Skip to main content

Letter From The Editor

July 2024
3min read

What, everyone asks us these days, are we doing about the Bicentennial? After all, it is only four years away, or just three, if you want to begin with Lexington and Concord. The answer, of course, is that we are worrying about it, just like everyone else, and just as they are in those Massachusetts villages. (What bothers them is the possibility of being overwhelmed in 1975, as they were in 1875 before the automobile—by vast, thirsty, hungry, unmanageable crowds; see David B. Little’s cautionary tale on this subject on page 18.)

At earlier celebrations of our independence, there seems to have been little to worry about except, perhaps, accidents with the fireworks or undue length in the patriotic oratory. In 1826, when we were a mere fifty, and had added eleven new states to the original thirteen, there were many local jubilees, with parades, odes, and choruses. New York City gave its citizens something inconceivable today, a great free banquet with oxen roasted whole and vast tables of ham, beer, and cider. The only national affair was a simple ceremony in the chamber of the House of Representatives, to which three patriarchs, John Adams, ninety, Charles Carroll, eighty-eight, and Thomas Jefferson, eighty-three, were invited. None of the three old signers could come; and when it was learned that, by an astonishing coincidence, both Adams and Jefferson had died on that very day, July 4, people marvelled at what might be a Sign.

Perhaps it was a Sign that the United States, whose birth had shaken the old order as much as any event in our own century, would grow and prosper. And so it did, especially in material things, so that the great exposition at Philadelphia in 1876 (glimpsed in our issue of last December) celebrated power, industry, technology, and a continent mastered. We were comers. We were still comers in 1926, at still another fair. Almost no one doubted our message, which was Progress, or our destination, which was Up. War was forever behind us, business was booming, the Melting Pot was churning all kinds of people into Americans, and President Coolidge, his desk clean, could take a nap every afternoon. If there were Signs, no one was looking in that direction.

Smug 1926, optimistic 1876, pious 1826. They seem so recent, but history moves fast these days; from its legendary founding to its final collapse in the East, Rome endured for over two millennia. Now, of course, the promise of young America is obscured before its youth is accomplished. There are as many undigested lumps in the Melting Pot as there are demagogues on the television screen; war has settled down upon us like an unshakable low-grade infection; and there are no more carefree naps at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. For all the blessings of technology, nothing seems to work well anymore. And so what, pray, shall we celebrate? That is what we are worrying about.

When man is confronted by uncertainty, he likes to share it, as a result of which the committee was born. When it is desired to give a committee tone, it is called a commission. Since the problem of the moment is to celebrate when no one feels like it very much, we have naturally appointed a great many state and local commissions. In each of them, after the official stationery is engraved, there comes up the problem of what to do —difficult enough in Philadelphia (which has not, as we go to the printer, decided whether to have yet another fair), strange in California, and ludicrous in, say, American Samoa. It is the fashion, in commission circles, to state that we must avoid a simple paean to the past, and instead look to the future—well, at least to what someone usually refers to as “the positive values” of our society. Lacking almost any agreement at all as to what these, if any, may be, the commissions turn to higher authority. Opening the “Bicentennial Era” in a public broadcast, President Nixon spoke of his hopes for “open borders, open hearts, open minds.”

With this firm, specific guideline, the federal government has set up its own commission, which seems determined to celebrate everything in our national life from art and athletics to jazz and xerography. No doubt wisely, the head of a conglomerate has been made chairman. Who else could keep track of all the subcommittees (there is one each, we note possessively, on “Heritage” and “Horizons”), the blues singers, the ethnic groups, the labor unions, the junior chambers of commerce, the touring ballet groups, and other spear carriers of positive values?

Since the battles and the Founding Fathers are keeping a low profile at the celebrations, a wise party giver will search carefully for a centerpiece, or focal point ; a hero or, at least, an antihero. And what, we may ask, is the matter with the old one, the royal scoundrel whose statues we lost little time in tearing down? New York’s, on Bowling Green, was melted into many bullets. The king’s shortcomings, listed one by one, take up over half the space in the Declaration of Independence: he had turned over government to bureaucrats (“swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their substance,” as Jefferson put it). He filled the country with soldiery (which was tending to get “independent of… the Civil Power”), he vetoed laws, and at 3d. a pound on tea he was taxing us to death.

Since that time, of course, as the searcher for positive values knows, everything here has been alabaster cities and amber waves of grain. In New York, for example, unlike London, the city is peaceful, guarded by incorruptible police, and governed by philosophers, whereas in that dark tyranny ruled by George’s descendants… But something has gone wrong with our script, and we are near the bottom of the page, and so we shall now make our single Bicentennial suggestion. Let us, with suitable ceremony, re-erect that imperial statue in Bowling Green, station Pinkerton guards to prevent it from being stolen, and cut under the old inscription this simple legend: SORRY, GEORGE .

Oliver Jensen

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.