Denbo: “We hold these truths to be self-evident”

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.

USA250, or Global250?

2026 marks the 250th anniversary of the United States of America. Yet the founding ideals of our nation extend far beyond our borders, and certainly our culture and economy is interconnected with citizens across the globe.

In fact, America’s national anniversary celebrations have historically been major international events that featured participation by both American states and nations across the globe.

In 1876 and 1926, Philadelphia hosted the World’s Fair to celebrate the nation’s anniversary. These mega-events attracted direct participation by American states and foreign nations through the erection of pavilions, the contribution of art and horticulture, and diplomatic exchange. The Ohio House at the intersection of Belmont Drive and Montgomery Avenue is a lasting legacy of the States Drive from the 1876 Centennial. The torch of the Statue of Liberty, part of the French gift to America, was on display to raise funds for its erection in New York City. That year, each state organized a State Day. 37 nations participated at the Centennial, 11 of whom erected pavilion buildings.

Similarly, the American Swedish Historical Museum, Philadelphia’s original Japanese cherry blossom trees, and the Italian Fountain of Seahorses behind the Art Museum are legacies of the 1926 Sesquicentennial. The former Municipal (JFK) Stadium, the site now forming the basis of today’s Sports Complex, was host to major national pageants with thousands of performers in 1926.

During the 1976 Bicentennial, 12 heads of state visited Philadelphia to honor America’s bilateral friendships and relations, with Queen Elizabeth II gifting a Bicentennial Bell from the original foundry of the Liberty Bell. These dignitaries also visited a range of American cities as part of the exchange.

National anniversary Legacy Gifts have traditionally been championed by civic and patriotic associations and individuals. In 1876, B’nai Brith International and the Catholic Total Abstinence Union commissioned and donated a statue and fountain, respectively, that today remain features of Philadelphia’s artistic landscape. In 1976, Daughters of the American Revolution raised millions of dollars to support the renovation of the 2nd floor of Independence Hall. The LOVE statue was gifted for exhibition by Robert Indiana in 1976, later to be purchased Fitz Eugene Dixon Jr. for permanent display in 1978.

To see a contemporary international event firsthand, USA250 organized a study mission to this year’s World’s Fair, Expo Milano 2015 in Italy, which attracted 23 million participants over 6 months to a city and region of comparable size to Greater Philadelphia. The Expo’s grand concourse, fully canopied, was approximately as long as the Ben Franklin Parkway and featured international pavilions across its full length. At the central intersection, a perpendicular “Italian” boulevard featured cuisine and culture from all of the provinces of Italy, anchored on one end by the Italian national pavilion and on the other end by the Eataly restaurant.

How wonderful would it be to have a central “American Boulevard,” or perhaps titled The American Block Party!, in 2026 to showcase cuisine and culture from all 50 states? Or an international food truck festival, with national food trucks commissioned from across the globe, to then travel from city to city in 2026?

Do you have your own ideas? Email us at info@usa250.org.

Philadelphia Should Host The Sports World Again For America’s 250th

Written by Rick Haggerty

Gerald Ford clutched a baseball in each hand. Moments earlier, the 38th President of the United States had received a standing ovation from the sold-out crowd at Veterans Stadium and had taken his front-row seat next to soon-to-be-retired home run king Hank Aaron at the 1976 Major League Baseball All-Star Game.

After Phillies pitching great Robin Roberts and former Cleveland Indians star Bob Lemon–both of whom were elected to the Hall of Fame that year and were serving as the honorary all-star captains–handed over the ceremonial first baseballs, Ford stood with a grin on his face.

The starting all-star catchers, Johnny Bench of the Cincinnati Reds and Thurman Munson of the New York Yankees, lined up.  Ford fired a right-handed strike to Bench and followed with a left-handed one to Munson. But the ambidextrous president–one month away from fending off Ronald Reagan at the Republican National Convention and four months shy of ceding the White House to Jimmy Carter–was not the only one with his hands full.

The 1976 Bicentennial sports calendar in Philadelphia was packed to honor the nation’s 200th anniversary.

In addition to baseball, America’s birthplace also hosted the NBA and NHL all-star games.  And in the year in which Congress posthumously promoted George Washington to the highest rank in United States military history, another man known as “The General” – 35-year-old Robert Montgomery Knight – guided Indiana to an 86-68 victory over Michigan in the NCAA men’s basketball championship game at the Spectrum, capping what still stands as the last undefeated season by the men’s Division I champion. The all-star games and the Final Four may have been the highlights, but there was a different event nearly every week of the nation’s 200th birthday year. The first page of the NBA all-star program welcomed fans to

“Philadelphia:  Hub of the Sports World in 1976” – a bold claim considering that Innsbruck and Montreal hosted the Winter and Summer Olympic Games, respectively, that year.  Unlike the quadrennial games, though, there was something unique about what Philadelphia did.

 

“This is the Bicentennial Year and never in the 200 year history of our country has there been a sports happening as there will be this year in Philadelphia,” the NBA program continued.

 

“There are more national sporting events scheduled for the city and its environs than any locale in history.”

While that proclamation is impossible to verify, the events that the program went on to list were extensive.  Beyond the major sports, the city played host to events as varied as the World Karate Games, the United States Badminton Championships, and the American Bicentennial Rodeo.  And, of course, it goes without saying that there could have been no better home for the 1976 World Darts Championship.  If only the City Tavern had sported a dartboard in 1776, surely Ben Franklin would have applied his natural organizing skills to start a league.

Eleven years from now, when our nation turns 250 years old, Philadelphia can again become the “Hub of the Sports World.”  

USA250 has started the planning.  At the Toast250 kickoff event on April 30, Phillies chairman David Montgomery announced that the Phillies are on board. They have already submitted their request to host the 2026 All-Star Game to the Major League Baseball commissioner’s office.

1976ABAAllStarsIntro2

Citizens Bank Park is in its 12th year of operation and has never hosted the Midsummer Classic.  Montgomery confirmed that is on purpose.  While most baseball stadiums that have been constructed since 2000 have already hosted or are in line to host in the next few years, Montgomery said the Phillies “are being a little stubborn” and holding out for the 2026 game.

If the rest of the local sports scene follows the Phillies’ lead, the 2026 Philadelphia sports calendar can be even more impressive than the 1976 version.  In 2014, the NFL proved that an outdoor cold-weather Super Bowl could be successful. There is no reason for Philadelphia not to have its opportunity to host.  On a worldwide scale, there is speculation that the United States is the favorite to land the 2026 World Cup.  While games would be held throughout the country, Philadelphia should be at the top of any list of potential host cities.  

With the necessary facilities already in place and with appropriate planning, all of this is possible without incurring the financial calamities that so frequently befall Olympic host cities that spend billions on new facilities that sit empty and useless after the closing ceremony – a fate that Boston has been trying to avoid ever since the U.S. Olympic Committee named it as the nation’s candidate to host the 2024 Summer Games.

The Founding Fathers knew that the nation’s birthday would always be a cause for celebration – even if they could not conceive what that nation would look like after 250 years.  Writing to his wife, Abigail, from the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, John Adams thought that the anniversary of independence “ought to be solemnized with pomp, shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forward forever.”

Philadelphia’s sports community met Adams’s expectation in 1976 and has the chance to do so again in 2026. Montgomery told the USA250 crowd that his wish is that every major sporting event in 2026 be held in Philadelphia.  The first steps have been taken.  Now we need to find out if the World Darts Championship has made any plans yet.

Rick Haggerty is an attorney at Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP and a former sports writer.

History250: The Queen’s Diamond Jubilees Then And Now

Okay. Millennial babies like me, and centennials who have magically learned how to work a computer: today we’re reviewing the U.K’s 1897 and 2012 Diamond Jubilee.  

The day had come for Queen Victoria’s accession, celebrated as the first real Diamond Jubilee of its kind. To understand a little bit about the history for such a momentous occasion, let’s dive into the happenings surrounding the Queen and her kingdom in 1897.1

The Boer War had left the country shaken, financially and patriotically. Even so, people still considered Great Britain and its colonies to be the strongest nation in the world. America was still in its ‘Great Experiment’ stages, but quickly rising through innovations in industry, with Germany right behind them.

Originally, the Diamond Jubilee was celebrated every 75 years and was more of a private, elitist affair. However, with the nation undergoing such tremendous economic and political change, Joseph Chamberlain advised that the Queen publicly celebrate her 60th year as a way to strengthen international relations and restore the people’s faith in the monarchy.

Queen Victoria had all but withdrawn from the public since King Albert’s death in 1861. Refusing to wear anything but black, she had to be coaxed into the idea, especially since the whole event was a real departure from British customs. The event was so huge and widely successful that it was declared a national holiday.

Fast forward to a few years ago, Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee reboot was all the rage across London and its territories.

They tried their best to maintain some of the original traditions created in 1897, but reinvented a few with a modern edge. Instead of a gigantic horse-drawn parade, the Queen, family, and friends had an easy ride down the Thames River on the Royal Flotilla; and an international concert jammed out at Buckingham Palace while being broadcast live to millions of viewers, instead of a stuffy service on the steps. The Jubilee spirit was present all the same with thousands of block parties and fireworks in the streets sharing in community patriotism.

2The U.K’s monarchy had come a long way from snotty elitism and strove to remember the Queen’s legacy while reconnecting to the everyday citizen.

Welp, that’s it for now! But don’t forget to keep on reading because we’ve got so much more on the way.


 

History250 is a look back at major anniversary events in America and around the world. We’re looking to the past for ideas in order to inspire others in 2026.

Ariama Long: I’m a recent graduate of Chestnut Hill College and contributor to Ideas250. If you’d like to contact me, leave a comment, or find out more about USA250, check out our website or email me at ariama@usa250inc.org.

History250: The Princess of Wales’ Jubilee Feast For The Outcast Poor

In our quest to bring the epic Centennial celebration back to Philadelphia by 2026, we’ve been digging into the world’s history a little bit!

Centennials, world expos, and world fairs are by no means a new phenomenon, and should be celebrated for playing a vital part in their country’s economic, social, architectural, and cultural development.

Today’s featured event is the 1897 Jubilee Feast For The Outcast Poor held by the Princess of Wales during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

Princess Alexandra of Denmark, better known to most as the ‘Princess of Wales’, has more or less faded from history’s memory. She had the good luck, and some would say misfortune, to have reigned alongside the famous Queen Victoria in the 1800’s. She was a young ruler, and not as daring or political as her friend by nature. Nonetheless, in her own simplistic way she impacted the people.

On June 22nd, 1897, Queen Victoria’s magnanimous Diamond Jubilee and accession were well underway. People from all walks of life, caste, and background flooded the streets in an effort to honor the highly regarded Queen and the British empire. Although never thought of as overtly philanthropic, the Princess was always said to be a kind soul, and greatly enjoyed the idea of a huge feast for the outcast poor as part of the Jubilee spirit.

The Victorian period isn’t exceptionally known for its hospitality towards the poverty stricken and lower class families across Great Britain at a time when social standing was everything. So naturally her proposed idea was met with a lot of opposition at first. Event planners of the Jubilee, like Sir Faudel Phillips, went so far as to suggest that a large gathering of ‘beggars and criminals’ could only end horribly, not to mention the waste of money in funding such an event.

Queen_Alexandra,_the_Princess_of_WalesIn the end, on June 24th, regardless of naysayers, hundreds of charities and churches all over London, Manchester, and the rest of the country opened their doors to share in a nationwide feast for anyone who couldn’t afford to eat. In some cases dinner tables were lavishly spread out and waited on by staff; and in others, rations composed of bread, meat, fruit, vegetables,and cheeses were simply handed out to be taken home. After it was all said and done, a record 700 tons of food were served to the poorest men, women, and children in the kingdom.

Princess Alexandra’s feasts launched the Diamond Jubilee into altruistic territory, and, spawned a tradition that united the country through more than just patriotism.

The great thing was this was just one day and one aspect of the Queen’s Jubilee. There’s so much more to report from all over the globe, so keep reading for interesting history tidbits and cool ideas for America’s 250th!

 


History250 is a look back at major anniversary events in America and around the world. We’re looking to the past for ideas in order to inspire others in 2026.

Ariama Long: I’m a recent graduate of Chestnut Hill College and contributor to Ideas250. If you’d like to contact me, leave a comment, or find out more about USA250, check out our website or email me at ariama@usa250inc.org.

 

It starts now.

Thanks to Sam Katz for producing this introductory video to “get Greater Philadelphia ready” for America’s 250th. Katz is producing an ongoing documentary series, Philadelphia: The Great Experiment, including a look back at past national celebrations in 1876, 1926 and 1876. To watch the whole series, click here.