The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Remember the Bicentennial? Celebrating might be even harder for America’s 250th birthday.

Fourth of July fireworks are seen over the National Mall from Netherlands Carillon on July 4, 2019, in Arlington. (Marlena Sloss/The Washington Post)

Jennifer Finney Boylan is the Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence at Barnard College of Columbia University.

“You’ll remember this day forever,” my mother said. It was July 4, 1976, the morning of the Bicentennial.

“What am I going to remember?” I asked her.

“The meaning of freedom!” she said, her eyes misting as they often did when my mother — an immigrant from Germany — spoke about her adopted country.

I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure I rolled my eyes.

This weekend, the five-year clock starts ticking down to the country’s 250th anniversary, on July 4, 2026. One of the challenges facing America250 — an organization tasked by the United States Semiquincentennial Commission to commemorate the event — is keeping a new generation of Americans from rolling their eyes, or worse.

It’s not just the name of this anniversary that presents a challenge — though “Semiquincentennial” is admittedly a mouthful. (You might say “Semiquin,” if you prefer, or even “SemiQ.”) As we prepare to celebrate America at 250, it may be less clear than ever what it is we are celebrating. Compared with Americans in 1976, pre-semiquincentennial Americans seem to no longer quite agree about who they are, or ought to be.

Recently Dan DiLella, the chair of the Semiquincentennial Commission, and Keri Potts, vice president of communications at America250, told me how they plan to address that problem. “This is going to be the most inclusive commemoration in American history,” Potts said. “For us, that means staying grounded in 1776, but remembering that there is history before and after 1776 that needs to be told.”

Specifically, that means that, for one thing, there will be a role in the observations for Americans whose ancestors were here long before the Declaration of Independence was signed. “We’re engaging with all the tribal reservations,” DiLella said. “That is our mandate.” It also means taking a hard look at the history of slavery in this country. Cities targeted for “special emphasis” by the Semiquincentennial Commission Act of 2016 include the traditional revolutionary shrines of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York — but also Charleston, S.C., one of the major centers of the slave trade.

“History is what it is,” DiLella said. “And I think it has to be told.”

The history the organization hopes to tell also includes the women’s movement. In November, America250 intends to create an interactive art installation at a D.C. gallery featuring the face of Civil War surgeon Mary Edwards Walker — an early supporter of women’s rights, and the only woman ever to have received the Medal of Honor.

Projects such as these make it clear that America250’s commitment to diversity is sincere. But the challenge it faces is the same one with which the country as a whole is struggling: How can we celebrate our history when the interpretation of history itself is now an issue that divides us?

“We’ve been through a lot in the last few years,” Potts said. “But if we can take the next five years to inspire, to imagine, to involve, then when we get to 2026, Americans will be more connected to each other, and to what it means to be an American. And that is our north star.”

My mother was not wrong when she predicted that I’d remember the Bicentennial forever. There are many moments that seem magical, even so many years later: the fireworks on the National Mall, the Tall Ships in New York Harbor. But the celebrations were also awash with commerciality. I remember one ad that showed Paul Revere riding through town drinking Coca-Cola out of a bottle and a British redcoat sliding into base after a hit.

All of that marred, but did not quite ruin, the Bicentennial. It may be that Americans were just hungry for a good party. After the constitutional crisis of Watergate, after the trauma of Vietnam, we desperately needed a sign that we had not lost our way forever and that our system still worked.

Now, 45 years later, many of us are less certain that the system works. The past few years have seen worse than Watergate: an insurrection at the Capitol and a president with even less regard for the truth than Richard M. Nixon. Not to mention a pandemic that has seemed, at times, to bring out the worst in many of us.

Still, the people at America250 are nothing if not optimistic.

“Our surveys show that Americans still have spirit,” DiLella said. “They want to do the right thing, and they want to move forward.”

But the organization’s surveys also show that only 23 percent of Americans are hopeful for a better political future. If the goal is to bring Americans together in the next five years, the organizers have their work cut out for them.

So do we all.

Read more:

Bonnie Watson Coleman: On July 4, recognize the Black and Indigenous soldiers who helped win the Revolutionary War

Fareed Zakaria: Americans care about history because the stakes are high

Megan McArdle: America forgot how to make proper pie. Can we remember before it’s too late?

Darren Walker: Inclusion is patriotism of the highest order