The interest of looking forward as we mark America’s next great birthday
Discussion of the “semiquin” – even in its current nascent phase – has focused on how future celebrations should address the contested and unequal legacies of the American Revolution. This means in particular the promises of justice and equality with which politicians, activists and others have struggled and fought ever since. For this reason, planners and commentators have looked to the bicentennial of the 1976 Declaration of Independence – remembered for its abundant historical programming – for inspiration and perspective.
The political stakes of commemoration are high, as demonstrated by the heated debates around the New York Times’ 1619 Project and Donald Trump’s proposed sculpture garden and the 1776 Commission. Many believe that 2026 could be the when disputes over those efforts — and the access to rights and representation they represent — will come to a head as the simmering culture war over American history boils over.
But commemorations have not always been about history. Previous anniversaries looked forward, not backward. They were, on the one hand, an opportunity for state and corporate interests to gain popular support for large-scale initiatives. On the other hand, they were a way for Americans to envision and assess the world to come and think about how best to plan or prepare for it.
Consider, for example, the centennial celebration of 1876, when local and federal governments, business leaders and city developers launched a World’s Fair in Philadelphia. It was a year-long event that featured exhibits from countries and states, companies and professional organizations, with exhibits and performances numbering in the hundreds. Visitors visited modern pavilions where they saw new machines and inventions, including the telephone and the typewriter. For many Americans, it was a glimpse of the life to come and the sweeping transformations that continued industrialization and innovations were bringing to daily life.
Less than two decades later, an even bigger event, the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, marked the anniversary of the landing of Christopher Columbus. The Fairgoers rode a moving sidewalk and the first Ferris wheel. They explored models of kitchens and bathrooms with new appliances and saw new inventions for farm and factory work. They watched the first animated pictures and tried new foods like Juicy Fruit and Cracker Jacks. Again, it was an opportunity to see and experience the world to come.
Not everyone received equal interest in this future: the street-lit “White City” at the center of the Chicago Fair excluded African Americans; and elsewhere, visitors saw and interacted with people from colonized nations in live exhibits. The physical layout of the fair – including the nations represented in the white city and those placed at the perimeter – and the emphasis on comparing races and nationalities all reinforced ideologies of racial inequality and supremacy. white color that underpinned American ideals of “progress”. .”
Such commemorations reflected the United States’ growing interest in overseas expansion and colonialism, which it would begin to realize a few years later with the occupation of Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines. As historians have shown, national and business leaders wanted to promote the United States as an emerging player in world markets and generate enthusiasm and agreement among Americans – old and new – who visited the fair. .
And it worked. Over the next few years, Americans eagerly adopted and purchased many of the new technologies introduced at the fairs, contributing to the growth of domestic and international markets. And, fueled in part by the racial hierarchies presented at the fairs, they endorsed and supported imperialist actions abroad and Jim Crow segregation at home.
But the 1893 fair was also an opportunity for Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass and other leaders to stage a highly visible protest against the marginalization of black Americans – a protest that helped galvanize the fight for freedom blacks. Their widely circulated booklet, “The Reason the Colored American Isn’t at the World’s Fair in Columbia”, laid out the most pressing issues facing African Americans and urged organizers to include them in the fair and, by extension, the prospects it spells out.
In the early years of planning, Americans looked forward, not backward, following the legacy of mid-century programs such as John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. The initial ideas for the Bicentenary sought to both capitalize on and reinvigorate this energy.
But that changed in the early 1970s. Planners and commentators began to emphasize the historical aspects of bicentennial commemoration and programming. The standard explanation for this change – and indeed, for much of the “nostalgic culture” of the 1970s (think “Little House on the Prairie”, “Grease”) – is the one that has been put forward for the first seen by influential postmodern theorists in the 1980s and 1990s.: Because Americans could no longer clearly imagine the future (e.g., “Metropolis” or “The Jetsons”), they instead looked to the past.
The past, in turn, became the place where questions of representation, access and equity arose. In other words, because planners and commentators couldn’t agree on which ideas or issues were most important to posterity, they instead decided to use the commemoration as a time to question and engage history. .
And so the 1976 Bicentenary played out differently, emphasizing the past rather than the future. Soon, history became the dominant theme of the bicentennial: new museums emerged, such as the African American Museum of Philadelphia, along with new and engaging archival and preservation and memory initiatives.
Through large-scale projects like the Tall Ships, the Bicentennial Wagon Train, and Alex Haley’s “Roots,” the commemoration has helped interest and engage many Americans in history in many ways. The lasting impact of the bicentenary became these new opportunities to engage and find meaningful connections to the past: new museums and historical societies, community preservation and oral history projects, and personal and family histories and genealogies. Americans have found commonality — or at least understanding and new perspective — by thinking about history in new ways.
But this emphasis on history meant that the bicentennial did not offer Americans a full-scale opportunity to look forward and take stock.
Today, we have no trouble imagining what’s next. Now people can only too well visualize the future, literally: the growing inevitability of climate catastrophe is heralded in sophisticated visualizations and films like “2012” or “Don’t Look Up.” It is affecting our lives with rising temperatures, more extreme weather and global shortages.
Even as we try to honestly grapple with our past, going back to the old way of commemorating — by grappling with our future — would offer benefits. Just as the Bicentennial has helped us find meaning in the past, the Semi-Quintennial can help us find meaning in the future: a more just and equal meaning than those envisioned in Philadelphia and Chicago there more than a century old.
In a sense, we have no choice. In 2076, when this country reaches its next centennial, America’s most well-known memorial site – the Mall and many of its landmarks – could be submerged in the Atlantic Ocean due to rising sea levels. sea. Whether we like it or not, the future we head into will have profound effects on our ability to commemorate the past and how we do so.
As important as it is to use observance to reevaluate our understanding of the past, we must do so in a way that also brings the future forward. Otherwise, we may be missing the greatest opportunity to imagine and reimagine the world to come and to engage as many Americans as possible in this shared vision.