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.