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The Spirit of 1976

Commerce, Community, and the Politics of Commemoration

Tammy Gordon

Publication Year: 2013

The most important national commemoration of the twentieth century, the 1976 bicentennial celebration gave rise to a broad-ranging debate over how the American Revolution should be remembered and represented. Federal planners seeking an uncritical glorification of the nation’s founding came up against an array of constituencies with other interests and objectives. Inspired by the “new social history” that looked at the past “from the bottom up,” Americans who had previously been disenfranchised by traditional national narratives—African Americans, women, American Indians, workers, young people—demanded a voice and representation in the planning. Local communities, similarly suspicious of federal direction, sought control over their own bicentennial events. Corporate representatives promoted an approach that championed the convergence of patriotism and private enterprise, while commercial interests applied the marketing techniques of an expanding consumerism to hawk every imaginable kind of patriotic souvenir to all of these groups. The end result of these competing efforts, Tammy S. Gordon shows, was a national celebration that reflected some common themes, including a mistrust of federal power, an embrace of decentralized authority, and a new cultural emphasis on the importance of the self. The American Revolution Bicentennial can thus be seen as both a product of the social and political changes of the 1960s and a harbinger of things to come. After 1976, the postwar myth of a consensus view of American history came to an end, ensuring that future national commemorations would continue to be contested.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Series: Public History in Historical Perspective


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pp. C-C

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi

Table of Contents

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pp. vii-ix

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pp. x-xiv

This book began as class prep for the graduate seminar Care and Management of Historical Collections. I needed a topic that would allow students to practice their skills in research, acquisition, and collections care, and the 1976 bicentennial seemed to have produced an abundance of material for students to consider. It was also recent enough to allow for some interesting...

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Introduction: In the Spirit of the Revolution

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pp. 1-20

In the summer in 1972, the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission (ARBC) found itself in a situation hotter than the sidewalks of Washington, D.C. A federal body created in 1966 and charged with overseeing the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the American Revolution, the ARBC stood accused of creating an observance that privileged...

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1. Finding a Role for the “Private Sector”: The American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, 1966–1973

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pp. 21-46

Bicentennial planning at the federal level suffered from a lack of cultural authority from its very beginnings in 1966. As the Vietnam War unfolded, as the economy faltered, as urban unrest showed that America was failing to live up to the promises of the civil rights movement, as leader after leader collapsed from assassination or corruption, the federal ...

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2. The Sellabration: Entrepreneurs as the New Revolutionaries

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pp. 47-68

Around the 200th anniversary of the American Revolution, the private sector of the American economy experienced a revolution of its own. Due to severe criticism aimed at business in the ’60s and early ’70s, members of the business community were cautious about highly visible participation in public life, but by the dawn of 1980, they had not only grown the...

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3. Anti-Schlock: Consumerism and History on the Red, White, and Blue Left

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pp. 69-90

Protest was an important feature of the national birthday, and objections to the anniversary’s commercialization came loudly and clearly from the left. Activists commented broadly but to varying degrees on the bicentennial and bicentennial commercialism, discussing the relevance of the American Revolution and American history to contemporary issues and...

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4. “Resolving the Commercialism Issue”: The American Revolution Bicentennial Administration, 1973–1977

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pp. 91-108

By 1974 federal planners had settled on a strategy that mixed grassroots participation with an emphasis on entrepreneurial spirit, a combination that would achieve some success and restore some measure of public faith in the federal government, or at least in its ability to plan a birthday party. The shift in federal strategy reflected a more significant cultural transition...

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5. “Just pick something and do it”: Bicentennial Consumerism and Community

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pp. 109-130

While federal planners had starting thinking about the bicentennial about a decade before its arrival, public dialogue about appropriate bicentennial celebration began in earnest around 1974. Though much of the press coverage focused on the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission and its more successful progeny, the ARBA, Americans...

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Conclusion: The Morning after

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pp. 131-148

On July 4, 1976, the party was, by most accounts, magnificent. Television news anchor Walter Cronkite called it “the greatest, most colossal birthday party in 200 years.”1 Communities everywhere held parades, festivals, cookouts, each taking on the features of local history and culture. People in San Francisco celebrated the bicentennial of the nation...


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pp. 149-170


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pp. 171-175

About the Author

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pp. 176-177

Back Cover

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pp. BC-BC

E-ISBN-13: 9781613762820
E-ISBN-10: 1613762828
Print-ISBN-13: 9781625340429
Print-ISBN-10: 1625340427

Page Count: 184
Illustrations: 8 illus.
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Public History in Historical Perspective
Series Editor Byline: Marla Miller See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 872122239
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Spirit of 1976

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Public history -- Economic aspects.
  • Public history -- Political aspects.
  • American Revolution Bicentennial, 1976 -- Social aspects.
  • American Revolution Bicentennial, 1976 -- Economic aspects.
  • American Revolution Bicentennial, 1976 -- Political aspects.
  • Public history -- Social aspects.
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