The 250th is Coming! The 250th is Coming!

On Monday evening I attended a panel discussion at the Old North Church, sponsored by Revolution 250 to discuss the anniversary of events leading up to and including the American Revolution. Events have already marked the anniversaries of the Stamp Act Crisis and other events in the early years of colonial protest, but the big push will come in 2025-26 with the anniversaries of Lexington, Concord, etc. Boston will certainly be a popular destination for heritage tourists from the United States and beyond.

Panelists included William Fowler, Northeastern University; Martha McNamara, Wellesley College; Robert Allison, Suffolk University and Representative Byron Rushing. I didn’t have any expectations, beyond an interest in how the presenters were framing the anniversary. On this score I left just a bit disappointed.

The bicentennial commemoration of the Revolution (1976) received a great deal of attention. One presenter spoke passionately about how his experience as a young boy propelled him into a career in historic preservation. Others spoke of its successes and as something the city can build on, but apart from one speaker I heard very little in terms of narrative. Representative Rushing, however, confronted the issue directly by insisting that events address the African American and Native American experiences. I suspect his memory of the centennial is very different from that of the other panelists.

In contrast with the Civil War community I have very little understanding of the relationship between the many organizations devoted to public history and heritage tourism here in Greater Boston area. Beyond the National Park Service I also don’t know much about the institutional history of these organizations.

That said, I don’t get the sense that the narrative that framed the bicentennial of the American Revolution is seen as something that needs to be corrected in significant ways. Concerns about the preservation of historic sites and engaging the youth in our communities is certainly important, but we will have a better chance of hitting those targets only if we ensure that the overall narrative is compelling and reflects the best current scholarship and is deemed as relevant to our own lives and the nation.

I may certainly be wrong about this and I encourage those of you who are familiar with the relevant issues to chime in.

What is clear to me is that the commitment on the part of numerous organizations to correct the Civil War centennial narrative went far to shaping the sesquicentennial. It was in that tension between the Lost Cause and the emergence of new voices and themes that, in my mind, led to the most creative and challenging commemorative moments during the sesquicentennial. Where is that tension in Boston’s commemorative past?

Looking forward to continued discussions.

14 comments… add one
  • The Bicentennial was very different from the Civil War anniversaries. There is a vested interest by hobbyists in stressing the military aspect of the Civil War. The Revolution’s anniversary stressed the political, and framed the events as America’s birthday party. The biggest event of the Bicentennial was OpSail which made no pretense of historical accuracy. The voices of the past that most folks heard were Adams, Jefferson, et al, rather than military men. Beyond Lexinton, Concord, and Bunker Hill, people heard little about Battles.

    There was also unity in time. Nearly all the popularly attended events were held in 1975 and 1976. Concentrating on 16 months gave the 200th the possibility of penetrating the popular consciousness.

    The celebratory nature of the Revolutionary Bicentennial was completely missing in the CW150, making it a much less popularly observed anniversary.Slavery ended 150 years ago this month, yet there is no signature celebration planned for the biggest event in American history after the adoption of the Constitution.

    I think that the CW150 was infinitely better than the CW100 but the fact that so few people think that the ending of slavery is something to celebrate nationally tells us about the source of the shortcomings of CW150.

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  • This is sort of off topic, but I hear this a lot from Lost Cause advocates. Is there similarities between the colonists revolting and the Confederate states seceding? It seems to me that there are not, but I’m no historian. The biggest difference to me is the colonists weren’t represented in Parliment, but the Confederate states were overrepresented in congress and the electoral college because they could count 3/5 of their slaves.

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    • There are some similarities, but then there are major differences as well. Neo-Confederates are desperate to link the two events as they think by doing so it gives legitimacy to the rebellion (as did the original secessionists in 1860/61. Just look at the secession declarations). They point to the Declaration of Independence as proof that the Founders provided a way for a rebellion. But when they do that, they run into the problems that undermine the entire idea of secession by the slave owners.

      Basically, they say Northern aggression and Northern tyranny. Yet, what specifically were they? That’s where it falls apart for them because it comes down to trying to shape perceptions and not specific acts. At least none that didn’t involve slavery which modern neo-confederates try to deny as having anything to do in causing the conflict. They run into a major Catch-22 in trying to link the Revolution with the Civil War.

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      • Interesting. Thanks for the reply.

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    • There are I believe crucial differences between the two events. But certainly the Confederates adopted and used the rhetoric of the Revolution.

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  • In thinking back to how I became interested in the Civil War, it was the result of buying a little booklet at the Smithsonian during the centennial. The book wasn’t very scholarly or detailed, just a collection of statistics and photos and timelines. But I was hooked. Later on I became aware of the political, sociological, and cultural impacts of the war. If things had been reversed, I doubt I would have picked up a booklet on the home front during the war and launched a lifelong interest. All of which is to say that anniversaries and public commemorations have many roles and one of them (I would argue the primary one) is to engage as many people as possible. In that way, many of these same people will come to understand other very important facets of these historical events. So, my optimistic view is that anything which gets people interested in history is a gateway to getting them started down the road to more inclusive perspective.

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    • I don’t disagree, but at the same time I hope that those people who have the opportunity to share history during a major commemoration take the time to reflect on the importance of commemorations and the ways in which they reflect back on their own communities.

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  • No love for the Bicentennial Minute?

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    • Not familiar with it.

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      • Kevin, how young are you? The Bicentennial minute was some celebrity or actor during the Bicentennial who gave a factoid about the Revolution. I remember Maureen Stapleton describing some recipe from Martha Washington.

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    • Ooh, ooh, waving hand here. I remember it. I think I was 11 or 12. Actually, I think they built up to it for about four years.

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      • I forgot to say that those Bicentennial Minutes were part of the reason I went on to major in History. Things stuck with a kid, I guess. That, and Michigan History Week back in elementary school.

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  • As far as the “institutional memory” of the various sites on the Freedom Trail, I worked at a well known historic site in the early ’80s. The stories I could tell, of the turf battles and social classes.

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