Happy Birthday, America?

As America approaches the 250th anniversary of its birth, few seem interested in celebrating our country.

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Today, April 15, is Patriots’ Day in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, commemorating the battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. As customary, this will be the culmination of a week of observances in Boston and the towns as far west as Concord. Fife and drum companies, militia units, re-enactors, and many more will do their best to teach the public about the opening days of the American Revolution—our first civil war.

Next year will be the 250th anniversary of those battles; given that the following year will see the same anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, these anniversaries are an opening act for the Semiquincentennial of these United States, since the signing of the Declaration is considered our country’s birthday. As old as I am, I recall very well indeed the buildup to the Bicentennial 50 years ago and cannot help but notice the difference.

In 1973 and 74, the death agonies of the Nixon administration during the Watergate hearings captured the nation’s attention, even as had the Vietnam War a little while earlier. But as soon as the president resigned, government and media at all levels shifted our gaze to the upcoming anniversary. On CBS, the “Bicentennial Minutes” were broadcast every night from July 4, 1974 until December 31, 1976. These segments featured different entertainment figures speaking on a particular person or event that had figured 200 years ago that day.

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Every level of government—federal, state, county, city, and town—prepared Bicentennial materials and celebrations. Historical, fraternal, learned, and hereditary societies, veterans, service, and youth organizations; chambers of commerce, labor unions, professional associations, most of the various religious denominations and the USCCB—indeed, every describable body or group—got into the act. 

It was, in retrospect, a sort of national therapy to help the country recover from its trauma—not just Watergate and Vietnam but the whole ‘60s adventure had dealt American self-confidence a huge blow, from which she would not recover (albeit temporarily) until Reagan entered the White House. Still, all the hoopla—both national and local—helped tremendously.  The whole ‘60s adventure had dealt American self-confidence a huge blow, from which she would not recover.Tweet This

I remember how enormously proud of my country I was on July 4, 1976, watching our little parade in Tujunga, California. Sponsored by the Little Landers Historical Society (Tujunga was first settled by communalists), the procession featured police and fire contingents, a couple of school bands, American Legion, V.F.W., Elks, and Knights of Columbus; several local businesses and families rode in cars and trucks— some of the latter serving as primitive floats. Patriotic music played, and at the end volunteers passed out little pamphlets with “Americanist” texts and mini-bios of American heroes ranging from Washington and Lincoln to Robert E. Lee and Eisenhower.

To be sure, this was a simplistic view of America and its origins, along the line of Schoolhouse Rock’s “No More Kings,” which debuted September 20, 1975. There was some mention of the irony of slaveholders demanding freedom, as shown in the musical “1776”—although the Southerner therein pointed out that while his people bought the slaves, the New Englanders sold them. Being of French-Canadian descent, I was all too aware of the part the Quebec Act, which had given my ancestors freedom, religion, and laws, played in rousing the colonial leadership against the King. Certainly, there was little mention of the Loyalists and their suffering during the war; but one could not expect these sorts of inconveniences at such a party.

In 2024 it may seem there is little attention being paid to the fast-approaching anniversary. To be fair, “Semiquincentennial” is much harder to pronounce and remember than “Bicentennial.” Yet, despite the lack of ballyhoo, preparations are underway. 

It was in fact President Obama, back in 2016, who got things underway, announcing the forthcoming appointment of a Semiquincentennial Commission. As it happened, it fell to President Trump to actually create the commission, and this he did, rounding up such private partners for it as the American Battlefield Trust and the Daughters of the American Revolution. It was to receive no public funding (he had lined up private donors) and would be assisted by his newly founded 1776 Commission.

That Commission issued a report on the teaching of American history, which accurately declared that “Today…Americans are deeply divided about the meaning of their country, its history, and how it should be governed. This division is severe enough to call to mind the disagreements between the colonists and King George, and those between the Confederate and Union forces in the Civil War. They amount to a dispute over not only the history of our country but also its present purpose and future direction.” 

A bit further on, mindful of the many criticisms of the entirety of American history by the Woke, the report declared, “Comprising actions by imperfect human beings, the American story has its share of missteps, errors, contradictions, and wrongs. These wrongs have always met resistance from the clear principles of the nation, and therefore our history is far more one of self-sacrifice, courage, and nobility. America’s principles are named at the outset to be both universal—applying to everyone—and eternal: existing for all time. The remarkable American story unfolds under and because of these great principles.”

As part of the Trump administration, the Commission and its report were greeted with predictable derision by the media and the academic historical industry. It was in any case the Commission’s swan song, as it was immediately abolished with the rest of Trump’s works and pomps by incoming president Joe Biden.

In keeping with Democratic ideology, the Commission—although retaining its form and governance—was immediately millions in tax-payer funding. What did this money pay for? A perky website along with a slew of charges and counter-charges of financial mismanagement and discrimination—on the basis of all today’s usual discrimination suspects. 

Looking elsewhere, we see that major players in the history industry are gearing up. With a substantial grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Association for State and Local History has produced The Field Guide for the Semiquincentennial: Making History at 250. This reveals a number of interesting themes: “Unfinished Revolutions,” “Power of Place,” “We the People,” “American Experiment,” and the ungrammatical “Doing History.” Although the explanation of each theme uses some loaded language, “We the People” is ominous.

Since the nation’s founding, definitions of “the people,” the boundaries of national belonging, and the very nature of citizenship have changed. For much of our history, the United States has excluded people—women, free and enslaved African Americans, Indigenous people, immigrants, people with disabilities, the poor, and many others—from full participation and representation in the nation’s political, economic, and cultural life. Yet over time the United States has also incorporated people of different backgrounds into our society, as diverse populations have staked their claim to belonging and pressed for a more pluralistic, more equitable nation. The expansion of citizenship and belonging has never been predetermined nor guaranteed, and changes in our population remain a subject of debate and conflict today. 

Trump’s 1776 Commission, however, did not go gentle into that good night. Transformed into a private organization, 1776 Action, it notes, 

President Trump, recognizing the long-term danger of teaching young Americans to reject their own country and values, created the 1776 Commission to restore honest, patriotic education. Immediately smeared as “racist” by our dishonest, activist media, the 1776 Commission was then abolished by President Biden just hours after he was sworn into office. While no doubt a setback, President Biden’s public repudiation brought undeniable clarity—there would be no remaining checks on the far Left’s advance into K-12 classrooms. 

Fortunately, a grassroots movement of patriotic moms and dads has been steadily building that confounds ordinary racial, socio-economic and ideological stereotypes. They want transparency, accountability and a renewed focus on academic achievement. They want curriculum [sic] that is as free of politics as possible, which actually helps to advance the values that made America great. They want choice, and to have their voices respected when it comes to instructional materials and extracurricular activities. In this fight, 1776 Action will be their most aggressive and effective ally.

Which of these two visions triumphs in the presentation of the next few years’ events will undoubtedly depend upon the victor in the presidential election in November. The two candidates not only represent two different views of the future, they also encompass two very different views of the past—American Exceptionalism versus Wokery; Shining City on the Hill or Hellhole of Genocide and Slavery. Of course, whichever vision triumphs at the Federal level, it will be imposed or fought at the State, County, and Local level—and in private presentations.

From the Catholic point of view, both of these visions are erroneous. Emphasis on indigenous and enslaved peoples? How much will be said about Ss. Kateri Tekakwitha and Juan Diego, the Martyrs of Tlaxcala, Blessed Jacinto de Los Angeles and Blessed Juan Bautista, or the Servants of God Antonio Cuipa and Nicholas Black Elk? The six Black candidates for Sainthood? Exclusion because of identity? How about the opposition to the Quebec Act, the actions of the Know Nothings, or the studied cruelties meted out to members of Operation Rescue—and their present-day imitators? Nothing, I expect. I’m sure the Loyalists won’t be invited to the party again this time—and probably (unlike the Bicentennial) the Confederates will be excluded as well.

On the other hand, while one certainly—as an American patriot—wishes to celebrate the founding of his country, the problem with the July 4 date is the implication that there was nothing here before. The truth is, our entire national edifice has been built upon the firm foundations laid down by the colonial empires—Spanish, French, and British (although Russia and Denmark can also claim credit for certain parts, as can the Hawaiian and Samoan Royal Families). 

Our political independence and the Constitution under which the Federal Government functions are certainly the creation of the Founding Fathers. But the Common Law and the whole panoply of State, County, and local government owe their origin to the British—as does the National Guard and various other State militias. Louisiana’s Civil Law and Civil Parishes, as well as the land law in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas we got from the Kings of France and Spain. All the oldest and most picturesque cities and towns were founded in colonial times—and, of course, our Catholic Faith was brought here then.

Our patriotism should be deeply rooted both in the colonial history from which we come, and that occurring after independence thanks to the descendants of the original settlers, the armies of immigrants, and of course Blacks and Indians. But as Catholics, we cannot simply remain there, contemplating our own American excellence. We must admit that we Catholic Americans, from the time we were liberated under the Constitution, have done our country a terrible disservice; we have settled for respectability from our non-Catholic brother Americans in return for not attempting to make them our brothers in Faith.

We need to look at the words and deeds of such as Fr. John Thayer, Orestes Brownson, John McMaster, Fr. Arnold Damen, and Fr. Michael Müller—Catholics who seriously tried to evangelize our beloved country, knowing that without the Faith she cannot survive her internal fissures in the long run. Let us use the upcoming 250th anniversary to think of how we might evangelize and to cultivate a devotion to the Patroness of the United States, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. Let us celebrate her feast in December as our national day, and beg her help in bringing all of our fellow citizens to her feet.


  • Charles Coulombe

    Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor at Crisis and the magazine’s European correspondent. He previously served as a columnist for the Catholic Herald of London and a film critic for the National Catholic Register. A celebrated historian, his books include Puritan’s Empire and Star-Spangled Crown. He resides in Vienna, Austria and Los Angeles, California.

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