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BICENTENNIAL. The 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence was the country's most broadly celebrated anniversary. Like the 1876 centennial, it followed a period of social tension that created an ominous backdrop for the event. The bicentennial represented, in the words of the poet Archibald Mac-Leish, "a noble past and an ignoble present brought face to face."

Planning for the celebration began early. In 1966, Congress established the American Revolutionary Bicentennial Commission (ARBC). Boosters envisioned the celebration as a showcase of American achievements and called for a world's fair. As with other recent commemorations, they hoped to invigorate democratic community with pageantry and patriotic lore.

Not everyone agreed with the genial, patriotic consensus of the bicentennial's national sponsors. Women's groups, Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanics, and young people worried about efforts to instill "artificial homogeneity" and called for inclusion. A New Left–inspired organization, the People's Bicentennial Commission (PBC), combined hostility to corporations into pleas for a second revolution. When reenactors threw crates of leaves into the harbor to commemorate the Boston Tea Party, the PBC staged its own theater, tossing used oil drums into the water. In Philadelphia, neighborhoods fought to keep a world's fair out of their backyard. Local protests and a lack of funding forced planners to abandon the project. Voters in Colorado followed a similar path and vetoed hosting the Olympic Games. Meanwhile, various ARBC documents surfaced in 1972, revealing partisan ties between the agency and the administration of Richard M. Nixon. Several studies recommended replacing the ungainly commission; Congress responded by establishing the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration (ARBA) in 1973, with generally improved results.

Without a grand bicentennial event, the national committee focused on supporting local celebrations, as in other recent commemorations. Communities registered their projects, which, if approved, could display the official tricolored star logo. Promoters also committed to advancing multicultural campaigns, often expanding the accepted revolutionary narrative to recognize the contributions of ethnic groups. Eventually, the ARBA catalogued over 66,000 events. Corporate sponsorship made possible two American Freedom Trains containing precious cargo of American history, a covered-wagon train, parts of which made stops in all fifty states, and 732 televised "Bicentennial Minute" vignettes. Critics decried the commercial entanglement, along with the ubiquitous sale of souvenirs such as ashtrays, belt buckles, and teddy bears that recited the Pledge of Allegiance, as creating a "Buy-centennial." The ARBA responded that these things were out of its control.

The national celebrations culminated during the Fourth of July weekend in 1976. Sixteen tall-masted ships traveled to New York Harbor for a naval review, creating the most enduring bicentennial memory. Thousands lined the waterway and millions viewed nationally televised specials. Most Americans, however, held local commemorations. In Washington, D.C., celebrants ate from the world's largest birthday cake. Others held parades, rang bells, and covered innumerable water towers and fire hydrants with red, white, and blue. Bicentennial events continued after the Fourth (and even after 1976). World leaders and royalty visited the United States and gave impressive bicentennial gifts. Backers saw the bicentennial as a peaceful ending to the upheavals of the previous decade. President Gerald R. Ford also considered it a high point in his presidency. Speaking at the Old North Church in Boston, he urged Americans to remember, "We kept the faith, liberty flourished, freedom lived."


American Revolution Bicentennial Administration. The Bicentennial of the United States of America: A Final Report to the People. 5 vols. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1977.

Bodnar, John. Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Fried, Richard M. The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!: Pageantry and Patriotism in Cold-War America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Klein, Milton M. "Commemorating the American Revolution: The Bicentennial and Its Predecessors." New York History 58 (July 1977): 257–276.

David W.Veenstra

See alsoDeclaration of Independence .

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bi·cen·ten·ni·al / ˌbīsenˈtenēəl/ • n. the two-hundredth anniversary of a significant event: last year's commemoration of the bicentennial of Mozart's birth. • adj. of or relating to such an anniversary: the bicentennial celebrations.