Earlier this week, I was in Washington, D.C., for Humanities on the Hill, the annual event during which the 56 state and territorial humanities councils lobby Congress to fund the NEH, in general, and the Federal-State Partnership line of their budget that supports the humanities councils, in particular.
This was my first experience lobbying Congress and it was, by and large, a good one. Despite its conservatism, Oklahoma’s Congressional delegation is generally supportive of Oklahoma Humanities, our state’s humanities council, on whose board I serve. My Congressman, Tom Cole, has long been a champion of the NEH. And for the first time in years, we have a Democratic Congressperson representing Oklahoma: Kendra Horn from the 5th Congressional District. Ann Thompson, who will be retiring as Executive Director of Oklahoma Humanities, made the experience extremely easy for a newbie like me. And it’s always wonderful to spend a few days hanging out with other humanities council executive directors and board members, who are generally an extraordinary group of people, deeply dedicated to the public humanities.
One of the topics frequently mentioned by those participating in Humanities on the Hill was the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution, which is of course going to be happening in 2026. NEH Chair Jon Parrish Peede has suggested that this is something he will be prioritizing. And state humanities councils are beginning to think about what we might do to take part in the effort.
Compared to the preparations for Bicentennial celebrations in 1976, planning for 2026 seems relatively quiet. On July 4, 1966, President Johnson created the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission. It was originally charged with creating some sort of national exposition, like the one that had been held in Philadelphia to celebrate the nation’s Centennial in 1876. But these plans never reached fruition. Upon taking office in 1969, Richard Nixon reworked ARBC, seeing it as a possible political tool for his administration. This led to a series of scandals, eventually resulting in ARBC’s dissolution and replacement by the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration in late 1973. Rather than creating a single, large, national event, ARBA approved and coordinated various local celebrations.
Given this history, it is probably unsurprising that the preparations for 2026 have been lower key. Though you’ve probably never heard of it, a United States Semiquincentennial Commission was created by Congress in 2016 and actually came into being last year.
But beyond a general sense of the importance of commemorating the occasion, nobody seems entirely sure about the best way to do so. The 1876 national exposition model is even less viable today than it was in the 1970s and, as far as I know, nobody is suggesting it. And while some aspects of the 1976 celebration are likely to be repeated – there will almost certainly be commemorative coins – other aspects of the celebration are yet to be decided.
There is an enormous opportunity for historians to help fill this void. The NEH and the state humanities councils will almost certainly have grant money available that could be used to foster serious public discussions of the Founding that do not settle for hagiography or Semiquincentennial kitsch. And it’s not at all too early for us to begin thinking about what such public history ought to look like. What do you think the best ways to commemorate the 1776 in 2026 would be?