As America's 250th Birthday Nears, the Shape of Its Origin Story Shifts - The New York Times


Category:  News & Politics

Via:  john-russell  •  4 weeks ago  •  13 comments

By:   Jennifer Schuessler (nytimes)

As America's 250th Birthday Nears, the Shape of Its Origin Story Shifts - The New York Times
Plans for America's 250th birthday in 2026 are getting underway. But can the spirit of 1776 survive the history wars of 2021?

S E E D E D   C O N T E N T

Plans for America's 250th birthday in 2026 are getting underway. But can the spirit of 1776 survive the history wars of 2021?


It's been a tough year for 1776.

On Jan. 6, rioters entered the U.S. Capitol, some waving 13-starred "1776" flags. Two weeks later, President Trump's 1776 Commission issued its report calling for "patriotic education," which painted progressives as enemies of the timeless values of the founding.

And in recent months, "1776" has been a rallying cry for conservative activists taking the fight against critical race theory to local school boards across the country, further turning an emblem of national identity into a culture-war battering ram.

These efforts have drawn condemnation from many of the nation's historians, who see them as attempts to suppress honest discussion of the past, and play down the role race and slavery have played in shaping the nation from the beginning. But as planning for America's 250th birthday in 2026 gets underway, some historians are also asking if the story they tell of the founding has gotten too dark.

For scholars, the rosy tale of a purely heroic unleashing of freedom may be long gone. But does America still need a version of its origin story it can love?

Image02FOUNDING-PIE-articleLarge.jpg?quality=75&auto=webp&disable=upscale A Bicentennial parade from 1976, featuring an American-as-apple-pie homage.Credit...Wally McNamee/Corbis via Getty Images

The story historians tell about the American Revolution has changed enormously since the Bicentennial. Uplifting biographies of the founding fathers may still rule the best-seller list (and Broadway). But these days, scholars depict the Revolution less as a glorious liberty struggle than as a hyper-violent civil war that divided virtually every segment of colonial society against itself, and left many African Americans and Native Americans worse off, and less free.

Today's historians aren't in the business of writing neat origin stories — complexity, context and contingency are their watchwords. But in civic life, where we stake our beginnings matters.

"Every nation has to have a story," said Annette Gordon-Reed, a historian at Harvard whose new book "On Juneteenth" parses the elisions and simplifications at the heart of various origin narratives.

"We're arguing now about the content of that story, and finding the balance," she said. "If you think the United States was a good idea, you don't want people to think the whole effort was for nothing, or was meaningless or malign."

In a recent essay about teaching the American Revolution, Jane Kamensky, a professor of history at Harvard, argued that historians need to do more to shore up "our fragile democracy." The "latest, best scholarship," she writes, "is brave and fresh and true, all of which is necessary. But it is not, in the end, sufficient."

And it's a problem that Kamensky — the lead historian for Educating for American Democracy, a new cross-ideological civics education initiative launched last spring — believes has only grown more urgent.

"We as a profession are very invested in originality, which means toppling," she said. "I think originality also means discovery and building. We ignore history's responsibility to help plot a way forward at our peril."

ImageSamuel Downing, 102, photographed in 1864 for the book "The Last Men of the Revolution."Credit...Library of CongressImageThe photographer, Nelson Augustus Moore, aimed to capture the last men who had "looked on Washington."Credit...Library of Congress

Whose Revolution?

Americans have been fighting over the history — and mythology — of the Revolution from almost the moment it ended. "There's no one memory of the Revolution," said Michael Hattem, the author of "Past and Prologue: Politics and Memory in the American Revolution." "And the way we remember it has always been shaped by contemporary circumstances."

As its public mythology evolved, various groups laid claim to its memory and symbols, as a way of defining the nation and anchoring themselves to citizenship. It was Black abolitionists of the 1840s who first promoted the story of Crispus Attucks, the mixed-race Black and Native American sailor said to be the first to die for the Revolution in the Boston Massacre.

For Irish immigrants in post-Civil War New England, claiming spiritual descent from the Revolution became a way of claiming Americanness, while white Yankees sought to preserve the spirit of 1776 as their inheritance through blood.

Those fractures, and fears of "losing" the true Revolution, have carried forward. Today, the Bicentennial of 1976 may be remembered mostly for its explosion of commercialism and "Buy-cetennial" kitsch, as well as celebratory spectacles like a re-enactment of the signing of the Declaration of Independence that drew a reported million people to Philadelphia.

But it came at a moment of extraordinary national division, in the wake of Watergate and the withdrawal from Vietnam. After surviving "some of the bitterest times in our history," the official commission's final report declared, "we cried out for something to draw us together again."

ImageThe Bicentennial, denounced by some as the "Buy-centennial," sparked an explosion of commercialism.Credit...Santi Visalli/Getty ImagesImageThere were reenactments of the Boston Tea Party, along with brew-at-home alternatives.Credit...Santi Visalli/Getty Images

Some saw the task differently. The Afro-American Bicentennial Corporation, a private nonprofit group, worked to designate new Black history landmarks, and organized events like a dramatic reading by James Earl Jones of Frederick Douglass's "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"

And the People's Bicentennial Commission, a left-wing group founded by the activist Jeremy Rifkin, aimed to recover what it saw as the true, radical spirit of the founding that had been swept aside by big business. At one protest, they burned President Gerald Ford in effigy. At another, Ronald McDonald was hanged from an ersatz liberty tree.

The group drew alarm in Washington. In a May 1976 report titled "The Attempt to Steal the Bicentennial," a congressional subcommittee denounced it as a front for "organizations of the revolutionary left which seek to pervert the legitimate meaning of the American Revolution."

Beyond the Founding Fathers

The Bicentennial also kicked off a boom in scholarship on the Revolution, which sometimes spawned bitter disputes between historians focused on recovering the experiences of marginalized people and those taking a more celebratory, elites-centric view.

Within the historical profession, at least, those pitched battles have cooled. If there's a keystone text of the current scholarship, it's Alan Taylor's "American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804," a kaleidoscopic synthesis published in 2016. Taylor, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner, takes in actors and events far beyond the 13 colonies and the founding fathers, casting a cool, antiheroic eye on the Revolution's costs for many.

Today, inclusion — geographic, demographic — is also a core theme for those organizing the 2026 commemoration, from the official U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission on down.

ImageBroomfield, Colo., 1976. "We entered the Bicentennial year having survived some of the bitterest times in our history," the official national commission said. "We cried out for something to draw us together."Credit...Denver Post, via Getty Images

At the Smithsonian Institution, that means promoting the idea of "the many 1776s," to quote the title of an exhibition to be held across the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Latino Center.

"Even places distant from where the Revolution was being fought still had a profound influence on the country as we know it today," Kevin Gover, the Smithsonian's under secretary for museums and culture, said.

Gover, a former director of the Museum of the American Indian, said he expected some partisans "would play football" with 1776, but the Smithsonian's goal was to "treat it with respect."

"For us, treating it with respect means telling the truth, as well as we can, and really encouraging people to embrace the complexity," he said.

ImageA special Bicentennial honor guard of the U.S. Army at Camp Zama, Japan, on July 4, 1976.Credit...Associated Press Photo

A Living Declaration

That may be a tall order in 2021, amid the continuing furor ignited by the 1619 Project, an initiative by The New York Times Magazine that explores the history and continuing legacy of slavery, positing the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Virginia that year as the nation's "very origin." It has sparked intense scholarly and partisan debate, along with celebratory countercampaigns focused on 1620, 1776, and (in Texas) 1836.

Philip Mead, the chief historian of the Museum of the American Revolution, which opened in Philadelphia in 2017, said he hoped the 250th anniversary would help move past the perception of American history as either hagiographic or iconoclastic.

"We need to try to handle it warts and all,'' he said, "and to make the conversation more overtly a conversation, rather than an adversarial debate."

The museum doesn't stint on the underside of the Revolution. One exhibit explores how, for African Americans, thousands of whom fled to British lines, "sometimes freedom wore a red coat." Another explores the predicament of Native Americans, whose nations forged whatever alliances might best preserve their sovereignty.

"It's important to acknowledge not just the disappointments of the Revolution, but the really dark outcomes," Mead said.

What we need from 1776, he said, isn't an origin story, but a transformation story. "We learn who we are by understanding how we have changed," he said. "And the Revolution was a huge inflection point in that change."

ImageAfrican Americans fought on both sides in the Revolution. As an exhibit at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia puts it, "Sometimes freedom wore a red coat."Credit...via Museum of the American Revolution

The museum's Semiquincentennial exhibit will focus on the legacy of the Declaration of Independence. It's a document whose interpretation lies at the heart of today's hyper-polarized history wars.

Should it be celebrated as a transcendent statement of freedom and equality embraced by Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? Or was it just a philosophical fig leaf hung over a grubby war to defend white liberty grounded in slavery and Native dispossession (and equally useful as a model for South Carolina's declaration of secession in 1860)?

How you see things depends in part on where you stand. In 2017, when Kamensky started teaching a new class on the Revolution steeped in the best new scholarship, the ethos was "skeptical detachment from the founding mythology."

She was taken aback when one student, a third-generation Minuteman re-enactor, later told her he had hung up his tricorn and musket. "It's all garbage and lies," he told her (putting it more strongly). "Who could be proud of that?"

Kamensky revised her course. Next time, the session on the Declaration's promise and limits ended with the group reading it together out loud.

"Everyone was in tears," she said. "But I would not pretend to say they were the same tears for everybody."

A Democracy … If We Can Keep It?

Even some scholars whose work has most powerfully chipped away at the Whiggish view of the Revolution as unleashing a steady march to universal liberty and equality say they are uneasy at what they see as its hijacking by anti-democratic extremists.

Taylor 's "American Revolutions" may be short on uplift or admiring odes to the wisdom of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. But in his class lectures at the University of Virginia, he said, he always tries to connect back to the founders' understanding of the republic as a living organism which, if not constantly defended by engaged citizens, will "dissolve."

"The founders had a very clear understanding of that," Taylor said. "We have a much less clear understanding."

Robert Parkinson, an associate professor at Binghamton University in New York, is the author of "Thirteen Clocks," a recent study of how patriot leaders exploited fears of rebellious slaves and "merciless Indian savages" (as the Declaration puts it) to rally colonists to the cause.

ImageA July 4, 1976, protest by the People's Bicentennial Commission, an alternative group set up to protest big business and recover what members saw as the radical spirit of the American Revolution.Credit...Pictorial Parade/Getty Images

"1776 really gets a pass," Parkinson said. "Race was at the center of how the founding actually happened."

Still, at the first meeting of his American Revolution class after the 2016 election, Parkinson found himself pivoting to talk about Enlightenment values, and the fragility of democracy. "It was way more patriotic than I usually go," he said.

It was also, he said, in line with where Americans found themselves in 1776, when — as now — the situation was constantly changing, the stakes were high, the future uncertain.

"Returning to that kind of freshness is another way of talking about the founding," Parkinson said. "It's a different kind of usable past."


jrDiscussion - desc
Professor Principal
1  seeder  JohnRussell    4 weeks ago
Robert Parkinson, an associate professor at Binghamton University in New York, is the author of  “Thirteen Clocks,”  a recent study of how patriot leaders exploited fears of rebellious slaves and “merciless Indian savages” (as the Declaration puts it) to rally colonists to the cause.

“1776 really gets a pass,” Parkinson said. “Race was at the center of how the founding actually happened.”

Still, at the first meeting of his American Revolution class after the 2016 election, Parkinson found himself pivoting to talk about Enlightenment values, and the fragility of democracy. “It was way more patriotic than I usually go,” he said.

It was also, he said, in line with where Americans found themselves in 1776, when — as now — the situation was constantly changing, the stakes were high, the future uncertain.


Read Thirteen Clocks Online by Robert G. Parkinson | Books (

In his celebrated account of the origins of American unity, John Adams described July 1776 as the moment when thirteen clocks managed to strike at the same time. So how did these American colonies overcome long odds to create a durable union capable of declaring independence from Britain? In this powerful new history of the fifteen tense months that culminated in the Declaration of Independence, Robert G. Parkinson provides a troubling answer: racial fear. Tracing the circulation of information in the colonial news systems that linked patriot leaders and average colonists, Parkinson reveals how the system's participants constructed a compelling drama featuring virtuous men who suddenly found themselves threatened by ruthless Indians and defiant slaves acting on behalf of the king.

Parkinson argues that patriot leaders used racial prejudices to persuade Americans to declare independence. Between the Revolutionary War's start at Lexington and the Declaration, they broadcast any news they could find about Native Americans, enslaved Blacks, and Hessian mercenaries working with their British enemies. American independence thus owed less to the love of liberty than to the exploitation of colonial fears about race.  Thirteen Clocks  offers an accessible history of the Revolution that uncovers the uncomfortable origins of the republic even as it speaks to our own moment.
Professor Principal
2  seeder  JohnRussell    4 weeks ago

I have read all or part of many history books , probably to the extent that I dont even remember half of what I have read. I have also watched many documentaries about history, including about the American Revolution. I understand it , but there is always something new to learn, and at this stage I'm probably going to forget most of it anyway. 

I am beginning to wonder about the worth of even having a national "origin story". Seemingly the idea behind one is that it fosters national unity. But what if it turns out that the national origin story is incomplete or biased? The American national origin story was written almost entirely by white people. George Washington could not tell a lie, Betsy Ross sewed the flag, Paul Revere rode, Benjamin Franklin was the wise old guy who talked all the founders into compromising, the Liberty Bell, Valley Forge, and on and on. It was all about the English colonists. So we teach all this to kids with the expectations that kids will say "I should be like those people". 

But that isnt America any more, is it? 

Sean Treacy
Professor Guide
3  Sean Treacy    4 weeks ago

I saw an article today called "fuck the fourth" by Toure, a former MSNBC host, who attacked the fourth and refused to celebrate it , because his mind has been poisoned to believe that  the colonists rebelled to protect slavery..

The 1619 project lies, and this the fruit it bears.  No matter how much that lie gets exposed, it's circulating freely in the left wing echo chamber and will keep resurfacing every time a radical wants to gin up anti American rage.

Just as some of us predicted it would...

Freshman Principal
3.1  Hallux  replied to  Sean Treacy @3    4 weeks ago

Frederick Douglas poisoned the mind of Touré?

Sean Treacy
Professor Guide
3.1.1  Sean Treacy  replied to  Hallux @3.1    4 weeks ago

I'm sorry. I thought my post was simple and easy to follow. I guess it was too confusing. I'll try to dumb them down for you in the future. 

Freshman Principal
3.1.2  Hallux  replied to  Sean Treacy @3.1.1    4 weeks ago

The problem with your post was that it was too simplistic and too easy to follow. 

Professor Principal
3.2  seeder  JohnRussell  replied to  Sean Treacy @3    4 weeks ago

From the Introduction to the book "Thirteen Clocks" by Robert G Parkinson

Thirteen Clocks offers a different interpretation of the American founding. I argue patriot leaders weaponized prejudice about African Americans and Indians to unite the American colonists and hammer home the idea that the British were treacherous and dangerous enemies. Immediately after Lexington and Concord, patriot leaders seized any story they could lay their hands on that hinted British agents might be using Natives or enslaved people to put down the American rebellion.

They publicized these widely in weekly newspapers, telling and retelling stories about any involvement between British military officers, royal governors, or any government agents who might be encouraging slaves to rise up against their masters or Natives to slaughter backcountry settlers. Republicanism wasn’t enough to keep the thirteen colonies united in the first year of the Revolutionary War—or so patriot leaders, especially John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin, actually believed in the moment.

No matter what they said later on, throughout 1775 and 1776, these men spent a great deal of time, money, and effort broadcasting stories about what the Declaration referred to as “domestic insurrectionists,” “merciless Indian savages,” and “foreign Mercenaries” working with the king (and therefore against the “common cause”) to as much of the colonial public as they could reach. Once the war began, the commitment of patriot leaders to the amplification of these particular stories reveals their conviction that this was the best way to secure American unity. Race made the thirteen clocks chime together; the  consequences would last long after1776.

Thirteen Clocks explores how the men who orchestrated the creation of the United States justified that new nation by excluding some people they thought unworthy. The so-called “founders” might have believed that all men were created equal, but they also arranged things so the United States would not belong to everyone. Believing unity to be the highest priority, they traded away equality to secure the union. From its first inception, the exclusion of African Americans and Native peoples was what allowed the states to be and stay united.

Since that new republic would be one based on citizenship—a form of political belonging that acts much like a club, where the members get to decide who’s included and who’s not—the argument that some people didn’t belong as Americans would endure after the Revolution. Whether they intended to do so or not, through the stories they sponsored, the words they used, and the statements they made, those founders buried prejudice deep in the cornerstone of the new American republic in 1776. There it remains. Thirteen Clocks is about how this came to be.  
Sean Treacy
Professor Guide
3.2.1  Sean Treacy  replied to  JohnRussell @3.2    4 weeks ago
nd “foreign Mercenaries” working with the king

So, the theory is white supremacist Americans united the country by attacking Germans? 

Professor Principal
3.2.2  seeder  JohnRussell  replied to  Sean Treacy @3.2.1    4 weeks ago

No the theory is that the founding fathers weren't above using race to make sure the new American army stayed willing to fight. 

Sean Treacy
Professor Guide
3.2.3  Sean Treacy  replied to  JohnRussell @3.2.2    4 weeks ago
he founding fathers weren't above using race to make sure the new American army stayed willing to fight. 

The English did encourage Indians to slaughter American settlers. They armed them for that purpose. Pointing that fact out is "using race?"  Do you imagine the rebels should remained silent and not point out those attacks in order to avoid "using race."   Do you think the founders would have accepted those attacks quietly if they were made by Frenchmen or Welshmen? 

c'mon man.  

Professor Principal
3.2.4  seeder  JohnRussell  replied to  Sean Treacy @3.2.3    4 weeks ago

Using rarely studied Colonial newspaper evidence, the author reveals how fear as much as idealism drove American colonists to independence. It was because of their shared conviction that the British were preparing to use non-White people against them that, Parkinson argues in John Adams’ words, “thirteen clocks were made to strike together.”

The author convincingly demonstrates how Colonial anxieties emerged immediately after the 1775 Battles of Lexington and Concord and, only 15 months later, made their way into the Declaration of Independence, which described “merciless Indian savages,” “foreign Mercenaries,” and “domestic insurrectionists.” Colonial leaders didn’t create these fears; instead, they stoked long-existing ones to unite the Colonies in their unprecedented drive for political freedom. Then they structured post-Revolution constitutions to prevent the incorporation of Blacks and Natives into the population as citizens.

Parkinson pulls no punches. “When the war was won,” he writes, “the so-called ‘founding fathers’ wanted the ‘candid world’ to believe that only the first paragraphs of the Declaration—with the lofty sentiments of self-evident truths and inalienable rights—animated the colonists’ fight for liberty….What they wanted us to forget—and we largely have—was that the drive to have thirteen colonial clocks strike as one was also a campaign stamped by the vicious, the confining, and the destructive.” While omitting other factors, the author makes a strong case for the soiled origins of the U.S.

A knowledgeable, disturbing presentation of the prominent role of racism in the years of the nation’s birth.
Sean Treacy
Professor Guide
3.2.5  Sean Treacy  replied to  JohnRussell @3.2.4    4 weeks ago

Again John, if Welshmen were killing American settlers, would the founders have used that to rally support for their cause? 

In 1914, did the publicization of the atrocities committed by Germans during the "rape of Belgium"  constitute a racist attack  against Germans? Should the allies  have remained silent rather than help motivate their citizens by publicizing German atrocities? Does the popular anger over the rape of Belgium make  WWI a racist war against Germans? 

I should also point out as the topic ranges farther afield, that you've not provided any evidence to support Ture's claim the colonies rebelled against Britain to protect slavery. 

Bob Nelson
Professor Principal
4  Bob Nelson    4 weeks ago

Americans like simple stories. Disney stories. History is a bit more complicated than that.

A good story (for adults) often has many interpretations, depending on the point of view of the reader and the author. History is a good story for adults.

History is a "social science": like all sciences, the more it is studied, the more is learned about it. Anyone who desires a "once and for all" static image of our past does not understand history... or life. 


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