By Joseph M. Adelman
April 11, 2022
Public Commissions for the 250th: What You Need to Know
14 min read
In 2026 the United States will mark the 250th anniversary of American independence—the Semiquincentennial. It would be the understatement of two-and-a-half centuries to suggest that it will likely be a busy year for the history profession across the nation and even internationally. Of course, history professionals are not the only people interested in how to commemorate the anniversary or contextualize the landmark of 250 years. And it is far from too early to begin thinking about plans. In fact, many organizations are already several years into their thinking.
This post focuses on a crucial element for understanding how the Semiquincentennial will be celebrated: the federal and state government commissions overseeing commemorations. Scholars play an important role, but it’s vital to understand the structures that will shape the public’s perception of the event. Much of the energy for the commemoration will come through these commissions, which are planning events and overseeing funding and grant opportunities. And they are organized in ways that may be unfamiliar to many scholars and other professionals.
As John Garrison Marks recently argued, politics and the sharply partisan debate about history currently underway in the United States are forcing museums, history sites, teachers, professors, and others to re-evaluate how they approach the past and the Revolution specifically. Marks notes that this poses obvious peril for historians, but also opens avenues for exploring the past because people are interested and engaged. Scholars absolutely can play a role, but they need to know how to get in the door.
National Commission and Foundation
First, commissions are a common way for governments to address standalone issues such as a major anniversary. They focus attention on the particular issue at hand, coordinate efforts among existing government agencies (which obviously have their own agendas to manage), and channel public and private funding into programming. In this case, both the federal government and many states have established commissions.
At the federal level, Congress created the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission (USSC) in 2016 to oversee work across the United States through the end of 2027. Its membership includes a number of Cabinet secretaries in ex officio roles. Some are charged with roles related to history, memory, and cultural knowledge already, such as the Librarian of Congress, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and the Archivist of the United States, and others not, including the Secretaries of State, Defense, Education, Interior, and the Attorney General. The Commission also includes four members of the Senate and four from the House, as well as sixteen private citizens.
The enabling legislation (Public Law 114-196) envisions a largely ceremonial role for the Commission. Congress proposed a relatively narrow focus on the American Revolution in order to promote “the ideas associated with that history, which have been so important in the development of the United States, in world affairs, and in the quest for freedom of all mankind.” The law requires the Commission to hold all of its meetings at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, “to honor the historical significance of the building as the site of deliberations and adoption of both the United States Declaration of Independence and Constitution.” It does not meet frequently. Finally, public monies are not appropriated to the Commission; instead, the Department of the Interior was charged with contracting with a private, non-profit organization to fundraise and support the Commission’s work.
After a lengthy public process, the USSC signed a contract with the America 250 Foundation to oversee fundraising and planning. The Foundation has taken a broader view of the 250th, seeking to organize “the largest and most inclusive anniversary observance in our nation’s history,” according to its website. As such, America250 plans to commemorate the past two-and-a-half centuries as much as the events of 1776. It has already begun supporting partnerships with local organizations, and initiated a program of America250 Awards in partnership with the National Football League to honor Americans during the one of the Thanksgiving Day games. However, it is important to note that as of this writing, America250’s work is largely on hold over allegations of harassment and discrimination within the organization.
The federal structure—a government commission partnered with a private non-profit—has served as a template for many states. As of Spring 2022, about thirty states either have commissions or have legislation in process that would establish one. Not surprisingly, those among the “thirteen original colonies” were among the early adopters, including Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. The American Association of State and Local History (AASLH) has already for several years been coordinating among these state commissions and provides guidance to states as they develop commemoration processes.
New Jersey serves as a useful example for how state governments are approaching the commemoration. In 2018, the legislature established a 2026 commission within the New Jersey Historical Commission (which is itself part of the Department of State). The NJHC works in partnership with Crossroads of the American Revolution on the project, entitled Revolutionary NJ. With its early start, Revolution NJ is already running programming about the legacy of the American Revolution, much of which (“thanks” to the pandemic) is born in virtual format and available to the wider world. For example, “A Bundle of Silences” was published in early 2022 featuring seven scholars speaking about broad themes related to the Revolution, American identity, and other core issues. The NJHC runs a grant program for local organizations to develop events and exhibits, and is developing curriculum materials for the state’s K-12 teachers.
Across the country, the state-level commissions boast a wide variety of memberships and structures. Most include some number of legislators and state agency heads. In many cases, the head of the state’s tourism, economic development, or parks and recreation agency chairs the commission, given their role in overseeing public historic sites and programming. Members of the public are usually involved, with more or less attention to diversity. In Massachusetts, for example, the towns of Concord and Lexington are both represented, as are the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. Nebraska requires that at least public members come from each of the state’s congressional districts, that one be a Native American from a federally recognized tribe, that one be African American, and one be Latino American. Some ensure representation for history professionals—directors of state historical societies, humanities councils, and so on. Some include interest groups such as the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution.
The mission of these state commissions is not, primarily, to mark 1776 or teach history. That means, however, that simply “correcting the record” or offering traditional historiography discussions will likely not suffice. General audiences—whether students in high school and university classrooms or the public—are ready and eager to hear sophisticated stories about the American past. That said, history professionals are more likely to gain one of those audiences with at least some attention to a familiar story or figure, even if the ultimate goal is to complicate how the audience sees them.
There are quirks, of course, to the state legislation. Many of the states have touted their own history, in a few cases drawing links to the War that are, at best, tenuous. In 1776, most of what is now the United States was “Native Ground,” to borrow Kathleen DuVal’s term, and not directly involved in the Revolutionary War between American colonists and the British government. Some states embrace that pluralistic history—Utah’s governor, in his resolution establishing a commission, emphasizes Lincoln’s role in interpreting the Declaration and acknowledges the Native tribes living on the land in 1776, as well as the Spanish who first arrived in the area that same year. North Dakota’s commission, in addition to whatever other programming it develops, is required by law to “identify prominent locations to display a replica of the liberty bell.” And South Carolina’s commission is the only one to use the term “Sestercentennial,” which is in fact another way to take Latin roots and build up to 250.
Resources for Scholars
Whatever form these commissions take, their influence over public commemorations and funding streams means that they will shape the semiquincentennial in crucial ways. History professionals—whether academics teaching in university positions, K-12 teachers, public historians, museum curators, or those in many other roles—should understand how they’re designed and what public mission they promote. One place to learn more is through the American Association of State and Local History (AASLH), which has established a coordinating committee and published a set of resources related to the Semiquincentennial. AASLH has also published Making History at 250: A Field Guide for the Semiquincentennial, which lays out principles and processes that organizations at the local, state, and national level can follow.
Here at the OI, we have a number of plans in motion. First, we have joined a number of the coordinating and steering committees at the local, state, and national levels to help bridge the world of Vast Early America and those responsible for commemorations. We’re working with Colonial Williamsburg on a series of five annual conferences with focused content and sessions on the American Revolution and its meaning to encourage scholars to advance the conversation. We’re also hosting one of our Coffeehouse tables among people interested in public scholarship for the 250th, producing episodes for Ben Franklin’s World related to the Revolution and its legacy, and more. For more information, see the website for the Across America, 1776 initiative. To quote John Marks of AASLH once more, this is “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reintroduce history to our audiences in ways that are inclusive of everyone’s stories and relevant to contemporary challenges.” It’s going to be a busy four years, to be sure, and it’s far too important not to do it well.
I am especially grateful to John Garrison Marks of the AASLH for his help in navigating the statutes and orders that created the commissions.