The Bicentennial Blues

1976 & the redeclaration of america. book manuscript in progress.

From Plymouth Rock to acid-rock
From 13 states to Watergate
The blues is grown, but not the home
The blues is grown, but the country has not
The blues remembers everything the country forgot
It’s a bicentennial year, and the blues is celebrating a birthday
And it’s a Bicentennial Blues.

— Gil Scott-Heron

The celebrations of the 1976 US Bicentennial marked a key transition in post-Vietnam War American life. From the much-contested American Revolution Bicentennial Commission to the passage of legislature such as the American Folklife Act to culture industry productions and sophisticated artistic reflections to myriad local commemorations to international recognition from abroad, Americans and others around the world turned to the founding of the United States to reckon with the difficulties of the 1970s and the possibilities of the future as the twenty-first century beckoned on the horizon.

In ways that have not yet been recognized, the 1976 Bicentennial celebrations were the opening shot in what later got called the “Culture Wars.” They were a moment in which many dreamed of the realization of a new New Deal, a realization of 1930s Popular Front liberal-radical politics and culture inflected by the social movements of the 1960s. Others saw in the Bicentennial a turn back to a more conservative nationalism, a nostalgia-driven narrowing of what defined the United States of America. A moment of strange combinations of culture and politics, tacky kitsch and high-minded seriousness, pop and policy, the Bicentennial reminds us that history happens both in the halls of power and in the streets. So too, it occurs both through intense mediation and by people’s direct actions.

Ceremony matters, and the ceremonies of the 1976 US Bicentennial reshaped the political and social landscape of the nation in ways that continue to reverberate today. In contemporary activities ranging from the 1619 Project to interpretations of Constitutional law to the very nature and purpose of the government itself, we can discern not only the direct influence of the original founding of the United States of America, but also the lasting effects of the “redeclaration” of the nation two hundred years later.

Building on excellent scholarship by Tammy S. Gordon, M. J. Rymsza-Pawlowska, and others while also conducting additional archival research, this book reveals how the United States re-narrated its national story through the rituals of 1976. As the liberal consensus of the decades after World War II ended, a new and far more complicated USA began to parade forward.