In 1971 a group of Americans angry over the state of the nation and the perceived betrayal of the values of the American Revolution formed the People’s Bicentennial Commission. Over the next few years they engaged in rowdy protests, including burning the president in effigy and disrupting official commemorations of the Boston Tea Party and Battle of Concord. They claimed the legacy of the patriots of 1776, and used TEA as an acronym for their feelings about tax policy.
However, they were not angry about being “taxed enough already,” but wanted the “tax equity for America” with the wealthy paying their fair share. They excoriated the East India Company as a typically nefarious corporation, blaming the Boston Tea Party not on taxes but on that corporation’s corrupt bargain with the British government to get a monopoly on the sale of tea in the colonies. They did not decry socialism, but instead boldly advocated for what they called “economic democracy.” In their words modern American corporations were nouveau “Tories” bent on strangling the will of the people.
A movement from the Left drenched in patriotic trappings confounds our present-day expectations. In the 1970s the political Right had not yet established a monopoly over the legacy of America’s founding. The People’s Bicentennial Commission, formed out of the New Left movements of the prior decade, sought to use the Bicentennial as an avenue for attracting ordinary Americans to an explicitly leftist agenda, and it almost worked. Its story offers a fascinating mirror to the present day, and some lessons and warnings about our current day History Wars.
The Bicentennial of the American Revolution came at a particularly fraught time. In the years leading up to it the Watergate scandal forced Richard Nixon from the presidency. The United States’ defeat in Vietnam was made manifest in images of helicopters being dumped into the sea in the frantic Fall of Saigon. Thirty years of economic growth came to an end with a recession sparked in part by mostly Middle Easternl oil-producing nations cutting off their supply. Conditions were ripe for more critical understandings of the country to take root.
The People’s Bicentennial Commission would be helped along by the failure of the national government to establish a nationwide Bicentennial celebration. Today people assume the parade of “tall ships” in New York harbor on July 4, 1976, was a national event, but it was simply part of New York City’s local celebration. No national celebration took place. LBJ’s administration formed the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission (ARBC) in 1966 to plan national events, but could not get any off the ground. During the Nixon administration ARBC officials floated grand proposals like a world’s fair in Philadelphia, which Nixon ultimately rejected due to cost. The ARBC would also be embroiled in scandal, with accusations in 1972 that the organization’s activities were being used as a way to promote Nixon’s re-election and benefit his political cronies. Beyond that critics charged it with being exclusionary and elitist.
In December of 1973 Congress disbanded the ARBC and replaced it with the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration. Headed by future Virginia Senator John Warner, this organization would not plan any nationwide celebrations. Instead it would foster local celebrations by giving matching funds to communities and organizations. Without any kind of national coordinated celebration, the People’s Bicentennial Commission jumped at the opportunity to shape the narrative.
The PBC was formed in 1971 under the leadership of Jeremy Rifkin, who has since gone on to greater fame as an author and policy expert. The group emerged from an effort by elements of the New Left to use patriotic and nationalist rhetoric to engage a broader audience who may have been turned off by seeing anti-war protestors brandishing Vietcong flags. For example, in 1969 SDS patron John Rossen wrote a book The Red, White and Blue Book under the pen name “Johnny Appleseed.” It contained quotations from throughout American history that purportedly showed American founders and other valorized figures supporting radical politics. Rossen would go on to play an important role in the PBC, where his idea of combining radical politics with a new interpretation of American history would make more of an impact.
From the beginning the PBC depicted themselves as the true heirs to the American Revolution, and the official Bicentennial celebrations as a betrayal of that spirit by corporate “Tories.” In the group’s official guide published in 1973, they laid it out thusly:
In the 1770’s there was a Revolution in this country. In the 1970’s, the White House and Corporate America are planning to sell us a program of plastic Liberty Bells, red-white-and-blue cars and a “Love It or Leave It” political program.People’s Bicentennial Commission, America’s Birthday: A Planning and Activity Guide for Citizens’ Participation in the Bicentennial Years (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973), 9.
The organization’s books, mostly published in mass market editions by prominent companies, pushed a radical narrative of the American Revolution. They interpreted the Revolution not as a rebellion against colonial rule, but as an attempt to destroy the power of economic elites and politically connected corporations (like the East India Company).
By doing so, the PBC offered an alternative to depictions of the Revolution that focused solely on the Founders and almost completely ignored those lower on the social scale and their contributions. While the PBC did discuss and even lionize the Founders, they did so in a selective manner, praising those they considered most “radical,” such as Samuel Adams and Thomas Paine, and excoriating those they thought had betrayed the Revolution’s true nature, with Alexander Hamilton the most commonly derided culprit.1
Voices of Revolution, published in a cheap Bantam paperback edition, brought together quotations from founders and historical gazettes and pamphlets to make the case for the American Revolution as a radical revolution. Its editors claimed that the “first use” of the Declaration of Independence “was against those feudal codes — primogeniture, entail, and quitrents — which had allowed vast concentrations of economic power to get into the hands of the few.”2 Franklin’s criticisms of “superfluous property” and Jefferson’s push to end the practice of entail in the state of Virginia were used as proof for the endorsement of “economic democracy” by the Founders themselves. Quotations from a section called “Economics” critiqued wealth and the wealthy, especially in the sub-sections “Economic Democracy” and “Banks and Corporations.” The latter included the apocryphal quip by Jefferson that banks were a bigger threat to freedom than standing armies.
These historical interpretations were meant to be a call to action. For the PBC the Bicentennial did not mean mere commemoration, but advocating for change in the present inspired by the past. Their official guide, America’s Birthday, gave its readers guidance on how to make change in their own communities. It called on its members to organize local Bicentennial commissions and organizations made up of “ordinary people” rather than “businessmen, reactionary leaders and professional socialites.” Their ideas included student groups devoted to researching community problems, organizing welfare recipients to help them learn about social services, and using housewives to “expose consumer fraud in the marketplace.”
More broadly, the official guide suggested that local commissions could research city governments, in order to discover those individuals (assumed to be corporate-linked) who control things behind the scenes. These powers could then be confronted and pushed to do more to work in the interests of the community, rather than themselves. America’s Birthday even envisioned the use of pamphlets modeled after Thomas Paine’s Common Sense that could be distributed in the streets to stir up the masses against local elites.he PBC also called for research into local history that would reflect the “real history of the people” and which would heavily incorporate oral history to do so. In general, these initiatives were intended to make “the principles of the American Revolution” relevant and a “rallying cry” against modern-day “Tory government.”3
As part of these efforts the PBC encouraged students to take part and to challenge their schools’ curriculum. The official guide urged students to get more power in their schools, demand a free press for student newspapers, and to demand student evaluations of teachers. Resistant principals were to be labelled “King George.” In terms of curriculum, the PBC counseled students against “conservative” textbooks that downplayed the revolutionary nature of the American Revolution. They demanded textbooks that portrayed Progressive Era reform and the New Deal as mere half-measures that have not done enough to achieve the necessary “economic democracy.”
However, much like modern day conservatives who deify the Founders, the PBC’s own story of the American Revolution excluded complicated realities in place of comfortable narratives, especially in regards to slavery. Voices of Revolution contained quotations from selected sources that decried slavery and supported the rights of women, implying those positions were at the center of the Revolution and not at its fringes. When dealing with the fact that the Continental Congress had struck language critical of the slave trade from the Declaration of Independence, it noted that the ideals of the Declaration had eventually led to slavery’s demise: “But the message of equality and inalienable rights still rang out in the Declaration, and generations of abolitionists and suffragists were later to base their own movements for justice on the self-evident truths of our founding document.”4 In discussing the slave-holders among the Founders, PBC literature acknowledged the failure of these figures to live up to their ideals, but put that down to “human nature” and the times they were living in.
For the most part the PBC peddled an updated version of the consensus history narrative, showing increased freedom over time and citing figures as wide ranging as Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, abolitionists, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B Anthony, the Greenback movement, Coxey’s Army, William Jennings Bryan, the IWW, W.E.B. Du Bois, Huey Long, Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers, and the American Indian Movement. Like the original consensus narrative it crumbles under closer inspection; there is no way to possibly reconcile Andrew Jackson with the American Indian Movement and abolitionists.
Despite such inconsistencies the People’s Bicentennial Commission attracted a great deal of public notice and support through its public actions. The first came in December of 1973 with the Bicentennial celebration of the Boston Tea Party. During an official reenactment members of the PBC came onboard the replica ship and tossed empty oil barrels labeled “Shell,” “Exxon” and “Gulf” into Boston Harbor as a protest against oil companies profiteering off of the growing energy crisis. They unfurled a banner on the ship that read, “Heed the people, tax the rich, jail the tyrant.” Two participants rowed a man wearing a giant papier-mache mask of Richard Nixon around the harbor on a small boat to jeering and demands for the president’s resignation. The crowd chanted “down with King Richard,” and hung the mask of the president in effigy, which they had adorned with a purple robe and a crown with the corporate logos of Exxon, Gulf, and Amaco as its jewels. To drive the point home protestors tarred and feathered an effigy of Nixon and tossed it into the harbor.
The next major protest came in April of 1975 with the anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord. “King Richard” was indeed gone by this point, and President Ford came to Boston to give a speech at the Old North Church before attending an event at Concord. This anniversary came at an auspicious time, as the North Vietnamese army was on the verge of toppling Saigon. The PBC was able to get permission to hold a “town hall” on the Concord site, which drew 40,000 participants. They camped out the night before Ford’s arrival, and there was a party atmosphere and music by 1960s folk singers like Phil Ochs and Arlo Guthrie. The next morning, separated by the Concord bridge fought over by Redcoats and Minutemen, Ford gave a brief speech as members of the PBC crowd jeered and some tried to unsuccessfully cross the river. Jeremy Rifkin touted, “This will be the first step in the war against the economy. This will be the start of Ford’s downfall.”5
Despite this disruptive behavior the People’s Bicentennial Commission managed to garner positive media coverage. Commentators and opinion writers appreciated the PBC’s attempt to celebrate a meaningful Bicentennial as an antidote to the failed federal government efforts and the crass corporate wave of schlock. For example, in her nationally syndicated column Mary McGrory criticized Ford’s speeches as wooden and uninspiring, and compared his words at the Concord bridge to “a Kissinger briefing.” She contrasted this stale official celebration with the enthusiastic crowds who showed up, seeing the PBC protestors as a diverse array of concerned citizens there to celebrate in a more authentic and meaningful way. For her, the PBC’s rowdiness better expressed the true import of the Bicentennial, and she hoped that future commemorations would be more populist and less directed by politicians.6
Earlier during the political disputes over the management of Bicentennial programs in the Nixon administration, the New York Times published an op-ed largely praiseful of the PBC, presenting it as a principled alternative to the ARBC. It commented favorably on its “relating the modern crises that ‘try men’s souls’ to the crises of the past and by taking literally the meaning of the words in the Constitution and the Declaration.”7
Unfortunately for the People’s Bicentennial Commission, the New York Times giveth but it also taketh away. In May of 1976 the PBC would be excoriated in its editorial pages over Campaign Corporate Exposure. This was an anti-corruption PBC initiative that included sending over a thousand taped messages to the wives and children of CEOs, urging them to ask about where their family’s money came from. A second set of messages offered a $25,000 reward for any information that would lead to the prosecution of a Fortune 500 CEO.
The media hit back hard, feeling a line had been crossed by involving children and spouses. The Times’ editorial staff labelled these tactics “sophomoric pranks” and “dangerously dirty tricks” and even “dangerously totalitarian subversions.” (Coming in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, the “dirty tricks” accusation might have stung harder than that of totalitarianism.) The Times had been willing in the past to publish op-ed essays by Rifkin and PBC historian Page Smith, but the targeting of families by the PBC crossed the Rubicon of good taste, and the Gray Lady would not stand for it.
Interestingly, the same editorial praised the PBC’s willingness to criticize “some of the more commercial and hypocritical” aspects of the Bicentennial and “stuffed-shirt chauvinism,” but felt that these noble activities had been poisoned by things like the corporate exposure campaign.8 Despite the thirst for a more meaningful Bicentennial that few others seemed to be addressing, in the months before the event itself the PBC suddenly became persona non grata.
Two months before the PBC had also been the target of a Senate investigation from the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, the same body that had hosted McCarthy’s Red-baiting back in the 1950s. Headed by arch-segregationist James Eastland of Mississippi, the committee charged the PBC with an attempt to “steal the Bicentennial.” In what will be a familiar litany to many today, one of the anti-Communist “expert witnesses” claimed that “The radical Old and New Left, cloaked with patriotic trappings, [are] diabolically using the commemoration of our Nation’s birth with which to ensnare Americans and lead them down the path to a Soviet or Castro style socialism are finding a widespread acceptance of their new patriotic rhetoric.”9
The hearings read like a time warp into the fever swamps of McCarthyism, complete with guilt by association and accusations that the PBC is merely a Communist Party front. However, these now obscure hearings might better be seen as a harbinger of the future. Much of the testimony raised fears that the materials created by the PBC were going to be used in schools. These hearings came only two years after the so-called “textbook wars” in West Virginia, and, like that event, set the stage for the “history wars” of today. In 1976 it was the People’s Bicentennial Commission as the bogeyman; in 2021 it’s “critical race theory.”
The double blow of the bad publicity from the Senate hearings and anti-corporate corruption crusade put the PBC in a far weaker position on July 4, 1976, than it had been in 1975 or even 1973. On the Bicentennial day itself the PBC drew only 5,000 to its rally in Washington DC, far fewer than the 250,000 they hoped to draw, or even the 40,000 they had managed to gather in Concord. The major networks gave the holiday wall-to-wall coverage, but none of it was devoted to any of the PBC’s speeches. The effort to use patriotism and a particular interpretation of the American Revolution to make democratic socialism more broadly accepted had failed.
This of course occasioned much gloating from conservatives. An article in the American Spectator by Laurel and James Ring Adams found a lot to celebrate in the general Bicentennial celebrations which, for all their tackiness, expressed a broad and intense outpouring of uncritical patriotism that rebuked the radical approach of the PBC. It was not a day for the radicals of the Sixties, but rather, “for the squares, in fact, the Bicentennial Fourth was a cultural coup d’etat.” The Nixonian Silent Majority had emerged triumphant after years of yielding the media spotlight to long-haired radicals. Noting that CBS’s massive coverage of the event appealed to “solid, bourgeois, middle America” rather than providing coverage of protests by “feminists,” “Puerto Ricans,” and “homosexuals,” the Adamses claimed it had presented “a vastly appealing and entirely recognizable portrait of America…a country coming to peace with itself after a decade of torments…more self-confident than we have seen her for awhile.”10 One can practically see the rays of the first light of the Reagan Dawn.
In the end, the corporate “buy-centennial” that the People’s Bicentennial Commission and many less radical Americans wanted to avoid, won out. The red, white and blue beer cans you can still find at antique stores today tell the tale.
Much of the public discourse this summer has been clouded over with the rhetorical cordite and gunpowder of another major battle in the History Wars, this time taking shape over a calculated conservative freak-out over critical race theory. The story of the People’s Bicentennial Commission shows just how long these wars have been taking place. Radicals today are much less likely than the PBC to construct a positive or nationalistic narrative of American history to further their own ends. Figures like Jackson or Jefferson are not to be praised.
While I agree with this stance, it also leaves unanswered questions about how to build a national narrative from the Left that is critical but also offers some kind of social glue and positive national identity. A political movement that fails to do this will have a hard time getting traction in this country, and conversely Joe Biden’s unlikely success in the 2020 election can be chalked up in large part to his appeals to a positive American national identity. Almost fifty years after the demise of the People’s Bicentennial Commission, nobody has figured out how to create a positive narrative of American history that coincides with a critical Leftist perspective. Maybe the harsh reality of American history makes that impossible. Even though the PBC ultimately failed to thread that needle, at least they tried.
1. Lin-Manuel Miranda could not be reached for comment.
2. People’s Bicentennial Commission, Voices of the American Revolution (New York: Bantam, 1974), 71-81.
3. America’s Birthday, 37-45.
4. Voices of the American Revolution, 69.
5. David Gumpert and Liz Roman Gallese, “Battle of Concord, 1975: A Celebration Turns Into Weekend Test of Endurance,” Wall Street Journal, April 21, 1975, and Gary McMillan and Nate King, “Peoples Bicentennial: Rally More Like a Party With Raspberry for Ford,” Boston Globe April 21, 1975.
6. Mary McGrory, “America wants to celebrate,” Chicago Tribune, April 23, 1975, B4.
7. Herbert Mitgang, “The Spirit of ’73,” New York Times, November 20, 1973.
8. “Bicentennial Follies,” New York Times, May 6, 1976.
9. Subcommittee to Investigate the Administration of the Internal Security Act and Other Internal Security Laws, The Attempt to Steal the Bicentennial (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1976) 41.
10. James Ring Adams and Laurel Adams, “The Great American Birthday Party,” The American Spectator, October 1976, 15.