States Lay Groundwork for 250-year Anniversary of 1776

100,000 programs planned for the 'biggest event in history'

With five years to go before the celebration of 250 years of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, more and more states are making preparations for what promises to be a nationwide celebration of Herculean proportions. 

Terry Brown, Director of Federal Partnerships with the U.S. National Semiquincentennial Commission, said on Thursday that the 250th anniversary was going to be “the biggest event in history.” He said they planned to produce 100,000 programs and attract more than 350 million visitors across the state. All of this, he said, would mean billions of dollars infused into national, state and local economies. 

“I encourage you all to start planning now,” Brown said on a webinar for local and state historical organizations run through the American Association for State and Local History. 

So far, 16 states have formed their own official commissions, and five more have introduced or passed legislation to create their own commission. Of those 21, nine — Rhode Island, Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Virginia — are part of the original 13 colonies. 

Representatives from various historical organizations in Connecticut said that they had discussed Connecticut’s role in the celebration in early 2020, but that the pandemic brought the talks to a halt. Jason Mancini, executive director of the non-profit Connecticut Humanities Council, said the talks were starting to begin again. 

Mancini said they also had conversations with the Office of the Arts and the Department of Economic and Community Development. 

Jim Watson, spokesperson for the Department of Economic and Community Development, said that there were internal discussions going on about the 250th anniversary, but that they were not able to comment further. 

Gina Atasoff, spokesperson for the Secretary of the State, said there had been no conversations yet in their department about the forming of a commission in Connecticut, and Max Reiss, spokesperson for the governor, said they had received communication about the 250th celebration earlier in the year. 

“We are reviewing potential next steps,” he said. 

States get to work

In 2016, the U.S. Congress passed a law establishing a national semiquincentennial commission, “to plan, encourage, develop, and coordinate the commemoration of the history of the United States leading up to the 250th anniversary of the founding of the United States.” 

Anna Laymon, who is the Vice President of Programs and Planning at the America250 Foundation, the organization associated with the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission, said her office had been working with the goal of getting a commission set up in every state. 

“Our intention is to be sure that, while we are highlighting the 13 original colonies, that this is really a national moment, so that no matter where you are in the US, you feel connected to 250 years of American democracy,” she said.  

“1776 is important, but there are events that lead up to that — that brought these men to declare independence to begin with. It’s more than taxation without representation for sure,” said Colman. 

She said that last month, 20 states attended the first of what will be a quarterly meeting of states with active commissions. 

One of those states was Rhode Island, which in June established a 30-member commission headed by Secretary of the State Nellie Gorbea. The commission will coordinate and facilitate local events and work in partnership with the tourism industry. 

“This opportunity of the 250th commission was fantastic, it will help Rhode Island promote it’s unique role in the founding of our country, and also stimulate our local economy,” she said. “We were really part of the very beginnings of the country, and I want to make sure Rhode Island is credited.” 

Part of the reason they wanted to start early, Gorbea said, was because Rhode Island planned to celebrate events that took place before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. For example, they are planning a celebration next year around the capture and looting of the British schooner HMS Gaspee in 1772, one of the first rebellions recorded in the colonies. 

Christy Colman, executive director of the Jamestown-Yorktown Federation and a member of the 250th commission in Virginia, said they, too, wanted to commemorate more than just the signing of the declaration. 

“1776 is important, but there are events that lead up to that — that brought these men to declare independence to begin with. It’s more than taxation without representation for sure,” said Colman. 

Colman said the state wanted to take the opportunity to showcase some of its museums and historical sites. She said they were planning a series of conferences in partnership with the universities. 

Laura Trieschmann, the state historic preservation officer in Vermont, said her office planned to coordinate with neighboring states so that people could take trips or tours that incorporate sites across the region. 

“Vermonters are planners,” she said. “We recognized that you needed to do this ahead of time.” She added that there were certain things that needed to be addressed early, like doing maintenance to make sure that historical sites were ready for the influx of people who would come and sightsee. 

“Vermonters are planners,” she said. “We recognized that you needed to do this ahead of time.” She added that there were certain things that needed to be addressed early, like doing maintenance to make sure that historical sites were ready for the influx of people who would come and sightsee. 

Colman said that an early start was also critical for fundraising, which takes time to plan out. Having an official state commission allows the states to receive funding from the federal level, starting with a  contribution of $10,000. The federal commission will distribute more money to the state commissions as it fundraises from private donors. 

All three mentioned the need to introduce curriculum into the schools in order to prepare the students to understand and commemorate the event. 

“We need to educate students ahead of time, not just that year,” said Treischmann. 

Trieschmann said that in Vermont, they wanted to go even beyond the celebration on July 4, 2026, and have a celebration of the founding of Vermont, the 14th colony, which became an independent republic on January 15, 1777. 

New Jersey has gone even further. The commission was formed in 2018, and they have spent the past two years checking on historical sites to make sure they can withstand large influxes of people, surveying K-12 history curriculum and conducting listening sessions across the state to hear what people want for the 250th celebration.

“We’ve learned that our constituents want to see themselves in the history. They want to see the stories of the communities that they come from,” said Sara Cureton, executive director of the New Jersey Historical Commission. 

Janice Selinger, executive director of the Crossroads of the American Revolution, a non-profit partner in the 250 initiative, said that her organization has been working on other projects that will become part of the 250th celebration. One is an app that allows people to take an audio driving tour around sites in New Jersey. Another is called “streetside storytellers:” a pilot program that trains people of color and immigrants to give tours through and tell the stories of their local communities. 

“Everybody just tromped back and forth through New Jersey,” added Cureton. “We absolutely have so many stories to tell.” 

Hopes for Connecticut 

Although Connecticut has yet to form its commission, Laymon said she’s heard enthusiasm for the proposal. 

She said that they had reached out to the Connecticut governor’s office and had been in contact with the office of Senator Chris Murphy. 

Murphy, Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Rep. John Larson are members of the Congressional America 250 caucus, which acts as a liaison between the semiquincentennial commission and Congress. 

Laymon said that her office has also reached out to CT Humanities, and would be reaching out to the Connecticut chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution. 

Mancini said he hoped that the stories of Connecticut’s role in the country’s founding would help bring together a state that is “remarkably parochial.” He said he also hopes it can help people better appreciate the state’s good qualities.  

“There are some really amazing stories in Connecticut that are easily overlooked,” she said, adding that Connecticut was responsible for furnishing the army with provisions, it was a meeting place for French leaders and played a role in George Washington’s famous spy ring. 

“People are hard on the taxes, and it’s such an expensive place to live,” said Mancini. “I think the quality of life in Connecticut gets lost in that.” 

Ilene Frank, chief curator at the Connecticut Historical Society, said she’s looking forward to sharing stories about Connecticut’s role in the American Revolution. She said that while most schools teach about events in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia, Connecticut often gets passed over. 

“There are some really amazing stories in Connecticut that are easily overlooked,” she said, adding that Connecticut was responsible for furnishing the army with provisions, it was a meeting place for French leaders and played a role in George Washington’s famous spy ring. 

Amrys Williams, executive director of the Connecticut League of History Organizations, said that local history organizations will be especially important in this work, since they allow people to see how national events played out in small towns. She said a big part of their role would be reaching out to local history organizations to find out what stories they want to tell. 

She said this could be an opportunity for local historical societies to gather more material and to garner more financial support. 

Frank said that the 250th anniversary should not just be a commemoration of the past, but a way to understand the present. She added that the values of the past should be used as a point of reflection on the current situation in the country. 

“The sacrifices and political views of the 1700s, how can they still today play out in what it means to be a representative government, and what does it mean to stand up for your beliefs?” she said. 

Frank said she’s never seen so many people discussing history.

“When you examine history well, it raises a lot of troubling questions,” said Frank.

She said it was important to look at different versions of history that aren’t as frequently told, particularly those of enslaved Africans and indigenous peoples.  

“Our nation was founded on ideals, which some people have said we have never really fully achieved,” she said. 

Williams agreed that there are many ways to tell history, and that 

“There’s never just one story,” said Williams. “It’s like the cuts on a prism or a jewel … you rotate it and get a different perspective. Searching for one master narrative is not necessarily the way to go.”  

Laymon said she’s not too worried about the states, like Connecticut, that haven’t yet formed their commissions. She said there’s still time. She also said that having neighboring states start commissions will give other states a template — as well as a nudge — to get started. 

Mancini agreed that the Connecticut organizations can learn from the states that began their preparations early. 

“We’ve got five years,” he said. “This is a long-term plan. We want to do it right.”

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