United States Bicentennial
Date(s)April 1, 1975 – July 4, 1976 (1975-04-01 – 1976-07-04)
Location(s)United States of America
Previous eventSesquicentennial (1926)
Next eventSemiquincentennial (2026)
Activity200th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence
Organised byAmerican Revolution Bicentennial Commission (1966–73)
American Revolution Bicentennial Administration (1973–76)

The United States Bicentennial was a series of celebrations and observances during the mid-1970s that paid tribute to historical events leading up to the creation of the United States of America as an independent republic. It was a central event in the memory of the American Revolution. The Bicentennial culminated on Sunday, July 4, 1976, with the 200th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Founding Fathers in the Second Continental Congress.

Background

The nation had always commemorated the founding as a gesture of patriotism and sometimes as an argument in political battles. Historian Jonathan Crider points out that in the 1850s, editors and orators both North and South claimed their region was the true custodian of the legacy of 1776, as they used the Revolution symbolically in their rhetoric.[1]

The plans for the Bicentennial began when Congress created the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission on July 4, 1966.[2][3][4][5] Initially, the Bicentennial celebration was planned as a single city exposition (titled Expo '76) that would be staged in either Philadelphia or Boston.[6] After 6½ years of tumultuous debate, the Commission recommended that there should not be a single event, and Congress dissolved it on December 11, 1973, and created the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration (ARBA), which was charged with encouraging and coordinating locally sponsored events.[7][8][9][10] David Ryan, a professor at University College Cork, notes that the Bicentennial was celebrated only a year after the Fall of Saigon in 1975 and that the Ford administration stressed the themes of renewal and rebirth based on a restoration of traditional values, giving a nostalgic and exclusive reading of the American past.[11]

1973 Events

Protestors gathering outside of Faneuil Hall in Boston, MA prior to the reenactment of the Boston Tea Party. Signs protesting oil conglomerates and the Nixon administration can be seen in the crowd. Image Circa 1973


Boston Oil Party

In 1973, history came alive on the shores of Boston Harbor as passionate activists and history enthusiasts recreated one of America's most iconic acts of defiance: the Boston Tea Party. Against the backdrop of Vietnam War protests and civil rights movements, this reenactment served as a poignant reminder of the nation's revolutionary roots and the enduring spirit of resistance.

After months of planning, with organizers collaborating closely with historians to ensure historical accuracy. Participants gathered at Griffin's Wharf, the very site where the original protest unfolded over two centuries prior. Spectators lined the waterfront, eager to witness history recreated.

Beyond its spectacle, the Boston Tea Party reenactment of 1973 served as a catalyst for dialogue.

Participants and spectators boasted signs and effigies, but no longer against the English crown and taxes. This protest was a call for “environmental protection, racial justice, an end to corporate profiteering, and the impeachment of Richard Nixon.”[15] Several people threw packages and oil barrels labeled "Gulf Oil" and "Exxon" into Boston Harbor in symbolic opposition to corporate power, in the style of the Boston Tea Party.[16] This reenactment later was termed as the “Boston Oil Party”, and roughly 10,000 people witnessed the powerful spectacle of the dumping of oil conglomerates, as well as the hanging of an effigy of President Nixon.[17]

1975 Events

The American Freedom Train stopping in the Naval Air Station in Miramar, California on January 15, 1976

The official Bicentennial events began April 1, 1975, when the American Freedom Train launched in Wilmington, Delaware to start its 21-month, 25,388-mile (40,858 km) tour of the 48 contiguous states.[18]

On April 18, 1975, President Gerald Ford traveled to Boston to light a third lantern at the historic Old North Church, symbolizing America's third century.[19] The following day, April 19, he delivered a major address in Concord, Massachusetts at the Old North Bridge where the "shot heard round the world" was fired, commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord which began the military aspect of the American Revolution.[20] According to the New York Times “more than 2,000 spectators were on hand” as canons were fired and a Paul Revere reenactor rode through announcing the arrival of British Troops. [21]

On December 31, 1975, the eve of the Bicentennial Year, Ford recorded a statement to address the American people by means of radio and television broadcasts.[22] Presidential Proclamation 4411 was signed as an affirmation to the Founding Fathers of the United States principles of dignity, equality, government by representation, and liberty.[23]

1976 Events

With 1776 being a significant year for the American Revolutionary War, 1976 posed to be the largest for festivities.

Festivities included elaborate fireworks in the skies above major US cities. President Ford presided over the display in Washington, D.C. which was televised nationally. Celebrations in cities and towns across the nation opened into full effect including celebrations such as Operation Sail (Op Sail), a large international fleet parade of tall-masted sailing ships gathering first in New York City on Independence Day and then in Boston about one week later. Other large scale events such as reenactments, parades, and booms in commercialized commemoration spread across the nation as the year went on.

New York

In addition to the presence of the 'tall ships', navies of many nations sent warships to New York harbor for an International Naval Review held the morning of July 4. President Ford sailed down the Hudson River into New York harbor aboard the guided missile cruiser USS Wainwright to review the international fleet and receive salutes from each visiting ship, ending with a salute from the British guided missile destroyer HMS London. The review ended just above Liberty Island at around 10:30 am.

Washington, D.C.

First Lady Betty Ford, with President Gerald Ford, Queen Elizabeth II, and Prince Philip in the President's Dining Room in conjunction with a 1976 state visit during the US Bicentennial

Johnny Cash served as the Grand Marshal of the US Bicentennial parade.[24]

The event was attended by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. The royal couple made a state visit to the United States, toured the country, and attended other Bicentennial functions with President and Mrs. Ford. Their visit aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia included stops in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Virginia, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.

Also in Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian Institution opened a long-term exhibition in its Arts and Industries Building replicating the look and feel of the 1876 Centennial Exposition. Many of the Smithsonian's artifacts dated from the 1876 World's Fair in Philadelphia which commemorated the 100th anniversary of the independence of the United States. The Bicentennial Festival of American Folklife, a collaboration of the Smithsonian with thousands of national and international scholars, folk artisans, and performers, hosted programs in the western part of the National Mall five days a week for twelve weeks in the summer of 1976.[25] The Smithsonian also opened the new home of the National Air and Space Museum on July 1, 1976.[26]

Government Celebration

George Washington was posthumously appointed to the grade of General of the Armies of the United States by the congressional joint resolution Public Law 94-479 passed January 19, 1976, with an effective appointment date of July 4, 1976.[27] This restored Washington's position as the highest-ranking military officer in US history.[Note 1]

NASA commemorated the Bicentennial by staging a science and technology exhibit housed in a series of geodesic domes in the parking lot of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) called Third Century America. An American flag and the Bicentennial emblem were also painted on the side of the VAB; the emblem remained until 1998, when it was painted over with the NASA insignia. NASA planned for Viking 1 to land on Mars on July 4, but the landing was delayed to July 20, the anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. On the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, NASA held the rollout ceremony of the first Space Shuttle (which NASA had planned to name Constitution but was, instead, named "Enterprise" in honor of its fictional namesake on the television series Star Trek[28]).

Douglas DC-8 of Overseas National Airways in US Bicentennial special livery

Delaware Crossing Reenactment

One of the most compelling historical reenactments unfolded, vividly recreating the pivotal moment when General George Washington led the Continental Army across the treacherous waters of the Delaware River on the night of December 25-26, 1776. This daring maneuver, occurring amid harsh winter conditions, marked a turning point in the American Revolutionary War.

Organizers dedicated meticulous attention to detail in planning this reenactment, ensuring a faithful representation of the challenges faced by Washington and his troops. On November 20th and 21st of 1976, participants immersed themselves in the era by donning period-accurate uniforms and equipping themselves with the tools and weaponry characteristic of that pivotal Christmas night over two centuries prior.[29] The reenactment unfolded as a grand spectacle, featuring a flotilla of boats navigating the icy currents of the Delaware River.

Reenactors command their vessel across the Delaware River to commemorate the Delaware Crossing, circa 1976

Drawing attention from far and wide, the reenactment captured the collective imagination of those who witnessed it. The freezing waters, the echoing commands, and the historical accuracy woven into the event added a poignant touch to the overall Bicentennial celebrations.

Since then, the Crossing the Delaware reenactment has occurred every year to relive and recognize this pivotal moment.

Philadelphia

While in Philadelphia on July 6, 1976, Queen Elizabeth presented the Bicentennial Bell on behalf of the British people. The bell is a replica of the Liberty Bell, cast at the same foundry—Whitechapel Bell Foundry—and bearing the inscription "For the People of the United States of America from the People of Britain 4 July 1976 LET FREEDOM RING."[30]

Los Angeles

Disneyland and The Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World presented America on Parade, an elaborate parade celebrating American history and culture, and featured the Sherman Brothers' song "The Glorious Fourth". The parade featured nightly fireworks and ran twice daily from June 1975 to September 1976.

Los Angeles observances included the Bicentennial Parade of 1976 on Wilshire Boulevard,[31][32][33] and the Los Angeles City Schools Bicentennial Pageant at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, broadcast as part of Happy Birthday, America (NBC), hosted by Paul Anka,[34][35][36][37] Pacific 21, a bicentennial exhibition and conference center,[38] and Knott's Berry Farm bicentennial celebration.[39]

Professional Sports Celebrations

The overall theme of the entertainment of Super Bowl X, held January 18, was to celebrate the Bicentennial. Players on both teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Dallas Cowboys, wore a special patch with the Bicentennial Logo on their jerseys; the Cowboys also added red, white, and blue striping to their helmets throughout the 1976 NFL season. The halftime show, featuring the performance group Up with People, was entitled "200 Years and Just a Baby: A Tribute to America's Bicentennial".

The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) initiated bids to host both the 1976 Summer and Winter Olympic Games in celebration of the Bicentennial. Los Angeles bid for the 1976 Summer Olympics but lost to Montreal. Denver was awarded the 1976 Winter Olympics in 1970, but concern over costs led Colorado voters to reject a referendum to fund the games and the International Olympic Committee awarded the games to Innsbruck, Austria, the 1964 host.[40] As a result, there was no Olympics in the United States in 1976 despite a last minute offer from Salt Lake City to host. However, Lake Placid would host the 1980 Winter Olympics, Los Angeles would eventually be awarded the 1984 Summer Olympics, and Salt Lake City would also eventually be awarded the 2002 Winter Olympics.

President Gerald Ford (center) with Darrell Johnson and Sparky Anderson during ceremonies at the 1976 Major League Baseball All-Star Game

As site of the Continental Congress and signing of the Declaration of Independence, Philadelphia served as host for the 1976 NBA All-Star Game, the 1976 National Hockey League All-Star Game, the 1976 NCAA Final Four, and the 1976 Major League Baseball All-Star Game at which President Ford threw out the first pitch.[41] The 1976 Pro Bowl was an exception and was played in New Orleans, likely due to weather concerns.

Other

Local observances included painting mailboxes and fire hydrants red, white, and blue. A wave of patriotism and nostalgia swept the nation and there was a general feeling that the irate era of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the Watergate constitutional crisis of 1974 had finally come to an end.

In the summer of 1976, the city of South Bend, Indiana, embarked on a unique project to commemorate the United States Bicentennial: painting its fire hydrants in vibrant colors and patriotic designs. Over four decades later, many of South Bend's painted fire hydrants still stand as reminders of America's Bicentennial celebration.[42]

Examples of the painted fire hydrants from South Bend, IN circa 1976

Bell Telephone Company commissioned Stanley Meltzoff to create a cover for its 1976 directory to commemorate both the Bicentennial and the centennial of the invention of the telephone. Based on Norman Rockwell's The Gossips, Meltzoff depicted America's great historic and iconic figures using the telephone. It became the biggest selling directory in Bell's history. [43]

Many national railroads and shortlines painted locomotives or rolling stock in patriotic color schemes, typically numbered 1776 or 1976, and model railroad manufacturers quickly released bicentennial locomotives which were popular among children and adults. Many military units marked aircraft with special designs in honor of the Bicentennial. John Warner served as ARBA director. [44]

The New Jersey Lottery operated a special "Bicentennial Lottery" in which the winner received $1,776 per week (before taxes) for 20 years (a total of $1,847,040).

The Bicentennial Wagon Train Pilgrimage began a journey from Blaine, Washington on June 8, 1975 concluding at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania on July 4, 1976.[45][46] The wagon train pilgrimage traced the original covered wagon trade and transportation routes across the United States encompassing the Bozeman Trail, California Trail, Gila Trail, Great Wagon Road, Mormon Trail, Natchez Trace Trail, Old Post Road, Old Spanish Trail, Oregon Trail, Santa Fe Trail, and Wilderness Road.[47][48]

Karen Steele was the first baby born on July 4, 1976, 12 seconds after midnight, and was referred to as the "Bicentennial Baby". She was featured on The Today Show and Good Morning America, and received commemorations from President Ford, New Jersey Governor Brendan Byrne, and a host of other notables.

Many commercial products, including sports, apparel and collectibles, appeared in red, white, and blue packages in an attempt to tie them to the Bicentennial. Liberty, a brand of Spanish olives, sold their product in glass jars replicating the Liberty Bell during that time. Products were only permitted to display the trademarked Bicentennial logo by paying a license fee to ARBA.

Ceremonial coinage

Main article: United States Bicentennial coinage

The US government also commemorated the Bicentennial through the creation of new designs on national currency. The creation of the ceremonial coinage was both a way to get the American public involved in celebrating the bicentennial, and a way to encourage Americans to collect and purchase more bicentennial memorabilia.

Bicentennial on screen

Television

Related network television programs aired July 3–4, 1976

The Bicentennial Minute was a series of short vignettes aired on CBS from 1974 through the end of 1976 to mark the occasion.

Saturday morning Bicentennial programs

In the months approaching the Bicentennial, Schoolhouse Rock!, a series of educational cartoon shorts running on ABC between programs on Saturday mornings, created a sub-series called "History Rock", although the official name was "America Rock". The ten segments covered various aspects of American history and government. Several of the segments, most notably "I'm Just a Bill" (discussing the legislative process) and "The Preamble" (which features a variant of the preamble of the Constitution put to music), have become some of Schoolhouse Rock's most popular segments.

In 1974, CBS aired a new animated Archie series on Saturday mornings called The U.S. of Archie; 16 episodes were made and were shown in reruns until September 1976.

Films

External videos
video icon Bicentennial City (June 7, 2020) on Vimeo

For the Bicentennial celebration, Hollywood filmmaker John Huston directed a short movie—Independence (1976)—for the US National Park Service which continues to screen at Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia.[citation needed]

The 1976 film Rocky cited the Bicentennial in several scenes, mostly during Apollo Creed's entering; Carl Weathers dressed first as George Washington and then as Uncle Sam.[citation needed]

The oversized vehicle in The Big Bus had a scene in its Bicentennial Dining Room.

Patriotism or Consumerism

In 1976, the United States marked its bicentennial with grandeur and gusto, commemorating two centuries of nationhood. Yet, beneath the surface of this historic milestone lay a subtle transformation: the bicentennial became not just a celebration of American history, but a branding bonanza. The post-war era had already witnessed a rise in materialism, with possessions increasingly equated with prosperity and status. The bicentennial, with its fervent branding of patriotism, amplified these trends, reinforcing the notion that one's identity could be expressed through consumption.

Branding

Pez Dispenser ad from 1976 showcasing their continental soldier and Uncle Sam designs

The bicentennial celebrations provided a platform for historical reenactments and exhibitions, allowing Americans to engage with their past in tangible ways. Corporate America eagerly joined the branding frenzy, seeing in the bicentennial an opportunity to bolster their brands under the guise of patriotism. Sponsorships and endorsements flooded in, as companies sought to align themselves with the spirit of the occasion. Brands such as McDonalds, Zippo, even Pez candy, all ran patriotic marketing campaigns aimed at taking advantage of the patriotic fever.

Zippo ad from 1976, showcasing their Made in America label and Stars and Stripes design
McDonalds ad from 1976. This features a continental drummer boy playing on red, white, and blue McDonalds cups


Memorabilia

The rebranding didn’t stop with the repackaging of everyday items as patriotic memorabilia. Authors like Tammy S Gordon discuss how suddenly, mundane objects like t-shirts, hats, and even household items were emblazoned with stars and stripes, transforming them into symbols of national pride.[52] Brands like Avon Beauty created mass production collections of patriotic items that sent American households into a craze.

Franklin Mint Pewter Plates, Circa 1976. Each plate contains a design based on a revolutionary era event
Betsy Ross Avon Bottle, Circa 1976

Analysis

Critics argue that the commodification of patriotism undermined the integrity of the bicentennial. Historians, such as M.J. Rymsza-Pawlowska, argued that the mass rebranding and marketing reduced a momentous occasion in American history to a marketing gimmick.[53] By plastering the flag on every product and event, they contend, the true significance of the bicentennial was overshadowed by commercial interests.

However, supporters of the branding frenzy, such as Neil Harris, argued that it helped democratize the celebrations, making them accessible to a wider audience. By embedding patriotism into everyday products and experiences, they suggest, the bicentennial became more inclusive and engaging for Americans across the country.[54]

Gifts for the Nation

The Magna Carta replica in the display case

A number of nations gave gifts to the US as a token of friendship.

The United Kingdom loaned one of the four existing copies of the Magna Carta for display in the US Capitol. The document was displayed in a case designed by artist Louis Osman consisting of gold, stainless steel, rubies, pearls, sapphires, diamonds, and white enamel. This was on a base of pegmatite and Yorkshire sandstone. The document was displayed atop a gold replica from June 3, 1976 until June 13, 1977, when it was returned. The case and gold replica remain on display in the Capitol.[55]

Canada through the National Film Board of Canada produced the book Between Friends/Entre Amis which was a photographic essay of life along the US-Canada border. The book was given to libraries across the US and special editions were presented to President Ford and other officials.[56][57]

The government of France and Musée du Louvre assembled an exhibit of paintings in cooperation with the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art that traveled to Detroit and New York City after being shown in Paris. The exhibit, entitled French Painting 1774–1830: The Age of Revolution, included the work of 94 French artists from that period. Many of the 149 works in the exhibit had never been seen outside France and included Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix, Jupiter and Thetis by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and a portrait of Maximilien Robespierre by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard.[58]

Japan's government constructed and furnished the 513-seat Terrace Theatre of Kennedy Center in Washington. Many of the original furnishings were removed when the theater was renovated between 2015 and 2019.[59] Fifty-three bonsai trees from the Nippon Bonsai Association were donated to the US National Arboretum.[60]

King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofía of Spain presented sculptures of Bernardo de Gálvez, a hero of the American Revolutionary War period and later Viceroy of New Spain; and Don Quixote, Cervantes' fictional hero, on June 3, 1976, on behalf of their nation. The Gálvez sculpture is in a park at Virginia Avenue at 21st Street NW, which has been named Galvez Park.[61] The Don Quixote sculpture was installed nearby on the grounds of The Kennedy Center. Spain's gift also included an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art of eight Goya masterpieces from the collection of Museo del Prado.[62][63]

King of Norway Olav V, Prime Minister of Norway Odvar Nordli, and the Norwegian government established the Vinland National Health Sports Center in Loretto, Minnesota.[64]

Gallery

See also

Notes

  1. ^ In Bell (2005), William Gardner Bell states that when Washington was recalled back into military service from his retirement in 1798, "Congress passed legislation that would have made him General of the Armies of the United States, but his services were not required in the field and the appointment was not made until the Bicentennial in 1976, when it was bestowed posthumously as a commemorative honor." How many U.S. Army five-star generals have there been and who were they? states that with Public Law 94-479, President Ford specified that Washington would "rank first among all officers of the Army, past and present. "General of the Armies of the United States" is only associated with two people...one being Washington and the other being John J. Pershing.

References

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  2. ^ "Resolution Establishing the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission - P.L. 89-491" (PDF). U.S. Government Printing Office.80 Stat. 259
  3. ^ Johnson, Lyndon B. (March 10, 1966). "Letter to the President of the Senate and to the Speaker of the House Proposing the Establishment of an American Revolution Bicentennial Commission - March 10, 1966". Internet Archive. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Service. pp. 302–303.
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Further reading