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The American Revolution 250th Update

Graphic by America 250.

Can you feel the excitement mounting? We keep getting closer and closer to the 250th anniversary of the birth of the United States. The anticipation rises. What a glorious day that will be on July 4, 2026. If only we can get past the upcoming presidential election and have a country as we know it to celebrate the event … or if you prefer to commemorate it.

In this blog I wish to present some developments in the 250th. It does not cover everything, but it does touch upon some of the highlights. We should keep in mind that 2024 is the 250th anniversary of 1774. There is no prohibition in having local events this year just as Boston did last year for the Tea Party.

What, to Americans Today, Is the Fourth of July?

By Nancy Spannaus / In American Revolution, News / March 25, 2024

A Report and Reflections on the Virginia250 Conference held in Williamsburg, March 18-20

It was my pleasure to join my husband in attending the annual conference of the Virginia American Revolution 250 Commission last week. Under the title “A Common Cause to All,” the Commission, in partnership with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, brought together 450 individuals from 37 states and all around Virginia, to discuss plans for commemoration and celebration of our nation’s 250th birthday, July 4, 2026. We were lavishly wined and dined, and able to meet and discuss with individuals devoted to celebrating American history.

This is a big conference. I wonder whether any other state or even national organization is or plans to host a comparable dedicated national conference. Clearly Virginia is thinking big time. Remember the AMC series Turn about the spy ring based in New York? The show not only was filmed in Virginia but was advertised by Virginia with nary an I LOVENY commercial in sight. Virginia takes its American Revolution seriously.

The situation today is quite different from 1826 and 1976.

All sought in their own way to address the problem of how to do justice to this momentous event, and bring national unity, in this time of historic political polarization and documented indifference or even hostility from the younger generation.

These words cut to the core of the challenge facing organizers of the American Revolution 250th. It is a time to strive for national unity as Americans, to recognize that we cannot take the Declaration of Independence or Constitution for granted anymore. The reality is we live in a time when these documents have been weaponized as if they do not apply to all American citizens.

I would argue that the second most stirring presentation during this conference was given by Dr. Danielle Allen, the author of the 2014 book Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. Dr. Allen’s advocacy for the Declaration has inspired a citizens’ movement to sponsor public readings of the founding document every July 4 – a movement that my husband and I have participated in for the last several years in our small town.    

In a previous blog, I asked what is your ceremony of belonging as an American (What Is Our Ceremony of Belonging? July 8, 2023).  I was referring to local events where the people of a community come together to express their shared identity as Americans. It is interesting to note that around July 4 each year I receive many notices about a reading of Frederick Douglass’s speech and virtually none about the reading of the Declaration itself. True the latter was written as a legal brief and not a rousing speech. Some of the clauses are difficult to hear now out of context, but still it is telling that the founding document gets such short thrift on its birthday.

The most contentious of the discussions occurred during the “Fireside Chat with Jefferson and Early American Scholars,” which featured Professor Woody Holton of the University of South Carolina, and Jane Kamensky, President of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. Holton took the approach that historians should begin teaching the flaws and contradictions of the American founding to children from a very young age. He resolutely objected to the compromises made by the Founding generation. At the conclusion, he even opined that he would have preferred that we stick with the Confederation government, rather than the Constitution.   

 Kamensky, on the other hand, was at pains to emphasize the complexity and flaws of not only the founders, but those who are judging them today. The United States was born a question, she said, and we must educate our children to participate in our democracy by both celebrating and criticizing its practices. Compromise was and is necessary to the preservation of the Union, which is a positive achievement, she asserted. 

I suspect that history organizations will struggle over precisely this difference. Previously I have written about two types of conferences on the American Revolution (Sense of Place versus the Ivory Tower: The American Revolution 250th July 23, 2022). One is the academic one which tends to be highly critical of the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution. The ivory tower conferences routinely fail to notice how many countries have been republics and or democracies for 250 years especially as a large multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious political entity. You would almost think such countries are par for the course and what makes us exceptional is our failure to match the longevity of such counties around the world.

The other type of conference often at battlefields and not colleges or universities. They focus on how it came to be that We the People won the war against the most powerful country on earth. They have no objection to including how all peoples contributed to that effort but are not judgmental in that the war never should have occurred or that if we have not lived up to the words of our founding that the experiment should be declared a failure. Virginia certainly is promoting the sense of place engagement with the American Revolution where people will come and visit the sites where it occurred just as people did for the Boston Tea Party in December 2023.

The panel on “Approaches to Public Engagement” laid out some of the large challenges facing those committed to the 250th celebration. Speaker Matt Williams works for a firm which does polling, and had been commissioned to carry out a study of Americans’ views of history in late 2022. The firm interviewed 2400 people, 50% of them young, and 50% on the Eastern Seaboard. The “bad” news was that 60-70% said that history made them anxious, and they were tuning it out. An additional survey of teachers produced the disheartening result that it was “very difficult” to engage students in studying history, especially in suburbia. Some potential remedies – the use of museums, primary documents, and digital presentations – were also discussed.

There should be no doubt that schools will be a battleground in the celebration/commemoration of the American Revolution. They already are a battleground. The intensity of the conflict is only likely to increase after the presidential elections. The discourse during our Third Civil War will result in increasing calls for violence depending on the results of that election. The irony is just as we prepare more vigorously to celebrate the birth of the United States, there will be more and more calls to somehow separate into our two houses.

A special treat was the sneak preview of the upcoming film series by Ken Burns entitled “The American Revolution,” which promises to be highly influential. The six-part series was begun eight years ago and will be released in the fall of 1775. The preview was provided by Paula Kerger, President and CEO of the Public Broadcasting System, and Sarah Botstein, an associate of Burns who is working on the film. Botstein described the intensive process of scholarly research involved and the problems of dealing with a lack of physical evidence and images – unlike in Burns’ films about the Civil War and Vietnam. She then showed two short sketches, one dealing with the role of women in the resistance to the Tea Act, and the other to Bunker Hill.

Can Ken Burns save us? Can he obtain blockbuster ratings given the media structure today? Will his film series become the basis for curriculum? Can he wave his magic media wand and bring Americans together? Obviously, I do not know what will happen.


The state of Connecticut highlights some of the issues where the rubber hits road. It brings to a more local level some of the high level concerns expressed in the report on the national conference in Virginia. The recent state conference according to its notice said the following:

America 250 | CT Information:

Commission created pursuant to Executive Order No. 22-2, which instructs it to:

1. promote the documentation, identification, and preservation of cultural and historic resources, including archives, buildings, landscapes, objects, and sites related to the semiquincentennial period

2. assist in ensuring that any observance of the semiquincentennial of the American Revolution is inclusive and appropriately recognizes the experiences and points of view of all people affected by the events surrounding the American Revolution

3. encourage civic, historical, educational, economic, arts and other organizations throughout the state to organize and participate in activities to expand the understanding and appreciation of the significance of the American Revolution

4. collaborate with state and local tourism agencies to promote the state as a prominent cultural and heritage tourism destination for American Revolution history.

 This part could have come from the Bicentennial. Then come the changes.

Other big ideas:

1. By recognizing this moment in our history, the nation has the opportunity to lay the groundwork for a reawakening of civic engagement by encouraging the participation of all residents.

2. The Commission is committed to providing guidance for how to make this inclusive of all people in Connecticut and accessible to anyone who wants to participate

3. Although we are commemorating the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, the Commission goes beyond that to reflect on the last 250 years of history and consider and shape the next 250 years.

Here we may start to observe shift in emphasis from the traditional celebration to a commemoration reflecting what has happened and what may happen. There is the hope that somehow the semiquincentennial will have a magical effect on people.

And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come Ray. People will most definitely come (James Earl Jones, Field of Dreams).

I write this blog as women’s basketball is setting records for is college championship and a team from Iowa is having a magical year including a game against Connecticut.

America 250 | CT Themes

1.Tell Inclusive Stories: Share stories that represent all of Connecticut’s people, past and present; Tell previously untold stories to enable everyone to find a place in our nation’s narrative

2. Power of Place: Creation of a community-based structure will allow each of Connecticut’s towns and cities to define their own programs and ideas about how they can engage their citizens; Commission will ensure the alignment between Connecticut’s 250th activities and those of the greater region and nation, building relevance and aligning the state with other areas

3. Doing History: Public must be invited to participate in the process of doing history; Inviting audiences to engage with the historical method can help them become more comfortable with the ambiguous, contested, and always-evolving nature of history; Focus on the role of Connecticut within the national narrative

4. For the Common Good: Discussions about our democracy and civic intuitions can help strengthen understanding, inspire action, and reveal ways that all of us can participate in and shape our democracy; Reconsider the origins of our government, democratic institutions, and broader civic life, and a chance to reflect on the ways we have changed them over time.

Here is where the hard work really begins. To some extent such conversations already occur. Think of the school board meetings with its calm debates over curriculum and books in the library. While it is a worthy goal to engage the public to do history and have such discussions, the challenge to actually have them is more problematical. Let us not forget that there were Tories and Patriots during the American Revolution anyway so it would be simplistic to think we can have a “Come let us reason together” moment in the towns and villages of the state and country today. And what is “the national narrative”? (Ending the Uncivil War: Creating a Shared National Narrative for the 21st Century  January 28, 2021). There is scarce agreement as to what constitutes the national narrative. Plus such discussions are planned for after a very contentious presidential election year that threatens to rip the social fabric to threads.

I applaud Connecticut for setting these goals but am frightened that the world of the Third Civil War will prevail.

The Thrilla in Manilla: Gordon Wood vs. Woody Holton on 1619

American Historians Battle for the American Revolution

The battle for the American Revolution continues. Since The New York Times threw down the gauntlet in August 2019, the war over the War has been engaged. This is not to say that the war had not broken out earlier. However with the publication of the 1619 Project the battleground has become clearer and more defined. The shortcomings of the 1619 Project have been the subject of previous blogs (The Battle between 1619 and 1776: The New York Times versus the History Community1619: The New York Times versus USA Today (and Hamilton), Happy 1619, Not July 4th, Birthday: All the History Fit to Print that the NYT Omitted).  These problems mainly concern 1619 itself, a year strangely absent from the public battle which has raged since the publication.

A case in point is the most recent showdown between the forces of light and darkness involving two prominent American historians:

Woody Holton, the McCausland professor of history at the University of South Carolina


Gordon Wood, the Alva O. Way university professor and professor of history emeritus at Brown University.

The venue was the Massachusetts Historical Society for a hybrid showdown on October 23, 2021. As befitting this heavyweight match, it was recorded and covered in the press.


The prefight fisticuffs began with a July 2, 2021, publication by Holton in the Washington Post entitled “The Declaration of Independence’s debt to Black America: When African Americans allied themselves with the British, the Patriots were enraged, and they acted.” In this first punch, Holton stated that “African Americans played a crucial, if often overlooked, role in their White owners’ and neighbors’ decision to declare independence from Britain.”

Holton makes his case by starting in Virginia in 1774, five months prior to the shooting engagement at Lexington and Concord.  In this instance, he meeting Holton was referring to was one by Africans who were pondering how to exploit the White conflict to obtain their own freedom. Holton contends that for the following year, the Africans pitched the idea to the British that the outnumbered British needed the numbers the Africans could provide. Eventually that argument prevailed and Lord Dunmore accepted African participation on the British side in exchange for emancipation.

The White response was much as it has been to Critical Race Theory [not Holton’s term}. It was one of fury. Indeed the fury was of such magnitude that it pushed on-the-fence White Americans to endorse the Patriot call for independence. According to Holton, the British kept their promise and resettled over 3000 Africans to Nova Scotia in 1783. As part of the Evacuation Day, November 25 commemoration [Thanksgiving this year], the Lower Manhattan Historical Association [LMHA, me included] will be celebrating it on November 24 this year.

That punch led to a counterpunch, On 1619 and Woody Holton’s Account of Slavery and the Independence Movement: Six Historians Respond on September 6, 2021, by

Carol Berkin, Baruch Presidential Professor of History, City University of New York

Richard D. Brown, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of History, Emeritus, University of Connecticut

Jane E. Calvert, Associate Professor of History, University of Kentucky, and Director/Editor, the John Dickinson Writings Project

Joseph J. Ellis, Professor of History, Emeritus, Mount Holyoke College

Jack N. Rakove, William Robertson Coe Professor of History and American Studies and Professor of Political Science, Emeritus, Stanford University

Gordon S. Wood, Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History, Emeritus, Brown University.

In this counterpunch, these warrior historians took aim at Holton’s support of the 1619 Project of The New York Times. They objected to the “unusual claim” that protection of the institution of slavery was the cause of the support for the Patriot side. By the time of Lord Dunmore’s proclamation, Virginia already favored the call for independence and were de facto operating on that basis. They cite the recent book by Mary Beth Norton, former president of the American Historical Association on 1774 to substantiate the claim that the colonists already were effectively independent.

Note: Norton’s book entitled 1774: The Long Year of Revolution actually is about 1774 whereas the 1619 Project is not at all about 1619 at all. If 1619 was a person, it could sue The New York Times for false advertising.

In this counterpunch, these heavyweight historians assert that the colonist independence movement had generated enough momentum prior to the events cited by Holton, sufficient to render his claims moot. They delivered another blow by introducing the phenomenon of the anti-slavery movement in Philadelphia in 1775. So not only is Holton wrong about the American Revolution being based on the goal of preserving slavery, it lead to the movement to abolish it. They close by citing three people who valued the words of the Declaration of Independence: Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King.

That counterpunch led to a counter-counterpunch by Holton, The Specter of Emancipation and the Road to Revolution: A Rejoinder to Richard Brown et. al. on September 8. He stated that he was flattered and saddened by the previous article. He was flattered due to the prominence of the authors but saddened that they cannot see what was right before them as historians. He added one piece of new evidence: the 26th charge against King George in the Declaration that he had “excited domestic insurrections amongst us” meaning slave revolts [aka revolts by enslaved people]. He calls #26 “the capstone” based on the presumption that by point 26 people are still paying attention and as much as they did with #1.

Holton pushed the clock back to 1762 [not 1619] with the end of the French and Indian [Indigenous] War. At that time the colonists were content to be subjects of the British Empire; by 1774 they were not. What had happened in the interval? He claims that “one” of these factors was England’s cooperation with the colonists “slaves” [enslaved people]. “It was not the reason, but it was a reason.” The italicized words are from Holton.

He rejected the proposition that the colonists were already headed towards independence. He promised that his new book would supply the evidence for his “staged-based view of the road to independence.” He regretted that the distinguished professors responded to his 700-word Washington Post article to promote his upcoming 700-page book rather than wait for its publication. As a tactical move it seems shortsighted to expect everyone reading his column would remain silent until after the book publication.

Holton closed with a 1 in 26 and “a” and not “the” cause plea that called for the inclusion of slavery as a cause which makes one wonder what all the fuss is about. If he is not going to make slavery the defining cause of the American Revolution, then why the big fight?


The main event drew wide press coverage but did not live up to its hype. The history debate was covered by the Associated Press which made it unusual. It also assured more widespread national coverage than if simply covered by a local paper or a specialized newsletter.

According to the World Socialists, during the first part of the match, Holton was getting beat up for his former position on the Dunmore Proclamation as being the instigator of shift towards independence by White people. The World Socialists describe blow after blow being received by Holton as he admits colony by colony that Dunmore was not a factor in those areas. Gradually the impact of the Coercive Acts in 1774 pushed by Wood became a factor in the historical reconstruction of the path toward independence over one year before Dunmore.

At this point, Wood seemed to have Holton on the ropes historically although I am not quite sure all viewers of the recording would think so. The World Socialists cited this query from a viewer to a flummoxed Holton as the decisive moment:

“If it were the case that the defense of slavery was the major cause, or a primary cause, of the American Revolution, then why did the British possessions in the Caribbean, where slavery was even stronger, not join the revolution? Why did they remain the most loyal area of the empire?”

At that point, the debate about the American Revolution shifted to the political arena. According to the Hillel Italie (AP):

But midway through the 60-minute event the subject turned to The New York Times’ 1619 Project, the Pulitzer Prize winning series from 2019 that placed slavery at the center of the American narrative. The mood soon resembled less a spirited, but academic gathering than a court of law, with Wood on the stand.

According to William Hogeland, Slate, “The Historians Are Fighting: Inside the profession, the battle over the 1619 Project continues”:

It devolved into a long, loud sequence when a revved-up, happy-warrior Holton started fast-talking over and relentlessly haranguing a clearly irritated Wood, who was reduced to defensive sputtering.

Tom Mackaman, World Socialists, phrased it slightly differently:

Not even halfway through, Holton was given a lifeline by moderator Catherine Allgor of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Allgor moved the discussion to Nikole Hannah-Jones, the celebrity figurehead of the 1619 Project. Getting his cue, Holton went on the attack.

Suddenly it was a brand new ball game. The supposed history debate took a sharp turn for the worse and became a political mud wrestling confrontation. Holton said (AP):

“You are a founding father, Professor Wood, of a massive campaign of censorship. You’re not the most responsible, but the five of you are responsible. And that’s why, right now, I want to ask you to write another open letter to Sen. Cotton, and to Gov. DeSantis, and to all the other demagogues who are using your letter to ban the 1619 project, to say, ‘I am Gordon Wood, and damnit, I am not in favor of censorship.’”

The World Socialists described this turn of events as follows:

However, most of the hourlong debate was given over to provocations from Holton, who repeatedly accused Wood and other scholars who have criticized the New York Times ’ 1619 Project of being responsible for Republican Party efforts to censor it. Holton’s opposition to censorship is, to say the least, highly selective. While he opposes Republican efforts to censor the 1619 Project—as does the World Socialist Web Site —he denounces and would silence all criticism of the 1619 Project from left or scholarly perspectives, as his attacks on Wood made clear.

Hogeland succinctly described the change in debate as:

…intensifying a recent trend in modes of dispute among scholars of the founding period…. Venerable traditions of academic history haven’t usually included mano a mano contests on fine points of interpretation, held for the excitement of the baying crowd or, as in this case, the edification of decorous history buffs.

He calls them the “two pugilists.” This turn of events represents the future of American historians. As they leave the ivory tower and become participants in the Culture Wars/Civil War, they will increasingly ask or be asked to take a stand in that war such as on the 1619 Project. As a result, historians like Supreme Court judges will become partisans and lose their image of impartialness or objectivity [Note – “objectivity” has been designated a racist white characteristic which should not be imposed on non-white people.] Welcome to the brave new world of history mud wrestling. Are you ready?

This line-in-the sand and 1619 intrusion into everything becomes clear in the post-match interviews conducted by the AP.

During a telephone interview a few days later, Wood called the debate a “disaster,” said he was “blindsided” by Holton’s attack and that Holton was carrying out his role as “the primary defender” among historians of the 1619 project. Asked if he found any positive qualities in the series, which includes essays on politics, culture, criminal justice and religion among other subjects, he criticized it for encouraging a sense of “victimhood” and feeling “aggrieved” that he called understandable but ”self-destructive” in the long run….

 “I had no idea of what DeSantis was doing,” he said of the Florida governor, who has labeled the 1619 project “critical race theory” and backed the state’s board of education’s decision last summer to ban the book from classrooms. “It’s out of my hands. We can’t do our historical research … (worrying) that it might be misused by politicians.”

Speaking of politics, consider this description of Holton by the World Socialists:

Instead, Holton’s conception of the American Revolution is tailor-made to meet the present political needs of the Democratic Party. Unlike Beard, and much more akin to the old Jim Crow-era “folkways” social scientists, Holton claims to deduce the historical action of the Revolution by imposing on the past the identity categories of the present, particularly the racial ones. His “method” entails the deployment of what he calls “pieces of evidence,” carefully selected and ripped from their context, to prove his “point” and the disregarding of evidence to the contrary.

 Holton’s father is Linwood Holton, a Republican governor of Virginia who became a Democrat, and his brother-in-law is Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential running mate in 2016. The family’s fortune is drawn from western Virginia coal mining, certainly one of the most exploitative industries in American history. These biographical facts may go some distance in explaining Holton’s fealty to the 1619 Project, which is central to the Democratic Party’s efforts to eradicate discussion of social class in the past and the present.

Welcome to the new reality. The past is only not past, it is the political mud wrestling arena present and future.