It’s been a tough year for 1776.
On Jan. 6, rioters entered the U.S. Capitol, some waving 13-starred “1776” flags. Two weeks later, President Trump’s 1776 Commission issued its report calling for “patriotic education,” which painted progressives as enemies of the timeless values of the founding.
And in recent months, “1776” has been a rallying cry for conservative activists taking the fight against critical race theory to local school boards across the country, further turning an emblem of national identity into a culture-war battering ram.
These efforts have drawn condemnation from many of the nation’s historians, who see them as attempts to suppress honest discussion of the past, and play down the role race and slavery have played in shaping the nation from the beginning. But as planning for America’s 250th birthday in 2026 gets underway, some historians are also asking if the story they tell of the founding has gotten too dark.
For scholars, the rosy tale of a purely heroic unleashing of freedom may be long gone. But does America still need a version of its origin story it can love?
The story historians tell about the American Revolution has changed enormously since the Bicentennial. Uplifting biographies of the founding fathers may still rule the best-seller list (and Broadway). But these days, scholars depict the Revolution less as a glorious liberty struggle than as a hyper-violent civil war that divided virtually every segment of colonial society against itself, and left many African Americans and Native Americans worse off, and less free.
Today’s historians aren’t in the business of writing neat origin stories — complexity, context and contingency are their watchwords. But in civic life, where we stake our beginnings matters.
“Every nation has to have a story,” said Annette Gordon-Reed, a historian at Harvard whose new book, “On Juneteenth” parses the elisions and simplifications at the heart of various origin narratives.
“We’re arguing now about the content of that story, and finding the balance,” she said. “If you think the United States was a good idea, you don’t want people to think the whole effort was for nothing, or was meaningless or malign.”