In 1976, when America celebrated her 200th birthday, the country was awash in stars and stripes, so much so that there were complaints that the bicentennial was largely an opportunity for businesses to sell flag-related merchandise.
Now, the country counts down to another milestone — the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence — in a dramatically different place, one where Americans don’t agree about the meaning of the country’s flag or even the proper date to celebrate its birthday. These differences pose challenges for those tasked with planning the nation’s semiquincentennial in 2026.
Take, for example, the U.S. flag, which waves over many Independence Day celebrations this weekend, but is largely absent from the America 250 website, save for a sepia image on an astronaut’s uniform.
Landor & Fitch, the branding company that developed the logo for the America 250 campaign, has said it deliberately avoided stars and stripes in creating images, choosing a color scheme and designs that are more modern.
The America 250 Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission, rolled out a marketing campaign this week that includes public service announcements featuring the voices of Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and scenes that evoke America as one big, happy family.
America is not one big, happy family, however, and some people say that her founding was not in 1776, but in 1619, when the first slaves arrived. Getting everyone to the table for this party will not be the proverbial piece of cake.
We’ve got five years to make that happen. Is it possible, or even desirable?
Freedom, liberty and justice?
Matthew Mason, a history professor at Brigham Young University, said Americans were divided on the subject of July 4 almost from the beginning.
July 4 was a partisan event as early as the 1790s, as Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists disagreed with James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic Republicans about the meaning of the day, Mason said.
“Most towns of any size had two July 4th celebrations, one sponsored by the Federalists, one sponsored by the Democratic Republicans, and the standard format would be drinking, speeches, more drinking, maybe some music, some drinking, fireworks. The toasts were always political, drinking health to your friends and death to your enemies,” Mason said. “And in the context of July 4, the speeches were very much ‘we are the true heirs of American independence and these other people have betrayed that legacy.’ ”
Independence Day became even more fraught during the Civil War, and many southern communities wouldn’t mark the day for a time. The city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, didn’t celebrate the 4th of July for 81 years because the surrender of Vicksburg happened on July 4, 1863.
In 1852, Frederick Douglass gave a now famous speech entitled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” in which the renowned abolitionist said the signers of the Declaration of Independence were great men, and brave, but that “This Fourth (of) July is yours, not mine.”
This is a sentiment that is still being expressed by many Black Americans today, most recently in Olympic hammer thrower Gwen Berry’s protest during the national anthem during the U.S. Track and Field Trials.
“The ‘freedom, liberty and justice for all’ — it is not for Black people,” Berry has said.
Additionally, an April report from the National Archives has said there is “structural racism” in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are kept, in part because it “lauds white wealthy men.”
The Rev. Dr. Robert M. Franklin Jr., president emeritus of Morehouse College in Atlanta, said that a July Fourth tradition in his family is reading the Douglass speech and discussing it. He is optimistic that, with similar thought and honest discussion, America can be in a better place five years from now. Recent examinations of American history have brought to light perspectives that have been obscured in the past, he said. “I think we are a better informed and a more aware and sober nation as a consequence of that.” This includes not only the experiences of Black Americans, but of the native population.
“We are smack-dab in the middle of the heavy lifting right now as we grapple with these questions of American identity, American shortcomings, American exceptionalism. ... That’s the work we need to do. Let’s talk through this and make sure that no one’s in a state of denial about what happened.”
He added, “This could be a very compelling and unifying celebration if we do the homework now.”
The people working to plan the celebration also speak optimistically about the potential for the upcoming celebration to help heal America’s divisions. The America 250 Foundation has launched an advertising campaign in four cities key to the Revolution — Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Charleston, South Carolina — and even established a TikTok channel in hopes of getting Americans excited and invested in what Landor & Fitch is calling the “semiquin.”
They’re also asking the public to submit ideas to help create a “fun, inclusive, and enlightening commemoration that no one will want to miss.”
Valerie Aurilio, general manager and executive creative director of Landor & Fitch, said her team started working on the anniversary’s branding two years ago, and the events during this time have been a “pressure test” for the images they created, to include a logo with the word “America” emblazoned on a “250.”
The images will be incorporated into a storytelling platform in which Americans can share their experiences, Aurilio said. The decision to use a wide variety of shades of red, white and blue was a way to signal that the commemoration will be inclusive.
“Yes, it’s very recognizably American in its red, white and blue, but the way that we’ve modernized it with the bright electric blue, the way every time you see it, you might see a different impression or collection of those colors together, really talks about the fact that America can be viewed through the lens of 330 million different experiences every day.”
She noted that there was no internet at the time of America’s bicentennial, and so the needs for a bicentennial brand was much simpler then. The logo in 1976 was a five-point star enclosed within red, white and blue lines with the words “American Revolution Bicentennial 1776-1976.” Writing for Wired magazine in 2016, Liz Stinson said, “The logo didn’t solve any of the country’s problems, but it did give people, at least for a moment, a beautiful symbol to stand behind, together.”
Aurilio hopes the 250th imagery can do the same. “This has been a brief of a lifetime for us, to participate in something that could potentially unify and galvanize the country around the American spirit and around our shared and collective vision for the nation moving forward,” she said in an interview. “There will be ups and downs. It will be a roller coaster in all the amazing ways that is this country’s privilege to be.”
The least likely outcome
John Cribb, a South Carolina author whose latest book is the historical novel “Old Abe,” said that Abraham Lincoln, recently named the best U.S. president by historians, believed that celebrating Independence Day was important. One of Lincoln’s earliest memories, Cribb said, was of his father firing a long gun in the sky to commemorate the day. And a speech Lincoln gave, that has come to be known as the “electric cord speech,” speaks to the day as a connection between the earliest Americans and those living today.
“The celebration should leave us feeling more attached to one another, more firmly bound to the country we inhabit,” Cribb said. “Lincoln knew the celebration was part of the glue that holds us together and is meant to remind us of the principles underlying our democracy.”
Ian Rowe, a senior visiting fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit The Woodson Center and a writer for the center’s 1776 Unites campaign, disagrees with the premise of The New York Times’ The 1619 Project, which says that an honest accounting of American history would date its founding to the year the first slaves arrived. He believes that people should see racism as not systemic, but surmountable.
The Woodson Center’s 1776 Unites campaign seems to emphasize the founding ideals of the country, which Rowe said are family, faith, hard work, free enterprise, entrepreneurship and education. “There’s still work to be done around the issues of race and racism, but you cannot deny the enormous progress that’s been made in this country as we look toward the 250th anniversary. It’s worthy of celebration that this remains an exceptional nation for Black Americans and people of all races.”
Franklin, who is senior adviser to the president of Emory University, where he holds the James T. and Berta R. Laney Chair in Moral Leadership, said that Americans can come together to celebrate in 2026, but “there are going to be caveats and footnotes and asterisks” and shouldn’t be an uncritical celebration of the American Revolution.
“People love the story (of the American Revolution) and can identify with it. But it can’t be that this is a story and a journey for only white male property owners at the time. It’s going to be a thick tapestry that brings a lot of stories together,” he said. “Alongside joy and pride and triumph, there’s going to be tragedy and pain and embarrassment. And as adults, we can tell such stories.”
Mason, at BYU, said that Americans working out their problems before 2026 “seems like the least likely outcome.”
“Historians are usually reluctant to make predictions, but I think I can confidently make two: We will make a big deal out of 2026, because that’s what Americans do, and then we will fight over its meaning, because that’s also what Americans do.”