This past summer, over twenty OI Associates from the U.S. and Canada rose out of their beach chairs once a week to join an OI Coffeehouse titled “Revolutionary Narratives: Reconsidering Commemorations at the U.S. 250th.” Organized by Maria DiBenigno, Hilary Miller, and Amy Speckart, three members of the Revolutionary Narratives working group, Coffeehouse participants reflected on what 2026 might look like at historic sites, museums, libraries, archives, schools, and universities. Perhaps most importantly, the Coffeehouse provided space to share knowledge, aspirations, and frustrations as 2026 approaches.
In a three-part blog series for Uncommon Sense readers, some members of the Coffeehouse will share their thoughts inspired by the group conversation. In the first installment, we explore how popular culture influences our perception of the American Revolution and its subsequent commemorations.
Part 1: The Power of Pop Culture and Commemorations
Throughout our six-week Coffeehouse discussion, I was reminded how often I encounter Revolutionary language—and not only because I work at a historic site. From political campaign ads to television shows, the American Revolution as a symbol is found in both sincere endorsements and irreverent punchlines. We discussed the legacies of Schoolhouse Rock!, the bicentennial vibe of the film Rocky, dank George Washington memes, more recent productions of 1776 and Hamilton, and the American Girl doll universe. We didn’t even scratch the surface of how the American Revolution — or how specific generations use the American Revolution — infiltrated popular culture. However, none of our shared Coffeehouse examples came close to an explicit critique of the Founding Generation.
That’s why I was reminded of a specific, 18-second scene from Dazed and Confused, a film from 1993 set on the last day of school in 1975. I remember watching this film with friends in high school. During this quick scene, a teacher sits on a desk in the front of a classroom. As the final bell rings, the teacher stands up and the students quickly leave the room, but there is a crucial statement delivered that I had not heard before: “Okay guys, one more thing, this summer when you’re being inundated with all this American bicentennial Fourth Of July brouhaha, don’t forget what you’re celebrating, and that’s the fact that a bunch of slave-owning, aristocratic, white males didn’t want to pay their taxes.”
This line of dialogue stays with me, not because it necessarily governs my total approach to the upcoming Semiquincentennial, but because it displayed a less laudatory way to describe the origins of what became the United States. Though we should be wary of pop culture’s power to tell history, I am also continually amazed by its possibility to imagine new ways of thinking. Popular culture should not replace rigorous academic scholarship—I am certainly not arguing for such a thing. However, as evidenced by the many examples shared in our Coffeehouse, it’s clear that pop culture influenced our discussants to varying degrees and nudged several towards their eventual fields. We should at least acknowledge its power.
—Maria DiBenigno is the Mellon Postdoctoral Research Fellow at James Monroe’s Highland
Confession: I think I’ve done the Bicentennial dirty.
When I used to think of the U.S. Bicentennial, I would imagine a star-spangled celebration facilitated by Revolutionary War military re-enactors and mob cap-bedecked white women that focused on the Founders (Founding Fathers, to be exact). I thought the Bicentennial represented a glorification of the founding of the United States that ignored the realities faced by Americans in the following centuries who did not have equal access to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Some public historians consider the Bicentennial an example of what a major anniversary should not look like and that the activities at public history sites in the 1970s were mistakes that we had to correct for the Semiquincentennial. The Revolutionary Narratives team is even guilty of this, using the Bicentennial as a jumping-off point for discussions of the Semiquincentennial and what we need to do differently in 2026.
But, do we need to do everything differently? As I’ve continued to dig into my Semiquincentennial work and consider public history, public memory, and commemorations, I’ve realized that I might have misunderstood the Bicentennial. Our Coffeehouse readings reveal how scholars, public historians, artists, and activists used the Bicentennial and the memory of the American Revolution in the 1970s to critically examine the legacy of the nation’s founding and the promises of the Declaration of Independence. From pushback over White House-requested changes in the musical and film adaptation of 1776 to critical responses to federal planning efforts, the Bicentennial proved over and over to be a point of contention. In the end, much of this dissension and conflict has been obscured from public memory of the Bicentennial, with patriotic nostalgia taking center stage. Public historians are aware that the Bicentennial led to an explosion of new museums, historic preservation projects, oral histories, and more, but we also could focus more on the important work of grassroots organizations and activists. The question is, then, not what we can do differently from 1976 but, rather, what lessons can we learn to build upon the work undertaken during the Bicentennial? Whose version of the Bicentennial have we privileged? How is public memory of 1976 affecting our perception of commemoration and how we frame our approach to the Semiquincentennial? What will be the legacy of 2026?
—Hilary Miller, PhD, is Chief of Interpretation at Adams National Historical Park
Disclaimer: The views expressed by Hilary Miller do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Government and the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The Revolutionary Narratives Working Group, made up of public history practitioners and academic scholars, is dedicated to fostering discussions about how to achieve a diverse, inclusive, and equitable U.S. Semiquincentennial. You can say hello to us in person at OAH 2024 in New Orleans at our session titled, “To 2026 or not to 2026? Commemoration, Reflection, and the Role of Historians in the U.S. Semiquincentennial,” or email us at RevolutionaryNarratives@gmail.com.
A new research project from @NewportHistory_ centers the lives of Black and Indigenous peoples in Newport's historical record. Check out the latest post to learn more about "Voices from the NHS Archives." Now linked on the Octo! https://blog.oieahc.wm.edu/the_octo/ #VastEarlyAmerica #Newport