New York is slowly preparing for the 250th anniversary of both the birth of the United States (July 2, 1776) and the birth of New York State (April 20, 1777, the day the first state constitution was approved).
Two years ago, the legislature approved and the governor signed the New York State 250th Anniversary Commemoration Act to establish a state commission to guide New York’s commemorative activities. But in a letter to the governor on March 20, 2023, the two lead sponsors of the law, Senators Shelley B. Mayer and James Skoufis, noted that “To date, the commission has not been seated and no plan has been delivered to your desk. The only serious planning efforts underway are all at the local level and predominantly within the Hudson Valley.”
The letter cited New York’s importance in the Revolution as an indication of the need to get the commission appointed and plans drawn up.
You can follow developing news on plans for the 250th Anniversary here on New York Almanack.
New York 200
My post here a year ago noted some possible strategies and recalled some what was done 50 years ago, at the Bicentennial. That effort was headed by a commission chaired by John H.G. Pell, whose family had restored Fort Ticonderoga. The commission sponsored a “Bicentennial Barge” that brought history via the state’s waterways, designated “Bicentennial Communities” that had strong commemorative activities, and sponsored several substantial publications.
The Office of State History’s staff did much of the work for the commission. There is no history of the commission’s work but its records are available at the State Archives. But in the bicentennial year, 1976, celebrations had to be curtailed due to the state’s budget crisis. The Education Department disbanded the Office of State History, assigning its history-related work to the State Museum and its local government records responsibilities to the then-new State Archives.
Guidance for 250
This time around, the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) has published a guide that is down loadable from their site, Making History at 250: The Field Guide for the Semiquincenteinial. The publication recommends using the event to engage a broad community and discuss “the ambiguous, contested, and always-evolving nature of history.” The anniversary presents “an opportunity for a profound civic renewal” and a chance to “generate a wider appreciation for history’s relevance to contemporary challenges.”
Issues of the AASLH’s journal, History News, include coverage of planning around the country. Here in New York, one of the places that has been moving ahead on the planning that senators Mayer and Skoufis referenced in their March 23 letter to the governor is Orange County which already has a 250th Commission chaired by County Historian Johanna Yaun, who facilitated formation of the commission back in 2019.
Yaun is also the author of a new AASLH Technical Leaflet Forming a Local 250th Commission. The publication goes into strategies for forming a commission, funding and creating themes for an educational strategy. Before beginning, says the Technical Leaflet, “we need to figure out how to legitimize the grassroots committees that will do the heavy lifting” as we decide how to approach the 250th anniversary commemorations. “History organizations today are faced with a challenge to create an important commemoration without the kind of guaranteed public and political support that was taken for granted in the past.”
That is sound advice. It looks as if many of the 250th anniversary commemorations may well be mostly local initiatives, designed to renew interest in history and connect with a broader audience. At the same time, they can help spark public interest in local and state history generally, a legacy that will continue after the 250th anniversary commemorations themselves become part of that history.
New York’s 150th
Besides the Bicentennial, New York can look more into its own history for possible strategic approaches.
In 1926, the Division of Archives and History, the predecessor of the Office of State History, published The American Revolution in New York: Its Political, Social and Economic Influence.
The book provided a brief history of the state, included some key documents, introduced the “outstanding personalities” in New York’s role in the Revolution, provided a list of readings, and advanced some suggestions for celebrations by history organizations,,churches, clubs, patriotic organizations, schools, and colleges in commemorating the sesquicentennial..
In the Introduction, State Historian Alexander C. Flick wrote that “New York’s role in the Revolution has been ignored, misrepresented and misunderstood…. an adequate history of that epoch-making movement as a whole has not been attempted. The political and military activities of the patriots of New York have been treated with a fair degree of fullness if not fairness, but the equally important social, economic, religious and educational activities have been sadly neglected.”
He continued that “further, it should be remembered that the real Revolution did not take place in the battlefield but in government, in society in general, in industry and in religious and cultural institutions. A new type of citizenship — more self-reliant, more responsible and more democratic – emerged from the clash of ideas and arms. These transformations and readjustments must be comprehended before one can understand how the Revolution produced the State of New York, the American Revolution and a new order in world history.”
Flick recommended that “the most important thing is to make a beginning” – appoint a committee. “The committee should then proceed to fix on the date and the place [for commemorations], to outline the program and to plan the budget. It should also obtain as much publicity as possible from the local press and announce the celebration in handbills and posters.”
The document advanced 14 suggestions for activities. A few of them might suggest comparable activities for New Yorkers on the coming years:
- Addresses and music. This is a dignified and appropriate ceremony. The speakers may be either local persons or those from outside the community, or both may be engaged. Care should be taken, however, to have the addresses fit in with the purposes of the celebration. A brass band seems appropriate to such occasions, but vocal soloists, chorus music or congregational singing of national songs will do.
- A parade and fireworks. This program has the merit of including and delighting everybody, but usually presents little of educational value. The parade, however, may be organized so as to show the history of the community.
- A pageant. Nothing will arouse more interest than this, and it has the further advantage of using large numbers of all ages from the community. The theme should be based on the most interesting phase, or phases, of local history. It might depict the Indian period; the early traders, trappers and missionaries; the coming of the first settlers; and the heroic and tragic incidents and traditions of the region. Usually local talent may be found both to write the text of the pageant and to stage it. The important thing is to start early because a pageant well done involves some expense and much time and labor in preparing the costumes and for rehearsals.
- A historical exhibition. The purpose would be to have articles of dress, household goods and furniture, farm implements, wagons, buggies, saddles, harnesses, old books and newspapers, letters and diaries, church records, town records, machinery, souvenirs etc., arranged in some chronological order and shown to the public. It is quite remarkable how much local enthusiasm may be generated by this exposition. It performs the further service of awakening a deeper interest in these sources of the past.
- Markers and monuments. Every locality should make an effort during the Sesquicentennial to have its historic sites and buildings marked in some way. These markings need not be expensive. A plain board painted white and lettered in black is very effective. The homes of the pioneers, the earliest schools, churches, mills, stores, roads, bridges etc., should all be marked. Signboards should also be placed on the highways indicating where these historic places are located. More enduring monuments may be erected to commemorate the first group of pioneers, or local heroes, or important historic events
- Preservation of historic buildings. Nearly every locality has some structure which in a special way tells the story of the past and therefore should be preserved. This is an excellent time to place that building under public care. Perhaps some patriotic society may wish to use it as a home, or possibly it would make an excellent public library or local museum. The transfer of such historic building to public use might be attended by fitting exercises.
“Remember that it is necessary to formulate plans early, to secure the cooperation and interest of the whole community, and to make the celebration educationally worthwhile,” the document concluded.