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. Harnessing extensive analysis of archival and primary sources, this book-length study concentrates on how the 1976 Bicentennial celebration in particular turned out to be the opening shot in what now gets called the “Culture Wars.” In the Bicentennial we see the origins of contemporary politicizations of culture in an increasingly partisan nation. From the contested American Revolution Bicentennial Commission to the Bicentennial’s presence in products of popular culture to dreams among some for a new New Deal in governmental cultural policy to the vast vernacular material culture of both consumer and homemade celebratory artifacts to international responses by other countries, the Bicentennial helps us glimpse the significance of the 1970s as in economic historian Judith Stein’s words, a “pivotal decade.”

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 contested 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 nation’s “redeclaration” some two hundred years later in the 1976 Bicentennial.

The Bicentennial Blues argues that a new and in many respects far more fraught and tattered United States comes into view at the Bicentennial. Seeming to be a celebration of the past, the Bicentennial—seen as history itself—reveals the origins of subsequent decades of culture war, the polarization of right and left, and increasingly uncivil confrontations over the civic culture of the nation itself in a globalizing world.

Chapter Outline

  • Introduction: Tall Ships in the Harbor
  • Chapter 1: We Must Be Doing Something Right To Last 200 Years—Waving the Flag in Film, Music, and the Arts
  • Chapter 2: A New New Deal—Hopes for a Resurgent Popular Front Cultural Policy After the Sixties
  • Chapter 3: Rethinking the Public-Private Binary—The Bicentennial Commission Controversy and Market-State Relations
  • Chapter 4: Happy Birthday, America—The International Response to the US Bicentennial
  • Chapter 5: Patchwork—The Vernacular Cultures of the Bicentennial
  • Epilogue: From Revolutionary War to Culture War

Chapters in Detail

Introduction: Tall Ships in the Harbor

The Operation Sail “Tall Ships” and the American Freedom Train tours set up an overview of the book’s arguments about the Bicentennial and the beginnings of the Culture Wars in the United States.

Chapter 1: We Must Be Doing Something Right to Last 200 Years—Waving the Flag in Film, Music, and the Arts

Beginning with Robert Altman’s Nashville, a darkly satirical film about American patriotism (with its opening sequence of a fictional country singer in the studio recording “We Must Be Doing Something Right to Last 200 Years”), the chapter explores uses of the Bicentennial in popular culture, from popular television shows such as the Jeffersons and the Carol Burnett Show to the Schoolhouse Rock cartoon series to the Grateful Dead’s song “US Blues” and Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Bicentennial Blues.” A theme across popular culture artifacts is a growing skepticism about the United States as a nation combined with a persistent sense of exceptionalism.

Chapter 2: A New New Deal—Hopes for a Resurgent Popular Front Cultural Policy After the Sixties

Largely forgotten in histories of the 1970s is how the Bicentennial intensified hopes for a resurgent use of state power to galvanize national civic life. From the passage of the American Folklife Act to expansions of institutions such as the National Gallery of Art, the Bicentennial justified efforts to use the state to develop a national culture reminiscent of the New Deal’s Popular Front, but now inflected by new ideas about identity and democracy that had taken shape in the social movements of the 1960s. This “path not taken” of shared civic life curated by public institutions ultimately gave way to the more volatile dynamics of the coming Culture Wars between right and left, conservative and liberal, traditional and revolutionary factions.

Chapter 3: Rethinking the Public-Private Binary—The Bicentennial Commission Controversy and Market-State Relations

Initiated by Lyndon Baines Johnson, more directly politicized by Richard Nixon, and ultimately dissolved in a turn to smaller, local celebrations, the Bicentennial Commission at first glance seems like a seemingly minor instance of governmental cultural policy gone awry, however a closer examination of its scandals and controversies complicates dominant narratives and chronologies about political economy in the 1970s. There was always, from the beginning, a stronger push for privatized, market-based approaches, even during LBJ’s Great Society program years, and after the commission fell apart, state power persisted in the more laissez-faire phase. The Culture Wars began to fester within this confusing swirl of public-private political economic orientations.

Chapter 4: Happy Birthday, America—The International Response to the US Bicentennial

Not only did the 1976 US Bicentennial involve American cultural materials made specifically for international distribution, such as a set of USIA short films that were widely seen, but it also sparked numerous gifts, visits, exhibition donations, diplomatic gestures, and commentaries from other nations and peoples around the world. The donation of a gold-embossed reproduction of the Magna Carta from the United Kingdom, the Operation Sail parade of naval ships from different nations, and other international responses provide a glimpse of the shifting standing of the US in the world in the immediate aftermath of the failed US intervention in Southeast Asia. As the Vietnam War ended, the Bicentennial became an effort to reconfigure American empire through contestations over the meaning of the founding of the United States two hundred years earlier. The dynamics of foreign diplomacy in turn illuminated the seeds of the Culture Wars not only in domestic life, but also in an increasingly global framework.

Chapter 5: Patchwork—The Vernacular Cultures of the Bicentennial

How do a people imagine their relationship to each other and to the nation-state in a democratic republic? In the numerous locally produced material culture of Bicentennial paraphernalia and ephemera—pins, t-shirts, costumes, tapestries, coins, posters, pamphlets, stickers, decals, cookware, furniture, telephones, product labels, and numerous other objects—one glimpses a two-way cultural mechanism by which different individuals imagined themselves at the center of the national narrative while, simultaneously, the nation as an imaginary incorporated individuals into its larger collective structure. This dynamic of integration shaped the seedbed of the coming Culture Wars.

Epilogue: From Revolutionary War to Culture War

Seen in retrospect, the 1976 Bicentennial, a seemingly cultural innocuous event of picnics, parades, and paraphernalia that was intended to stabilize a shared national culture in the United States, turned out to be a turning point in the increasingly uncivil civic life of the decades that followed, setting the stage for increased fragmentation and polarization.