A Common Cause for All: A Convening of States on the 250th Anniversary of the call for Committees of Correspondence A Signature Event of the Virginia American Revolution 250 Commission
The Virginia American Revolution 250 Commission invited representatives from across the Nation to participate in a three-day planning meeting of Semiquincentennial stakeholders. From March 10-12, 2023, attendees from 34 states met for “A Convening of States” to mark the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the call for Committees of Correspondence on March 12, 1773. After a reading of the 1773 resolution, state representatives affirmed a new resolution “of mutual support, collaboration, and partnership, signaling the beginning of the Semiquincentennial.” (Although we in New York State beg to differ since we declared the beginning of the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Golden Hill anniversary at Fraunces Tavern on January 19, 2020, See Post). The inclusion of delegates from many states made the ceremony particularly impactful.
The pinnacle moment of the weekend was an announcement made by Virginia Senator Thomas K. Norment that the state government was investing $8 million dollars to support the 250th anniversaries and facilitating another $1 million in a donation from Dominion Energy for the same. These investments were made with the expectation that such an investment in civics resources would yield over $1.5 Billion in heritage tourism revenue and support more than 22,000 jobs. These estimates were based on the economic boosts seen during the 1607/2007 and 1619/2019 anniversary periods, focused on the founding of Historic Jamestown.
With one third of the battles of the Revolutionary War taking place in New York State and 81 Revolutionary War museums in the state, many concentrated conveniently in the heavily touristed New York City, Long Island and Hudson River Valley region, this begs the question, why not us?
Some of the blame for this is on the shoulders of the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission and non-profit arm America 250 who have failed to meet any tangible goals since their founding (and funding) in 2016. When America 250 dropped the bomb in January/February of 2023 that they had laid off most of their staff and were “embarking on an organizational realignment” which essentially pushed all responsibility to the individual states, the disparity between the prepared and the unprepared, widened. But as for New York State specifically, I’ll refrain from providing any insight while we wait (and hope) to see if Governor Kathy Hochul’s budget will address this issue by the end of the month.
But while New York State thus far waits, Virginia has stepped in to offer leadership and benefit from economic gain of providing the venue for stakeholders to convene. Hosted by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation at the Williamsburg Lodge, 300 public historians and government officials were treated to programming and social events aimed at fostering partnerships and communication on the eve of the commemorative period.
Here’s a recap of some of the highlights from the weekend:
On Friday, March 10, the conference began with a welcome dinner. The Governor of Virginia Glenn Youngkin offered greetings over video conference. Virginia House of Delegates Member Terry L. Austin and Colonial Williamsburg Foundation CEO Cliff Fleet spoke to the crowd about important work of civics education. And then over a dinner of 18th century inspired recipes, the keynote speaker Carly Fiorina quoted Alexis de Tocqueville saying, "When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness" and encouraged the crowd to focus on utilizing the commemorative period to unite our nation.
After a buffet breakfast on Saturday, March 11, President of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, Jamie Bosket, kicked off the day’s full agenda.
President of the Association of State and Local History, John Dichtl, set the tone by presenting two opportunities that the Semiquincentennial period offers. The first is that by popularizing and showcasing “the full sweep of our shared history,” the Founding period can be used as a starting point to attach new meaning for people and groups who have advanced “towards justice” over the past 250 years. He mentioned that 86% of the America public agrees on fundamental ideas about National history and that a Semiquincentennial that both celebrates our strengths and addresses our fallacies is essential to fostering inclusion, relevance and belonging.
The second opportunity he highlighted is that this exploration of America at 250 is a chance to reinvigorate the history profession and bring new support to historical societies and museums. An interesting statistic that was presented was that 35-40% of all history organizations were created in 1966–1986 time frame, a decade before and a decade after the Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1976. The hope is that the 250th will be another moment of reflection for the Nation and a recognition that we should never stop fighting over our past nor the direction of our future.
Next, Susie Wilkening of Wilkening Consulting offered remarks on her demographic research and how it relates to 250th planning. She discussed intersections of patriotism and identity and looked at what concepts and words divide vs. unite likely museum-goers. She found common ground in that the majority of people expressed that “history is valued and important,” but that it needs “to be engaging” while still maintaining a relaxing tone. The majority of people “feel good about learning” but express that they prefer “hands-on, interactive, living history” to keep their interest. Respondents ranged along a spectrum from wanting patriotic programming to focus on “the 3 F’s, food, fireworks, family” to a focus on critical thinking about the Nation’s strive for “a more perfect union…” Matt Williams, Director of Brand Federation, offered that the majority of Americans share a “belief in evolving and expanding stories” of American heritage and that 83% of people want history programming to make them feel “curious,” 80% say “inspired,” and other high ranking words include “connected,” “motivated,” “excited,” “proud,” “responsible.” He also touched on some of the words he describes as “semantic traps” because they have been co-opted by politics and no longer resonate neutrally, two mentioned were “narrative” and interpretation.”
Lunch was served with a menu inspired by Native American recipes and attendees were given an hour break to talk freely.
Then a panel discussion about “creating a meaningful commemoration for all” was introduced by Virginia State Senator Mamie E. Locke and moderated by producer Barbara Hamm Lee. Panelists included Executive Director of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation Christy Coleman, President of Revolutionary Spaces Nat Sheidley, President of the Museum of the American Revolution Scott Stephenson and Director of Interpretation, Collections and Education at the National Civil Rights Museum Noelle Trent. Sheidley asked if all the activity and interest surrounding the Semiquincentennial period is really a conversation about the past or if we are asking "who we are today?" Or are we asking "who we want to be tomorrow?" Stephenson echoed the sentiment by quoting Benjamin Rush from 1787 saying that, “The American war is over, but this is not the case with the American Revolution.” Diving deeper into the way in which programming will be developed for the 250th anniversaries, Coleman talked of the often "extractive" nature of interactions between museums and their related communities and suggested that we stop asking what they can give/do for us but rather how we can serve their needs. This has been particularly relevant in the contrasts between the top down/grant supported programming approach of the Bicentennial compared to the free-for-all that has been happening in the lead up to the Semiquincentennial. In this discussion about how to engage diverse populations in the decision-making process, the importance of authentic professionalism was mentioned and Sheidley offered, “I don’t believe that the solution is in marketing.” The group continued to add that “advocates” and “ambassadors” are the “trusted voices of the community” and Trent added that they “must have a part in this complex story.” As professionals in “the empathy business” as characterized by Stephenson, no level of marketing can substitute for the deep and authentic connections that need to be at the heart of the planning process. Coleman defined “success” as “engaging a broad audience and leaving everyone with a feeling that they are a Founder too” and added that “we must leave behind deeper connections for the resources we [museum and history professionals] care about.”
The group then spilt into five groups to visit different locations around Colonial Williamsburg. These visits included a walking tour to the Bray School and First Baptist Church, a walking tour about the legacies of indigenous peoples, a walking tour about the history and restoration of Williamsburg, a tour of the conservation lab and a tour of the special collections at the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library.
In the evening we reconvened at the Williamsburg Lodge and marched in a procession to the Governor’s Palace. Led by a fife and drum, we toured through the building and were greeted by Thomas Jefferson (Kurt Smith) in the garden.
After the announcement of $9 million dollars of investment towards Semiquincentennial planning and programming in Virginia, Pulitizer prize winning author Stacey Schiff spoke about Samuel Adams on the eve of Revolution. Chief of the Chickahominy Indian Tribe Stephen R. Adkins offered remarks about the Virginia’s indigenous past. And finally Bill Whitaker presented a thorough and inspiring speech that wove his childhood memories into his long career as a CBS reporter. He said, “My interest in reporting the news developed from a feeling that I was witnessing history unfold.” He spoke of all the historical moments he witnessed around the world and then expressed, “I never though I would live to see history teachers in the crosshairs.” His remarks included a hope that the 250th anniversaries will present a unifying vision of the future of this country because there’s no denying that “your history is my history and my history is your history” but then when addressing the strength of our Nation and the many challenges that our constitution has faced, he said of our country, “Don’t we love it precisely for our ability to change? For its restless spirit and endless possibilities? Don’t you want to know how we got here?”
Once again, the meal was meticulously though out to include historical references. And when the dinner was over, Thomas Jefferson invited the crowd to join him for fireworks show, complete with 18th century style musicians for entertainment and torch lights to mark the pathways back to the hotel.
The final day, Sunday March 12 began with another buffet breakfast, and a riveting introduction by President of the National Constitution Center Jeff Rosen. He narrowed in on the “pursuit of happiness” part of the famous “life, liberty and the…” phrase. He explored what the Founders would have meant by “happiness” as informed by the classical teaching that they were all steeped in. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and others references happiness in terms of Cicero’s teachings who defined the “pursuit of happiness” not as “feeling good” but as “being good” pursuing a lifelong quest for personal growth and harmony. He then connected these teachings to moral philosophy and more recent therapy fields where what was once termed “virtue” has been recategorized as “emotional intelligence.”
Rosen ended his talk with a quote from Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in 1927, "the greatest threat to liberty is an inert people."
After this introduction, a surprise guest speaker was beckoned to the podium. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy began by asking “Who’s there?” and then weaving this first line of Hamlet into a question of “Who am I?” and “Who are we” as a people. He then said that “to learn about ourselves, each other and our nation” as he ages he continues to “confront [his] age by looking for young ideas.” He then said “in my old age, I see freedom as a young idea” because in the governments of the distant past like Hammurabi, the rules were given to the people, but beginning with the Magna Carta, “we the people give the rules to you [the government]” and “this is the essence of our freedom.” He spoke of the importance of the work historians are doing through the 250th anniversaries to keep the memory and dialogue open for active engagement and understanding of our rights. He said that the constitution cannot just be on paper but must be in the hearts and minds of the people. He reminded the group that “it is dangerous to forget that a democracy can be lost” and that we need to stand up against “citizens being driven apart” by a message of “detain and hostility” because it is inconsistent with our constitution. He ended by saying, “the work of freedom is never done.”
During the event I manned the Twitter Takeover for the National Council on Public History to live tweet along the way. View the thread here.
Combating Commemoration Fatigue
by Johanna Porr Yaun
Insights from the Hudson Valley 250th Regional Collaborative Meeting
On January 19, 2023 I had the pleasure of meeting via video conference with a group of County Historians (and a few Historical Society directors) representing Rockland, Orange, Sullivan, Ulster, Greene, Columbia, Dutchess, Putnam & Westchester Counties.
We discussed the nuts and bolts of each of our county’s Semiquincentennial planning and each contributed some advice based on our experiences. Although each of us have had past success in working on important commemorations in our respective communities, but we recognize that the Semiquincentennial is a unique challenge because a) it is of national and statewide significance, b) it is tied directly to New York State’s heritage tourism resources (19 of New York State’s public historic sites are related to the Revolutionary War) and because c) it will be a full decade long endeavor with lots of moving parts. From 2024 to 2033, New York State will mark the occasion, to be headed by the 13-person New York State 250th Commission signed into law one year ago by Governor Kathy Hochul.
The New York State 250th Commission is slated to be comprised on 13 appointed volunteers with additional representation from the Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation, the State Education Department, Empire State Development, the New York State Canal Corporation, the New York State Secretary of State, the New York State Council on the Arts, the New York State Office of General Services, New York State Tourism Advisory Council, and the Office of the New York State Historian. As of our meeting date, this state body had not yet met and therefore had not yet developed a plan to pass down to local planners. What I find important to note is that there is also not yet any professional oversight of this project as all involved are either honorary positions serving as volunteers or government professionals with a full plate of agency responsibilities that take priority.
With the clock ticking for the commemorative period to kick-off in December of 2023 (anniversary of the Tea Parties), the coordination and preparation work is falling to local commissions, committees, 501c3s or in some cases individuals who have engaged in this process from a grassroots level. For those of us who have volunteered to manage the county-wide and regional efforts, this current limbo situation puts us in position where we must juggle organizing local events with keeping ourselves nimble enough to anticipate what the directives will be once national and state entities are fully engaged.
For this reason, one agenda item at the regional meeting was Combating Commemoration Fatigue and the group conversation surrounding this issue was lively. The cause of this feeling of fatigue was identified in several ways, some of the factors discussed were: a) the shear density of history pertaining to the Revolutionary War in the Hudson Valley that needs to be incorporated, b) the length of the anniversary lasting from 2024-2033 with important dates of significance throughout the full period, c) the ongoing task of cultivating and maintaining political will and interest from elected officials d) the need to engage stakeholders from a variety of fields such as education, museums, tourism departments, public and academic historians and park personnel in decision making e) the changes that have occurred since the Bicentennial (1976) in both technology and education practices (therefore large scale digitization is needed, new topics need to be explored, and communication through decentralized media needs to be developed) f) the decline of History/Social Studies requirements in education standards has eliminated a natural entry point to interface with students g) that without school system interest, local revenue generated from field trips has fallen away, h) that state and local government decision makers are not fully realizing the heritage tourism potential of this upcoming commemorative period, leaving a burdensome amount of organizing and planning tasks to grassroots consortiums and volunteers to shoulder.
With all these stressors in mind, several ideas were shared to help leverage organizational strategies and community relationships to lay the groundwork for success:
• CRAFTING YEARLY THEMES—The Association of State and Local History worked with the America 250 commissioners to outline 5 themes of a broad conceptual nature. This may be satisfactory for states or regions with less direct connection to the American Revolution. But here in the Hudson Valley it’s important that we consider historically rooted themes that allow our institutions to dig deeper into material culture, primary documents and physical locations that are right here at our fingertips. By intersecting the national themes with those local themes, strategic planning for programming and educational material can be fit into the timeline of a longer story. See Intersecting National & Local Themes
• SMALLER COMMITTEES REPORTING TO THE LARGER BODY—In counties where there are sometimes hundreds of locations, people and monuments of significance to be considered, it might make sense to have smaller committees formed to work on individual topics. These smaller groups with a singular mission in mind will be able to leverage local resources and assistance more competently than a larger association with many tasks on their docket.
• REGIONAL SUPPORT—In contrast, there are other topics that will be best served by broadening collaboration to a regional level. This is particularly relevant in situations where municipal borders have shifted from historical lines or in cases where the regional landscape plays a dominant role in the story. Several examples were discussed such as the 1777 Clinton Campaign along the Hudson River, the 1779 Minisink Campaign along the Delaware River, and the treason of Benedict Arnold and capture of John Andre which crisscrossed the Hudson River. There are also connections to the Washington-Rochambeau Trail that run across the lower Hudson River Valley which tie us into the larger picture of the Yorktown victory and aftermath and the Fishkill Supply Depot which unified all the Hudson Valley counties in the region through a network of supply lines.
• COLLABORATING WITH ADJACENT INDUSTRY LEADERS—In communities where we have strong arts, music, business, artisan and hospitality industries collaborative work can be done to enhance each other’s endeavors and goals. This can take the form of suggesting themes that relate to the history of the American Revolution, even sometimes in abstract ways, to these groups for incorporation into their local projects. This also gives the public more access points to the Semiquincentennial, attracting new audiences and bringing a greater diversity of community voices to the overall project. These types of collaborations can be aimed at both supporting the elements of local history that form a sense of place for residents and at attracting heritage tourism dollars to the community via attracting outside tourists to participate though casual interactions with the things that make our local history unique.
• CREATING REGIONAL GUIDES— County-wide or local efforts can be shared through regional guides (printed or digital) that can be distributed to local teachers, libraries, museums, historical societies, and tourism departments so that they have the resources necessary to plan their own projects. This includes several approaches such as creating a shared timeline of important dates/events, creating field guides with the themes tied into local history, a reenactor directory to showcase the talent that is available locally.
• DEVELOPING A SHARED CALENDAR OR WEBSITE— As events and programs are developed, it will be important to make certain that we are all formatting and presenting the information in a way that can be shared easily to state or regional calendars.
These are just a few of the ideas that were suggested in the course of the Hudson Valley 250th Regional Collaborative Meeting on January 19, 2023. Please feel free to reach out if you have any thoughts to add to this list.
by Johanna Porr Yaun
One approach to planning events and educational programming for the 250th period is to take the themes developed by America 250 with the Association of State and Local History and local events or themes and create a chart (as seen below). How can educational and heritage tourism projects fit into these intersections? If your community has a lot of events to commemorate, can different organizations fit in a box a piece? If your community has fewer, can you manage to use the 5 National themes at least once during the decade long commemorative period? Whether you're creating 50 projects or 5 between 2024-2033, using this method can ensure that the work you do is both relevant to your community and contributes to the larger zeitgeist of public history field.
AMERICA 250 THEMES
Through a wide range of actions, people in what is now the United States have continually challenged our country to live up to its highest ideals. Before, during, and after the Revolution, people have fought for their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and worked tirelessly to secure the blessings of liberty. This theme can help audiences consider how America’s founding documents have been used to advocate for change and how members of each of our communities have pressed for liberty and equality throughout American history.
Power of Place
Place offers a powerful lens through which we can view the past, moving beyond modern political boundaries to consider the full history of the space we now call the United States. Place can enable us to reexamine ideas about our natural and built environments and to reorient when and where we find our country’s history. This theme can help audiences consider what was happening in each of our communities during the Revolutionary Era, and how each of our “places” have changed over time.
We the People
Since the nation’s founding, definitions of “the people,” the boundaries of national belonging, and the nature of citizenship have changed. For much of our history, the United States has excluded people from full participation and representation in the life of the nation. Yet over time, the United States has also incorporated people of diverse backgrounds into our society. This theme can help audiences consider how people of different backgrounds experienced and influenced the American Revolution in different ways, and how definitions of “the people” have changed in our communities over time.
The leaders of the founding era did not have all the answers. Though their innovations of representative democracy and rights-based constitutionalism were transformative, they knew the nation was a revolutionary experiment. They expected future generations to improve on the republic they created. The 250th anniversary offers us an opportunity to reconsider the origins of government, democratic institutions, and our national civic life. This theme can help audiences consider how “revolutionary” the American Revolution was, and how our national, state, and other organizing charters have changed over time.
To renew public engagement with history, our field must invite our publics to participate in the process of doing history. This anniversary will challenge our field to explain how we interpret evidence and craft narratives about the past, engaging in open conversations about what history is, the many ways it is done, and why it matters. This theme can help audiences consider what history is, how it differs from “the past,” and how inclusion of multiple perspectives and sources can change our understanding of history.
ORANGE COUNTY (NY) THEMES
1774/2024, Colonial Communities: Life in the colonies before the war, including discussion of educational, political, and religious institutions, as well as traditions of militia service, forms of pollical activism, and trade networks in the Atlantic World.
1775/2025, Choosing Sides: Local motivations to go to war, an exploration of the personalities who were first to spring into action, Loyalism vs. Patriotism, the reordering of local political and militia institutions as shots are fired, and networks of the spread of information.
1776/2026, Independence for All?: A focus on those who were disenfranchised by the war, including enslaved individuals, women, orphaned children, families of the borderlands, and those who lost their homes and livelihoods to the ravages of war.
1777/2027, Defense of the Hudson: Focus on the river corridor for military strategy for both the British and Americans, and the geopolitics affecting the region as a result. The forts at West Point, Montgomery, and Stony Point, and the Great Chain.
1778/2028, Supplying the Army: Understanding the importance of the region; supplying the army: depots, quartermasters, logistics, garrisons, provisions, and field medicine.
1779/2029, Tribal Involvement: Native alliances and the impact of indigenous peoples’ involvement on decision making during the war, as well as military engagements of Native American soldiers. The Battle of Minisink, the Sullivan campaign.
1780/2030, Treason, Spies, and Double Agents: A focus on covert operations, underground alliances, recon, mapmaking, battle plans, and strategies. Benedict Arnold at West Point, spy rings, Loyalist removals and seizures.
1781/2031, Winning the War: An opportunity to look at leadership, diplomacy, and the personal sacrifices of those who were decisionmakers in the ranks of the military and provisional government; Washington-Rochambeau trail, Washington’s generals and Aides-de-camp, civil leaders.
1782/2032, Soldiers and Camp Life: An exploration of the soldiers’ experiences, comradery, and their struggle to keep the army together with few resources, and discussions about how they became more professional as the war went on, debates over whether the country should maintain a standing army; Badge of Military Merit, for example.
1783/2033, Ensuring Peace: Foreign peace negotiations, the Newburgh Conspiracy, the reclaiming of New York City, land grants and pensions, civil leaders, the path to a constitution, ripples into the Age of Revolution in France and in Haiti, how those affected sought to remember the war, veterans’ cemeteries, monuments, and the formation of ancestral organizations.
Orange County Semiquincentennial Commission Established with County Historian As Chair
Goshen, N.Y. – Orange County Historian Johanna Porr Yaun has been named chair of the Orange County Semiquincentennial Commission and is accepting applications to fill a dozen positions within the group.
Orange County Executive Steven M. Neuhaus signed an Executive Order earlier this month tasking the Commission with commemorating the 250th anniversary of the Revolutionary War era, which lasted from 1775 to 1783. The Commission will be active from now until November 25, 2033 to best highlight Orange County’s role throughout the war years.
Anyone interested in joining the Semiquincentennial Commission should send their résumé to Yaun at the 1841 Courthouse, 101 Main Street, Goshen, NY 10924 or via email firstname.lastname@example.org. There will be 13 Commissioners in total and they will serve three-year terms.
Congress created the United States Semiquincentennial Commission to plan an observance of the July 4, 1776 Declaration of Independence. The Orange County Semiquincentennial Commission is an expansion of this resolution, and will commemorate the rich local history surrounding many facets of the war as it pertained to Orange County.
Orange County and its neighboring communities played a critical role in the Revolutionary War. Throughout all eight years of conflict, residents of Orange County were at the center of military campaigns designed to control the Hudson River corridor and protect the borderlands along the Delaware River. In 1775, the residents of Orange County recruited volunteers for the Orange and Ulster County militias and in 1777 they defended the Hudson Valley in the attacks on Forts Montgomery and Clinton.
In 1780, the garrison at West Point was promised to the British in an act of treason by General Benedict Arnold, who tried to exchange the post for money and a high position in the British Army. While headquartered in Newburgh in 1783, General George Washington issued the General Order for the cessation of hostilities, ending the war. These are just a few examples of the region’s significance throughout this era.
Yaun is already hard at work as Orange County Semiquincentennial Commission chair. She hosted the first Hudson Valley 250th Roundtable on August 21st at which historians and museum professionals from around the region discussed collaborating on the upcoming commemoration. This included representatives from West Point Museum, Washington’s Headquarters, the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society, Hudson River Valley Institute, Revolutionary Westchester 250, and many others, noted Yaun.
“The Hudson River Valley was at the center of patriot operations for much of the Revolutionary War and the 250th gives us a platform to talk about events that shaped the diplomacy, supply, recruitment and military campaigns during the war years.” said Yaun, “But we also want to explore beyond familiar themes to ensure that we bring important peripheral stories to light for a fuller picture of Orange County’s past.”
For more information, contact Yaun at email@example.com