With four years to go before the celebrations marking the 250th anniversary of U.S. independence, on Friday Gov. Ned Lamont signed a executive order creating a 21-member commission tasked with planning activities related to the country’s founding, encouraging “scholarly examination” of the 18th-century events and coordinating with tourism agencies and the state’s economic agency to promote Connecticut as a destination for the nationwide celebrations.
“We’re not just a nation of borders, we’re a nation of ideals, and that’s what July 4 is all about and that’s what I think this commission is going to remind people — how important it is,” Lamont said at a press conference on Friday.
With Friday’s order, Connecticut joins 29 other states that already have already begun planning the celebrations, including the majority of other states in the northeast, and every state in New England except Maine.
Jason Mancini, director of the Connecticut Humanities Council, told CT Examiner that many times, the story of what happened at the nation’s founding had been “surrendered” to places like Boston or Philadelphia. He said that the celebration could be a way of opening up Connecticut as a place for tourism and commerce related to the history of the Revolutionary War.
Cathy Labadia, the deputy state historic preservation officer for Connecticut, told CT Examiner that Connecticut has “at least a dozen places” that are significant to the story of the Revolutionary War and the country’s founding.
Labadia said that Connecticut contains the largest segment of the Washington-Rochambeau Trail, the 600-mile route from Rhode Island to Virginia that French General Rochambeau took in 1781, part of it alongside George Washington, on their way to fight the Battle of Yorktown, which would represent a turning point in the war.
Douglas Lord, president of the Connecticut Library’s Association and director of the C.H. Booth Library in Newtown, said the history of the revolution in Connecticut can be broken down town by town. He said that local libraries have preserved that history. Newtown, for instance, was known as a “Tory town.”
“I make the joke that they supported the British, so why do we have July 4th off?” said Lord. “This town wanted the British more than they wanted the colonialists.”
Labadia said the British sympathies were prevalent statewide until the Battle of Ridgefield in 1777, when the English raided the city of Danbury. At that point, she said, the tide of public opinion began to change.
“It changed the sentiment of our state. And it is at that moment when we experienced the war on our own soil, that people’s sympathies turned and we became very ardent patriots,” said Labadia.
Kate Byloarde, past president of the Connecticut Library Association and director of the Cragin Memorial Library in Colchester, told CT Examiner that Colchester and Lebanon helped provide many of the agricultural resources that the troops needed during the war.
Labadia said that many of the now defunct mills in the state were involved in supplying the army during the revolution.
“George Washington referred to Connecticut as the provision state,” said Labadia. “We were the state that provided all kinds of equipment, clothing and provisions … to the cause of the Continental Army.”
The executive order also tasks the commission with ensuring that the celebrations are “inclusive” of all Americans. Mancini told CT Examiner that the stories of all the different communities in Connecticut need to be part of the upcoming celebration.
Mancini pointed out that half to three-quarters of Native American men served in conflicts on the side of the colonies, including in the Revolutionary War, and that a disproportionate number died. Mancini said it was critical to include the voices of the Pequot and the Mohegan tribes in the celebrations.
Labadia said that in 1976, when the country was celebrating its 200-year anniversary, there was very little diversity among the perspectives shown.
“It was very much a white man’s war,” said Labadia. “And that was the story. I think now we are recognizing that it was a lot more contributions. To our independence than just that. There were women who became involved in political causes for the first time in a big way. There were indigenous soldiers, African American soldiers who were still at a point in slavery and yet were serving for our countries independence.”
Labadia said that Washington at one point enlisted the help of Baron Freidrich Wilhelm Von Steuben from Prussia to help train the American troops, many of whom had no idea how to fight a war. Some historians believe that Von Steuben was gay.
“I think incorporating that story for the LGBT community, I think it gives validation to, to their involvement in this country and who we are,” said Labadia.
For Labadia, these moments are also an opportunity for collective self reflection.
“Do we like where we came from? Do we like who we are now?” she said. “Because tomorrow is always another day to change it and make it better.”