual program with three contributors to the work of the organization:
Terry Brown, America 250 Foundation / National Park Service
Aimee Newell, Museum of the American Revolution / AASLH Small Museums Committee
Sara Cureton, Executive Director, New Jersey Historic Commission.
The session was more of a conversation than a workshop and should be considered a first step in a multi-year journey. I participated in the program and have download and read the guidelines. This blog combines information from both.
A Vision for the Semiquincentennial by John Dichtl
“(W)e have often struggled to live up to the lofty ideals expressed in our founding documents.”
For me, these words from the opening sentence of the guidelines are critical to the vision of the 250th. The Founding Fathers considered their creation to be an experiment. They knew the documents they wrote were not the final word. The Fifth Article (not to be confused with the Fifth Amendment) defined the Constitution as an open ended document. The Founders then immediately exercised their rights under that Article to pass ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights. They saw the creation of the country as the start of a journey and not something constituted in stone. We will be better served as country during the Semiquincentennial if we keep reminding ourselves that we are part of an ongoing journey and experiment rather than to limit ourselves to simpleminded judgmental pronouncements about people from 250 years ago. Our challenge is to continue the journey started on July 4, 1776.
Unfortunately Dichtl then limits the 250th in a way that will prove a challenge to history museums and organizations. He sets a target date of 2026, five years from now. The speakers did the same in the online session. The guideline points to July 4, 2026, in Philadelphia as the culmination of the project. Officially, it is the peak.
Speaking as New Yorker, July 4, 1776, is just the beginning of when things get interesting. From the famous toppling of the statue of King George III, to the Battle of New York/Brooklyn/Long Island, to the Battle of Saratoga, to the Clinton-Sullivan Campaign, to Benedict Arnold, to Rochambeau, to the Newburgh Conspiracy, and finally Evacuation Day on November 25, 1783, the action in this state really heats up after the culmination date of the Federal project. The proposed legislation passed by the State (not yet signed into law) has 2033 as the end date for our commission. Needless-to-say, other states similarly will want to remember events after July 4, 2026.
The date disparity could become a funding issue. At this point we do not know if the Federal Government will pull the plug on spending for the 250th on July 4, 2026 or not. I did raise this issue in the chat during the online session. The AASLH is aware of the concern. At some point, the issue of funding after July 4, 2026 may become an advocacy issue.
Fortunately Dichtl’s other vision is right on the mark. He calls this a “once in a generation opportunity to renew public engagement with history.” As part of the oral history, we should be interviewing people who participated in the Bicentennial and displaying objects from that celebration. Dichtl expresses the hope that “Through the stories we share, this anniversary can encourage patriotism and pride in American resilience while also fostering critical awareness of our faults, past and present.” Amen to that. Let the journey continue. He sees it as a transformational opportunity for the history community. Amen to that as well.
250 Years and Counting by Sara Cureton
Speaking of the Bicentennial, Cureton begins her contribution with an anecdote about a meeting for the Semiquincentennial where she was the only one who remembered the Bicentennial. She reflected on the lessons from that anniversary as thinking of history as endlessly interesting and impactful. Good lessons to have learned for a state leader of an historical commission!
As a state commissioner, Cureton takes a local approach as well. She mentions the listening sessions held around the state with many different communities. She observes that our fellow citizens often are much more interested in the historic sites in their hometowns. That makes sense. We are physical beings so what we can see, walk by, and touch in our own lives and communities will be meaningful.
However, there is a problem here. During the Q&A, the question came up about communities that did not exist during the American Revolution. In New Jersey that might not be much of a problem but in New York too, before the Erie Canal was built (Bicentennial 2025), many communities today did not exist then. They may have descendants from the American Revolution living there now. They may have records of the first July 4 the community celebrated regardless of when and can track what the day meant to their community over time. As states, they have dates when the joined the country as a state and July 4 became their birthday too. Immigrants have dates of naturalization when July 4 became the birthday of their country. June 2, 2024, is the centennial of the Indian Citizenship Act when Indians gained the right to vote. There are different ways to connect to July 4, 1776, besides the physical and the biological.
USING THE MAKING HISTORY at 250 FIELD GUIDE
With this section, the guide introduces five themes for the anniversary. It refers to the National Endowment for the Humanities, a funder, launching “’A More Perfect Union’: America at 250.” It “recognizes that very generation of Americans is tasked with improving this nation.” The guidebook calls on every history organization in the United States to participate. Even though the commemoration will be decentralized, the guidebook will enable you to be connected with thousands of other museums, historical societies, history departments, and classrooms across the country. OK, a little Chamber-of-Commerce boosterism is acceptable.
Theme: Unfinished Revolutions – There is still work to be done.
Theme: Power of Place – I always write that Nature sets the stage and humans write the play and then alter the stage. This theme relates to those ideas.
Theme: We the People – For me the key element in this theme is the right to vote. One might also add the equal opportunity to be able to vote in a reasonable way. For example, the aforementioned instance of Indians gaining the right to vote in 1924 is a marker of their citizenship as Americans and inclusion in We the People. The scant opportunity to actually cast their votes on huge reservations with few polling places and limited car ownership undermines that right.
Theme: American Experiment: This theme has a civics component in examining how local, state, and federal governments are constituted and by whom.
Theme: Doing History – How do we do history? The New York Times 1619 Project, the Donald Trump 1776 Commission, Critical Race Theory? Certainly how we do history is in the news.
I have a problem with these themes. Each one comes with five bullet points that the guidelines state the audience should consider in the programming by the local history organizations. The problem is these themes and bullet points sound like adult education classes or discussion groups at the local history organization, library, or classroom. There is nothing wrong with that but there is a very academic tone to the guidelines. It’s too dry to be inspiring. There is nothing about celebration. There should be more than a course in American History 250 at the local high school or community college. I miss the excitement.
Here is what is missing from the guidelines. I realize that they are a first step and could not cover everything.
The AASLH certainly is aware of the state commissions. It tracks the creation of them. There is still a long way to go. What exactly is a state commission supposed to do once it is created? One should keep in mind the wide variety in the range of resources available at the state level. For example, in New York, the Office of the State Historian consists of one person. If a voluntary commission is created, all the work is going to be dumped on that one individual. Fortunately the state legislators know that is problem so perhaps something will be done. I imagine each state will have its own story to tell about the practicalities of fulfilling the guidelines
Recommendation – A second guide should be created outlining on a more practical basis what a state commission should do and the resources required to it. I have my own ideas which I will not present here.
Recommendation – Communication mechanisms should be established (by the AASLH? By the Federal Commission?) so the state commissions can share experiences on a regular and routine basis.
State to State Collaboration and Cooperation
While the motto of the official commission seems to be “decentralization,” neither states nor local history organizations can go it alone. Think of the aforementioned Rochambeau as an event involving multiple states. Concomitant with Rochambeau is the journey of Cornwallis through states in the South leading to the showdown at high noon in Virginia.
Recommendation – Potential multi-state events should be identified and task forces created for them with the states who will be involved. Again communication mechanisms should be established.
Trips and Tourism
I did not notice anything about tourism and trips in the guidelines and discussion. Everything seemed to be geared to the individual history organization acting alone. Tourism will be an important part of the 250th. For example to stick with Rochambeau, there will be people who will travel the route from Rhode Island to Virginia. That means more than having a website or app. It means good old-fashioned mapping of routes including noting when the route actually is not a road today and may even be on private property. There is (or was) a NPS group based in Philadelphia that has been involved precisely in mapping the route. Now we are arriving at the next stage of transforming that information into a tourist experience.
Recommendation – A guidelines book should be created for the tourist departments of the states both for the intra-state responsibilities and inter-state ones. As someone who has created American Revolution programs visiting multiple sites in the Hudson Valley, Mohawk Valley, and Champlain Valley, I am very interested in this topic. People are going to want to travel to the sites where the events of the American Revolution took place.
Related to tourism is teacher education. Again I speak from experience as the trips noted above were for teachers. Unfortunately, the Teaching American History Grants have bit the dust. Perhaps they can be resurrected as Teaching American Revolution History Grants.
Recommendation – Revive the Teaching American History grants for the American Revolution. Work with the State Education Departments to create teacher training programs in each state based on the American Revolution and which will be available to teachers nationwide. Reaching out to national academic organizations needs to be part of the planning.
Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service
This NPS-commissioned study was commissioned years ago, I wrote several blogs about it in 2016-2018. The recommendations from the study never were implemented. Indeed over the past few years, the NPS focused more on survival than forging ahead.
Recommendation – Use the Semiquincentennial as an opportunity to implement the recommendations of the Imperiled Promise study so the NPS will be better prepared to fulfill its responsibilities during the project.
A final note must be made about the culture wars now more accurately described as America’s Third Civil War. Part of the story of the American Revolution is that it was our first Civil War. Now we live in a time when masks have weaponized, vaccines have been weaponized, and the American flag is a symbol of disunity. History organizations have no particular skill or expertise in navigating through this contentious time where more and more Americans regard July 4 as a day of infamy for which white people should repent. We can anticipate as one more presidential election will occur before July 4, 2026, that the situation will only get worse.
During the Q&A on July 1, one person asked about disinformation, fake news and fake history and the pitfalls and landmines in divisive political times. Cureton’s response was that the political may be the biggest challenge in divisive times. Exactly right. The Centennial occurred after the Civil War. The Bicentennial occurred after Watergate and Vietnam. The Semiquincentennial is occurring while America’s Third Civil War rages not yet like a California wildfire but potentially becoming one. The very event itself will be weaponized and exacerbate the situation. There is no guidebook for that.