Not many know what a "semiquincentennial" is but they're about to find out. Even though 2026 is almost four years away, thinking and planning have already begun 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," 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.
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 yearlong 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.
Less than two decades later, an even larger event, the 1893 Chicago International Exposition, marked the anniversary of Christopher Columbus' landing. Fairgoers rode a moving walkway, and the first Ferris wheel. They explored model kitchens and bathrooms equipped with new appliances and saw new inventions for farm and factory work. They watched early moving pictures and tried new foods like Juicy Fruit and Cracker Jacks.
Not everyone was given an equal stake in this future: the streetlight-illuminated "White City" at the center of the Chicago fair excluded African Americans; and elsewhere, fairgoers viewed and interacted with people from colonized nations in live exhibitions. The physical layout of the fair — including which nations were represented in the White City and which were placed at the perimeter — and the emphasis on comparison of races and nationalities all reinforced the ideologies of racial inequality and white supremacy that underwrote American ideals of "progress."
But the 1893 fair was also an opportunity for Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass and other leaders to stage a highly visible protest over the marginalization of Black Americans — one which helped to galvanize the Black freedom struggle. Their widely circulated booklet, "The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition," laid out the most pressing issues faced by African Americans and urged organizers to include them in the fair and, by extension, the prospects that it set forth.
Following in this tradition, the 1976 Bicentennial actually started out with significant future-oriented components. After the 1966 establishment of the official Bicentennial Commission, several cities, including Philadelphia and D.C., competed to host a new international exposition. Other early proposals highlighted new infrastructure and expanded access to jobs training, early education and culture.
In the first several years of planning, Americans were looking ahead, not behind, following the midcentury legacies of programs such as John F. Kennedy's New Frontier and Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society. The initial ideas for the Bicentennial sought to both capitalize upon and reinvigorate this energy.
But that changed in the early 1970s. Planners and commentators began emphasizing the historical aspects of Bicentennial commemoration and programming. The standard explanation for this shift — and indeed, for a lot of 1970s "nostalgia culture" (think "Little House on the Prairie," "Grease") — is that it was first advanced by influential postmodern theorists in the 1980s and '90s: because Americans could no longer clearly imagine the future (say, "Metropolis," or "The Jetsons"), they looked to the past instead.
The past, in turn, became the site at which to hash out issues of representation, access and equity. In other words, because planners and commentators couldn't agree about the most important ideas or issues for posterity, they decided to instead use the commemoration as a moment to question and engage history.
And so, the 1976 Bicentennial played out differently, with a focus on the past rather than the future.
Through high-profile projects like the Tall Ships, the Bicentennial Wagon Train and Alex Haley's "Roots," the commemoration helped get many Americans interested and involved in history in myriad ways. The lasting impact of the Bicentennial became these new opportunities for engaging and finding meaningful connections to the past: new museums and historical societies, community-based preservation and oral history projects and personal and family histories and genealogies. Americans found commonalities — or at least understanding and new perspective — by thinking about history in new ways.
But this emphasis on history meant that the Bicentennial didn't give Americans a large-scale opportunity to look ahead and to take stock.
Today, we aren't having trouble envisioning what may come next. Now, people can visualize the future all too well, quite literally: The growing inevitability of climate catastrophe is foreshadowed in sophisticated visualizations and films like "2012" or "Don't Look Up." It touches our lives as rising temperatures, more extreme weather and global shortages.
Even as we try to grapple honestly with our past, returning to the old way of commemoration — by grappling with our future — would offer benefits. In the same way that the Bicentennial helped us find meaning in the past, the Semiquincentennial can help us find meaning in the future: one that is more just and equal than those imagined in Philadelphia and Chicago over a century ago.
In a sense we have no choice. In 2076, when this country reaches its next centennial milestone, the most well-known site of U.S. commemoration — the Mall, and many of its monuments — may be submerged in the Atlantic Ocean due to rising sea levels. Whether we like it or not, the future that we are headed toward will have profound effects on our ability to commemorate the past and the manner in which we do so.
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." This article first appeared in Bloomberg Opinion.