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The People’s Bicentennial Commission and the Spirit of (19)76

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tags: conservatism, 1970s, public history, Protest, Bicentennial, Peoples Bicentennial Commission



Jason Tebbe is a teacher, historian, and popular culture scholar living in New Jersey. 

 

In 1971 a group of Americans angry over the state of the nation and the perceived betrayal of the values of the American Revolution formed the People’s Bicentennial Commission. Over the next few years they engaged in rowdy protests, including burning the president in effigy and disrupting official commemorations of the Boston Tea Party and Battle of Concord. They claimed the legacy of the patriots of 1776, and used TEA as an acronym for their feelings about tax policy.

However, they were not angry about being “taxed enough already,” but wanted the “tax equity for America” with the wealthy paying their fair share. They excoriated the East India Company as a typically nefarious corporation, blaming the Boston Tea Party not on taxes but on that corporation’s corrupt bargain with the British government to get a monopoly on the sale of tea in the colonies. They did not decry socialism, but instead boldly advocated for what they called “economic democracy.” In their words modern American corporations were nouveau “Tories” bent on strangling the will of the people.

A movement from the Left drenched in patriotic trappings confounds our present-day expectations. In the 1970s the political Right had not yet established a monopoly over the legacy of America’s founding. The People’s Bicentennial Commission, formed out of the New Left movements of the prior decade, sought to use the Bicentennial as an avenue for attracting ordinary Americans to an explicitly leftist agenda, and it almost worked. Its story offers a fascinating mirror to the present day, and some lessons and warnings about our current day History Wars.

The Bicentennial of the American Revolution came at a particularly fraught time. In the years leading up to it the Watergate scandal forced Richard Nixon from the presidency. The United States’ defeat in Vietnam was made manifest in images of helicopters being dumped into the sea in the frantic Fall of Saigon. Thirty years of economic growth came to an end with a recession sparked in part by mostly Middle Easternl oil-producing nations cutting off their supply. Conditions were ripe for more critical understandings of the country to take root.

The People’s Bicentennial Commission would be helped along by the failure of the national government to establish a nationwide Bicentennial celebration. Today people assume the parade of “tall ships” in New York harbor on July 4, 1976, was a national event, but it was simply part of New York City’s local celebration. No national celebration took place. LBJ’s administration formed the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission (ARBC) in 1966 to plan national events, but could not get any off the ground. During the Nixon administration ARBC officials floated grand proposals like a world’s fair in Philadelphia, which Nixon ultimately rejected due to cost. The ARBC would also be embroiled in scandal, with accusations in 1972 that the organization’s activities were being used as a way to promote Nixon’s re-election and benefit his political cronies. Beyond that critics charged it with being exclusionary and elitist.

In December of 1973 Congress disbanded the ARBC and replaced it with the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration. Headed by future Virginia Senator John Warner, this organization would not plan any nationwide celebrations. Instead it would foster local celebrations by giving matching funds to communities and organizations. Without any kind of national coordinated celebration, the People’s Bicentennial Commission jumped at the opportunity to shape the narrative.

The PBC was formed in 1971 under the leadership of Jeremy Rifkin, who has since gone on to greater fame as an author and policy expert. The group emerged from an effort by elements of the New Left to use patriotic and nationalist rhetoric to engage a broader audience who may have been turned off by seeing anti-war protestors brandishing Vietcong flags. For example, in 1969 SDS patron John Rossen wrote a book The Red, White and Blue Book under the pen name “Johnny Appleseed.” It contained quotations from throughout American history that purportedly showed American founders and other valorized figures supporting radical politics. Rossen would go on to play an important role in the PBC, where his idea of combining radical politics with a new interpretation of American history would make more of an impact.

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