In three years, on July 4, 2026, Americans will observe the 250th anniversary of our nation’s founding, a milestone that carries a somewhat awkward name: the semiquincentennial.
Those old enough to remember our nation’s 200th birthday in 1976 know the bicentennial was a months-long celebration full of parades, fireworks, and tall ships. The country had recently struggled through the Vietnam War, Watergate, recession, and an energy crisis, but Americans came together to pay tribute to the American Revolution.
As Gerald Ford observed in Philadelphia on Independence Day 1976, it was a time for “both pride and humility, rejoicing and reverence,” a day to reflect that, for our nation’s founders, “when liberty was at stake, they were willing to pay the price.”
We may be headed toward something quite different in 2026. The last few years have brought arguments that the American founding wasn’t so great after all and that the founders were just a bunch of white men who talked about freedom but instituted slavery and racism.
Some students are being taught that the real founding was not 1776 but 1619, the year the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia. A National Archives task force even cited the Archives’ own rotunda, where the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and other founding documents are displayed, as an example of “structural racism.”
If this line of thinking wins the day, 2026 will be a year-long scowling at America’s past. That would be wrong, not only because our country deserves better, but because a nation that learns to loathe itself is in deep trouble.
What to do? Abraham Lincoln offered some excellent guidance in a speech he gave in Chicago in July 1858, just a few weeks before the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. He used the occasion to give his thoughts on the founding, the Declaration of Independence, and the importance of celebrating July Fourth.
Lincoln never hesitated to address head-on the issue of slavery and the founding. He explained that the founders knew slavery was wrong, but they did not believe they could fight a war against one of the greatest military powers on earth, launch a new nation, hold thirteen new states together, and get rid of slavery all at the same time. It was too large a task.
What they could and did do, however, was lay down principles in the Declaration of Independence that spelled the doom of slavery—the ideals that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The declaration of those principles, coming at a time when the vast majority of people on earth lived with little or no freedom, was a magnificent step forward. For the first time in history, a nation was created out of the idea that all should be free and govern themselves.
Those founding principles were a promise. They stood, and still stand, as beacons for the country to move toward.
In one sense, the founding was thus tragically flawed by slavery. In another sense, it was the glorious start of a long journey that has brought hope and freedom to millions.
Lincoln knew the founders were far from perfect, but he also knew they were an extraordinary generation of leaders, perhaps the most extraordinary in history. He called them “iron men” and saw much to admire in them.
He pointed out that few of us are descended by blood from those founders, but we are all their descendants in that we have inherited the ideals they fought for. “That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together,” Lincoln said, “that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.”
Lincoln knew Fourth of July celebrations are part of the glue that holds us together. They remind us of how difficult it was to establish the principles underlying our democracy and win the liberty we enjoy. They help us, Lincoln said, “feel more attached to one another, and more firmly bound to the country we inhabit.”
In other words, the Fourth of July builds patriotism, love of country.
If they were here today, Abraham Lincoln and Jerry Ford would no doubt both say let’s have a grand semiquincentennial party in 2026. And they would no doubt push back hard against the idea that the American founding was anything but a miracle.
Americans need to do the same in their children’s schools, on college campuses, in town halls and in legislatures. We need to push back hard against the narrative that America’s history is mainly a story of racism and oppression.
Despite its faults and sins—and some of them, like slavery, have been grave—the American record stands tall. It is a brilliant, unparalleled story.
It is still true, as Gerald Ford said on Independence Day 1976, that “the United States today remains the most successful realization of humanity's universal hope.”
Three years from now, let’s come together for a joyful 250th birthday celebration full of patriotism and pride. We can start by lighting a candle this Fourth of July and remembering just how blessed we all are to live here.
John Cribb is a best-selling author, whose works include The American Patriot’s Almanac and The Human Odyssey, a three-volume world history text, but his real passion is Abe Lincoln. His two novels, The Rail Splitter (2023) and Old Abe (2020), chart the life and legacy of America’s pivotal sixteenth president. He has served as trustee of the Core Virtues Foundation. A version of this article was published July 4, 2021 on realclearpolitics.com
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