AMAC Exclusive-By Eleanor Vaughn
Just over four years from now, the United States will reach the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But as of today, exactly how the country plans to honor this momentous occasion is still remarkably unclear, as the organization established to plan the country’s semiquincentennial is bogged down by internal squabbles.
In anticipation of this extraordinary event, Congress established the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission in 2016. The commission, along with its private, non-profit counterpart the America250 Foundation (referred to collectively as America250), describes its mission as “inspir[ing] all Americans and each American to participate in our greatest milestone ever — the 250th anniversary of the founding of the United States.”
However, recent news has put a damper on the party planning. According to reporting from the Wall Street Journal, in a meeting last month, the commission split almost down the middle over whether or not to give more power to its chairman, Daniel M. DiLella, a Philadelphia businessman who also controls the non-profit portion of the project. The vote was 12-10 in favor of Mr. DiLella’s resolution to limit transparency, discussion periods, and members’ abilities to vote on issues. Proponents of the change – i.e., allies of Mr. DiLella – said it would make the organization more streamlined and business-like, while dissenters argued that it was taking away their voices. Given that there was no debate or discussion before the vote, the dissenters seem to have a point.
This controversy is only the latest in a plague of troubles for America250. Recently, four former executives—the only women to serve as executives for America250—sued the organization for discrimination. They described it as a “boy’s club” populated by friends of DiLella, where the women were increasingly shut out.
The lawsuit also raises questions about how America250 is spending the more than $30 million in taxpayer funds for the project that Congress has appropriated so far. According to the former employees’ lawsuit, DiLella named his close personal friend Frank Giordano to be the commission’s executive director, a title that came with a $156,000 salary. The suit alleges that Giordano only works about 10 hours a week, and spends most of his time focused on his other business ventures, which include his roles as CEO of Encore Series, Inc. and Atlantic Trailer Leasing Corp.
Amid all the controversy, the specifics of America250’s plan to celebrate the country turning 250 have remained murky at best. Some ideas that have been floated include a television cooking show featuring dishes from around the country and a Young People’s Continental Congress, set to first meet in 2024 in Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia, 250 years after the first Continental Congress.
A few commemorations from the Bicentennial like the Freedom Train and the parade of tall ships are also anticipated to make a return. Other proposed projects include partnerships with the NFL and MLB, travelling showcases, virtual experiences centered around historical sites, commemorative medals, and dozens of educational displays at battlefields and museums.
Whether or not these and other events honoring the nation’s history will actually take place depends on if America250 can resolve its internal strife and focus on the mission Congress has charged it with.
But as concerning as things appear now, this situation is not unprecedented. Back in the early 1970s, the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission was mired in similar controversies of corruption and misallocation of resources. The commission was accused of commercialism, turning the Bicentennial into a chance to get rich, and financial misconduct. In 1973, the commission was replaced by the similarly-named American Revolution Bicentennial Administration, which finished the work of preparing for the Bicentennial.
The condition the country finds itself in today is also not unlike the one facing Americans fifty years ago. Then, as now, the country had just experienced a disastrous exit from a long war, inflation was a major concern, and gas prices were near all-time highs. People were in desperate need of something to re-inspire pride in being an American and lift the spirits of a beleaguered nation.
Even with all the bickering, however, the Bicentennial Celebration was one to remember. To this day, children eagerly search for those famous Bicentennial quarters with a drummer boy on the back. Many Americans who were children then still fondly remember the marathon TV broadcasts that dominated the airwaves on the Fourth of July.
But the real thing worth remembering about the Bicentennial Celebration is the individual ways in which Americans throughout the country honored the occasion. Small towns organized parades and picnics, families gathered to tell their children stories of the founding, and people seemed to have a rejuvenated sense of what makes this country so exceptional in the history of the world.
To be sure, all Americans should hope that America250 will set aside the differences dividing the organization and give the country a celebration worth remembering. But the truly meaningful acts in the lead-up to the semiquincentennial will come from individuals and families determined to keep alive the Spirt of ‘76. Because while tall ships and special coins are all fitting tributes to an exceptional country, the only thing absolutely critical to honoring the United States and its history is the abiding love of its people.
Eleanor Vaughn is a writer living in Virginia.