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Spirit of ‘76

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Spirit of ‘76

Forty years on, America’s bicentennial cohesion may be unrecoverable. July 3, 2016
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Forty Fourths later, I still remember that Bicentennial parade, with its marching bands, magic carpet scooters, and Dalmatians on firehouse floats; and the Americana-drenched picnic in the park, with horse rides, contests, a dog show, Little League championship games announced over loudspeaker, lots of waving flags, and fireworks at nightfall. From my fortunate perch in suburban Chicagoland, the Fourth of July was never to be missed, but for this one—July 4, 1976—everything was a bit grander, operating on a larger scale.

That’s how it was around the country, too: a parade down Constitution Avenue in Washington, with Johnny Cash as grand marshal; a five-hour-long parade in Philadelphia, and the nation’s longest, by distance, in Los Angeles; a 225-ship armada from 30 nations in New York harbor; an Arthur Fiedler-conducted concert on Boston’s Esplanade before an estimated 400,000 people. The Bicentennial offered plenty of excess, kitsch, and self-congratulation, but it also sounded a genuine note of gratitude. What else could explain the hundreds of gifts that poured in to the White House from citizens around the country expressing love for the United States? President Gerald Ford accepted all the gifts on behalf of the American people and wouldn’t display any in the White House—not even the Bicentennial Jewel, designed by Pierre Touraine—lest he show favoritism.

The Bicentennial was blessed with good timing, arriving on the heels of a long post-1960s hangover that culminated with two bleak closing acts, less than a year apart: the fall of an American president elected in large part to quell the previous decade’s disorder, and the fall of Saigon to the Communist North Vietnamese, bringing a tragic end to the war that had inspired much of the disorder. With that depressing coda, there was nowhere to go but up, and the Bicentennial became, as Lance Morrow wrote in Time, “a star-spangled ceremony of self-forgiveness.” After a long gaze inward, many concluded that the country and its republican traditions still looked pretty good.

That pride was reflected in the American Freedom Train, a 26-car locomotive loaded with historical exhibits and decorated in stars and stripes. It stopped in all 48 contiguous states from April 1, 1975, in Wilmington, Delaware, to December 31, 1976, in Miami. “It was by far the greatest event on rails since the end of the steam era,” declares a commemorative website, which estimates that tens of millions of Americans stood to watch it pass by and that more than 7 million bought tickets and attended. 

I was one of those 7 million, or at least my parents were—they paid for the tickets. We stood in the Freedom Train’s fabled long lines on a hot summer day in suburban Illinois. Sometimes people waited for hours before they could get on board and see the exhibits, and even then, they were hustled along on a moving walkway that rushed them through in 15 minutes (later slowed to 22). It was all a bit overwhelming: “Zuni necklace, golden spike, first English Bible, first edition of Poe, Henry Aaron’s home run bat, Edward G. Robinson as Little Caesar, the familiar, sinister voice intoning ‘The Shadow knows,’ Thomas Hart Benton’s painting, Gerald R. Ford proclaiming, ‘Our Constitution works’—more than half a thousand features flash by before one has a chance to focus,” the New York Times observed. Still, the Freedom Train is remembered fondly, and, like the gifts sent to President Ford, it’s hard to imagine it happening again. The political battles alone—from what stops to make and what exhibits to include to whether to employ unionized workers or use renewable energy—would probably keep a twenty-first-century Freedom Train stranded in the station.

This pervasive fractiousness, with which we are all so drearily familiar now, seemed less controlling in 1976—or maybe that is only the memory of one who was a child at the time. The Bicentennial gave the feeling of being swept up in a great commemoration, the magnitude of which united grownups who disagreed on other things. Today, it’s hard to find such unifying events; even national calamities only tear us further apart. And the very idea of cherishing America’s origins and celebrating its achievements looks quaint, naïve, or offensive to many, especially in a culture marinated in political correctness and self-aggrandizing judgments.

At 240 years old, we’re accustomed to hearing about how angry we are and how discontented. Our governing classes combine an invincible devotion to self-preservation with scorn or ignorance of the country’s governing principles and contempt for its people, who are increasingly set against one another. This is bad enough for those of mature age, but it’s poison for the young. Anywhere a younger American looks, outside the military, he’s not likely to find the affirmations those of my generation still breathed as borrowed air, even if it was starting to thin.

For all its pomp, July Fourth where I grew up didn’t include a public reading of the Declaration of Independence. I recall no explicit attempts to impart an American catechism. Yet we grew up in an American catechism. Somehow, a predominant note of affirmation, mixed with minor keys of reverence and regret, did the trick. I’m not sure that this same light touch works with the young today, when every great occasion must first be bathed in the acids of recrimination, and then returned to its celebrants, shrunken and diminished, with the admonition: Here, celebrate this. Who would want to?

As it happens, we’re only ten years out from our next big national birthday—our sestercentennial, or 250th—so we might get a look, soon, at where we stand on such things. Every other major American anniversary has prompted special remembrance. Americans marked the Declaration’s Golden Jubilee in 1826, an occasion consecrated when news arrived that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had both died on this same day. The 1876 centennial and 1926 sesquicentennial launched huge expositions. The Bicentennial was a blowout. So far, no great plans for the sestercentennial look to be under way, but there’s time yet.

How big a deal we make of it might depend on whether, by 2026, the discontents of 2016 have sharpened into familiarity or faded into memory. It will also depend on whether we become more deeply compromised by mistaken identities—whether small-group tribal loyalties or abstract allegiance to our fellow citizens of the world—or instead rediscover George Washington’s counsel: “The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.” No matter our backgrounds, therein lies the path to strength and unity, if we’re still interested in such things.

Photo by Smithsonian Institution 

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