Looking Forward to the Semiquincentennial (after Looking Up What That Means)Roundup
tags: public history, Founding Era, Semiquincentennial
M.J. Rymsza-Pawlowska is associate professor of history at American University. She is the author of History Comes Alive: Public History and Popular Culture in the 1970s (UNC Press. 2017) and is currently working on a new project called “Going to Washington.”
Not many people know what a “semiquincentennial” is but they’re about to find out. Even though 2026 is almost four years away, many organizations and individuals have already begun thinking about — and planning for — the commemoration of the impending 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
Discussion about the “semiquin” — even in its present nascent stage — has been focused on how the upcoming observances should address the contested and unequal legacies of the American Revolution. That especially means the promises of justice and equality that politicians, activists and others have been grappling with and fighting for ever since. Because of this, planners and commentators have been looking to the 1976 Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence — remembered for its abundant historical programming — for inspiration and perspective.
The political stakes of commemoration are high, as the heated debates around the New York Times’s “1619 Project” and Donald Trump’s proposed sculpture garden and the 1776 Commission have demonstrated. Many think that 2026 may be when the conflicts over these efforts — and the access to rights and representation that they stand for — will come to a head as the simmering culture war over American history boils over.
But commemorations haven’t always been about history. Earlier anniversaries looked forward, not backward. They were, on one hand, an opportunity for state and corporate interests to garner popular support for large-scale initiatives. On the other hand, they were a way for Americans to envision and appraise the world to come and to contemplate how best to plan or prepare for it.
Consider, for example, the 1876 centennial celebration, when local and federal governments, business leaders, and city boosters launched a world’s fair in Philadelphia. It was a year-long event that featured exhibits from countries and states, corporations and professional organizations, with displays and performances numbering in the hundreds. Visitors toured modern pavilions where they viewed new machines and inventions, including the telephone and the typewriter. For many Americans, this was a glimpse of life to come, and the radical transformations that continued industrialization and innovations were bringing to everyday life.