Guest post by Seth Denbo, Washington DC.
I still remember my line from the school play in second grade. Costumed like a minuteman, I proclaimed “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” It was 1976, and elementary school teachers across the country breathed a collective sigh of relief about not having to think up a theme for the play that year.
At the time I felt, as much as an eight year old can, a sense of national pride. And for me that pride was not misplaced. My family’s story is as iconic as it is clichéd. I’m one of the 40% of Americans who has a relative that passed through Ellis Island. My great-grandparents all left Eastern Europe to escape anti-semitism and make a better life for themselves and their families. And they did. They settled in South Jersey and central Pennsylvania, became grocers and tailors, and loved the country that had taken them in. There is little doubt that the generations they begat in the US would have faired far worse as Europeans than they did as Americans.
The stories we tell about throwing off the shackles of old world tyranny, of the mass immigrations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, of the emancipation of the slaves, of universal suffrage, are all told through the lens of increasing liberty. Freedom and liberty are central ideas that shape how we understand the society in which we live. But these concepts only have meaning in opposition to slavery and tyranny, both specters that continue to haunt American society.
Celebrations of our nation’s founding have been influenced by the situation and the divisions of the time. They tell us more about the mood in 1876, 1926, and 1976 than about the period being commemorated. The 1876 Centennial exhibition in Philadelphia was a huge success, which has a lasting legacy in the buildings and collections of the Smithsonian Institution. But even while millions visited “the Centennial,” among the southern states that had suffered defeat in the Civil War just a decade before, only Mississippi participated. Fifty years later proposals for another a similar exhibition led to years of dispute among Philadelphians. Residents actively resisted the plans, concerned that they would end up footing the bill for a celebration that would only benefit business interests in the city. A much smaller fair in South Philadelphia was ultimately poorly attended and a financial disaster for its backers.
50 years ago, on July 4th 1966, President Johnson signed into law the bill that created the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, beginning a decade long process of preparing to celebrate the 200th anniversary of July 4, 1776. The preparations for the year of celebrations brought urban renewal to Center City and improvements in historic preservation on Independence Mall and Valley Forge. But this was also a challenging time in our history for patriotic celebration. Early plans for a much larger scale event divided people along racial lines. Radical groupsmarched to call attention to class divisions. The memories of Vietnam and Watergate were fresh in everyone’s mind.
The US Senate has already passed a bill creating the United States Semiquincentennial Commission, and the House is now considering it. National commemorative celebrations are moments of reflection on the meaning of collective ideals. Liberty means very different things to different people, just as it did to the founders of our democracy. As we begin preparing for the celebration of yet another national anniversary we must remember that most of our immigrant ancestors arrived on these shores after independence and came from other parts of the world (PDF) than those who were here in the 1770s. They brought with them different conceptions of the meaning of liberty.
Any celebration of American independence must acknowledge both the good and the bad, the freedom and the slavery, those for whom European immigration meant the end of their civilization, those for whom the American dream comes true, and those who never realize it. Immigrants today want what my great-grandparents wanted, a better life for themselves and future generations. To deny that and pretend that those who came before have a greater claim to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is to lie to ourselves about who we are and what our democracy means. Let’s plan a celebration that helps our nation to become that ideal.
Seth Denbo is director of scholarly communication and digital initiatives at the American Historical Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @seth_denbo.