We need to find a way to talk about America’s founding. The 250th anniversary of our independence provides us with an opportunity to come together and acknowledge that something unique happened in 1776, something that had not happened before. And yet, we must also recognize that many were excluded from the values that we associate with the founding and how much of our history since has been about rectifying that wrong.
Two hundred and fifty years ago, in March 1773, a group of Virginians—Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, and Patrick Henry among them—gathered at a tavern in Williamsburg, VA to create the intercolonial committees of correspondence, a system designed to aid communication between the colonies and organize resistance against Parliament. This committee system stands among the first efforts to unify the British colonists against British imperial rule, jumpstarting the movement towards revolution.
On March 10 of this year, a similar gathering took place just down the street from where that tavern once stood. This time, more than three hundred historians, curators, and civic leaders from 34 states met to begin laying the groundwork for the 250th anniversary of America’s founding.
Williamsburg was a fitting place for us to gather. It was in the lands of the Powhatan peoples, “Tsenacomoco,” or what the English renamed Jamestown—just a few miles away—that English colonists arrived to establish England’s first permanent settlement in the New World in 1607. In July 1619, the first representative assembly gathered there. Only a month later, in August 1619, the first ship carrying enslaved Africans landed near Jamestown at Point Comfort, today’s Fort Monroe.
We assembled this time with one question: How can we discover, share, and discuss our full history? We must lift up every hero, whether famous or unsung. And we must squarely face the horrors. Only when we better understand what happened in the past—and have a fuller appreciation of everyone’s history—can we see ourselves and our future more clearly.
Alexis de Tocqueville, one of many Frenchmen enamored with the idea of America, remarked: “When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness.” Even as we convened to collaborate and plan for this event of great historical significance, we acknowledged that many Americans do not share our love of history. Many think it is irrelevant to their lives, boring, and abstract. Many have become cynical about it, believing that history is told in diﬀerent ways by diﬀerent political factions for diﬀerent political purposes. Some believe history is cherry-picked for heroism. Others believe we over-emphasize the horrific. Many feel their stories are untold. Most do not appreciate that the ideas that were debated in 1776, the tensions and contradictions that were experienced in this community over two-hundred and fifty years ago, still echo today across our nation.
Many Americans are also concerned about our current division and discord. You often hear people say: “We have never been this divided.” Or they’ll postulate that all Americans were united in their desire for independence from the Crown. The truth is, we have always been a fractious country. From the very beginning, our diversity has been a source of strength, but it has also been a source of disagreement. We were divided at the time of the Revolution over religion, politics, economics, ethnicity, status, class, and the institution of slavery. We were divided as well about whether the fight for independence was heroic and wise or treasonous and foolhardy.
As we plan for the commemoration of our formation as a nation, we must never confuse nostalgia with real history. There were then, as there are now, as many hypocrites as heroes; as many who claimed rights for themselves while denying them to others; as many who resented the abuse of power while themselves abusing it.
To see this clearly does not diminish in any way the reality that the words that were written, and the system of laws and government that was designed, have inspired every movement for human dignity, sovereignty, equality and liberty everywhere, ever since. From the French Revolution to the War for Ukraine, from abolition to civil rights, from voting rights to human rights—all of these great movements here and around the world—have looked to our history for inspiration, justification and motivation.
To quote de Tocqueville: “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” He believed that our strength lies within our civil society, in communities and citizens who gather together to build something better. Many have rightly fought to make that sense of community more inclusive. It is a fight that is ongoing. But it is we as citizens who must focus on those repairs that remain necessary.
Our 2026 commemoration must be about far more than fireworks and tall ships. It cannot be celebrated by some, resented by others and ignored by most. It must not be about “red states” and “blue states” fighting over how we talk about and teach our founding story. It must reflect our diversity while reinforcing our union. It must remind us why the privilege of American citizenship remains the cherished goal of countless people everywhere and reacquaint us with the responsibilities that come with citizenship. We must do far more than plan a big birthday party.
As a country, we have been at our best when we’ve come together. We can choose to design and deliver commemorations of our history that deepen every citizen’s’ connection to our nation. We can tell many stories while weaving the thread of our shared American story.
Our hope is that as 2026 arrives, Americans in every corner of our nation can look into the mirror of our history and see themselves and each other more clearly. Every story has value. Every person, regardless of when they came or how or for what reason is part of this story—and the story we are building as a country. This is our common cause. It is not an easy task. But without it, we cannot understand ourselves or our nation and we cannot move forward. Without it, we will not form a more perfect union.
- Who Will Be TIME's Person of the Year 2023?
- Why Cell Phone Reception Is Getting Worse
- The Dirty Secrets of Alternative Plastics
- Column: It's Time to Scrap the Abraham Accords
- Israeli Family Celebrates Release of Hostage Grandmother
- In a New Movie, Beyoncé Finds Freedom
- The Top 100 Photos of 2023
- Want Weekly Recs on What to Watch, Read, and More? Sign Up for Worth Your Time