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Not many people know what a “semiquincentennial” is but they’re about to find out. Even though 2026 is almost four years away, many organizations and individuals have already begun thinking about — and planning for — the commemoration of the impending 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Discussion about the “semiquin” — even in its present nascent stage — has been focused on how the upcoming observances should address the contested and unequal legacies of the American Revolution. That especially means the promises of justice and equality that politicians, activists and others have been grappling with and fighting for ever since. Because of this, planners and commentators have been looking to the 1976 Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence — remembered for its abundant historical programming — for inspiration and perspective.

The political stakes of commemoration are high, as the heated debates around the New York Times’s “1619 Project” and Donald Trump’s proposed sculpture garden and the 1776 Commission have demonstrated. Many think that 2026 may be when the conflicts over these efforts — and the access to rights and representation that they stand for — will come to a head as the simmering culture war over American history boils over.

But commemorations haven’t always been about history. Earlier anniversaries looked forward, not backward. They were, on one hand, an opportunity for state and corporate interests to garner popular support for large-scale initiatives. On the other hand, they were a way for Americans to envision and appraise the world to come and to contemplate how best to plan or prepare for it.

Consider, for example, the 1876 centennial celebration, when local and federal governments, business leaders, and city boosters launched a world’s fair in Philadelphia. It was a year-long event that featured exhibits from countries and states, corporations and professional organizations, with displays and performances numbering in the hundreds. Visitors toured modern pavilions where they viewed new machines and inventions, including the telephone and the typewriter. For many Americans, this was a glimpse of life to come, and the radical transformations that continued industrialization and innovations were bringing to everyday life.

Less than two decades later, an even larger event, the 1893 Chicago International Exposition, marked the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ landing. Fairgoers rode a moving walkway, and the first Ferris wheel. They explored model kitchens and bathrooms equipped with new appliances and saw new inventions for farm and factory work. They watched early moving pictures and tried new foods like Juicy Fruit and Cracker Jacks. Again, here was an opportunity to see and experience the world to come.

Not everyone was given an equal stake in this future: the streetlight-illuminated “White City” at the center of the Chicago fair excluded African Americans; and elsewhere, fairgoers viewed and interacted with people from colonized nations in live exhibitions. The physical layout of the fair — including which nations were represented in the White City and which were placed at the perimeter — and the emphasis on comparison of races and nationalities all reinforced the ideologies of racial inequality and white supremacy that underwrote American ideals of “progress.”

Such commemorations reflected the United States’ burgeoning interest in overseas expansion and colonialism, which it would begin to realize just a few years later with the occupation of Puerto Rico, Hawaii and the Philippines. As historians have shown, national and commercial leaders wanted to promote the United States as an emerging player in global markets and to garner excitement and accord from the Americans — old and new — who visited the fair.

And it worked. In coming years, Americans eagerly adopted and bought many of the new technologies introduced at the fairs, helping grow national and international markets. And, fueled in part by the racial hierarchies presented at the fairs, they approved of and supported imperialist actions abroad and Jim Crow segregation at home.

But the 1893 fair was also an opportunity for Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass and other leaders to stage a highly visible protest over the marginalization of Black Americans — one which helped to galvanize the Black freedom struggle. Their widely circulated booklet, “The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition,” laid out the most pressing issues faced by African Americans and urged organizers to include them in the fair and, by extension, the prospects that it set forth.

In the first several years of planning, Americans were looking ahead, not behind, following the mid-century legacies of programs such as John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. The initial ideas for the Bicentennial sought to both capitalize upon and reinvigorate this energy.

But that changed in the early 1970s. Planners and commentators began emphasizing the historical aspects of Bicentennial commemoration and programming. The standard explanation for this shift — and indeed, for a lot of 1970s “nostalgia culture” (think “Little House on the Prairie,” “Grease”) — is one that was first advanced by influential postmodern theorists in the 1980s and ’90s: because Americans could no longer clearly imagine the future (say, “Metropolis,” or “The Jetsons”), they looked to the past instead.

The past, in turn, became the site at which to hash out issues of representation, access and equity. In other words, because planners and commentators couldn’t agree about the most important ideas or issues for posterity, they decided to instead use the commemoration as a moment to question and engage history.

And so, the 1976 Bicentennial played out differently, with a focus on the past rather than the future. Soon, history became the dominant theme of the Bicentennial: new museums appeared like the African American Museum in Philadelphia along with new archival and engaging preservation and memory initiatives.

Through high-profile projects like the Tall Ships, the Bicentennial Wagon Train and Alex Haley’s “Roots,” the commemoration helped get many Americans interested and involved in history in myriad ways. The lasting impact of the Bicentennial became these new opportunities for engaging and finding meaningful connections to the past: new museums and historical societies, community-based preservation and oral history projects and personal and family histories and genealogies. Americans found commonalities — or at least understanding and new perspective — by thinking about history in new ways.

But this emphasis on history meant that the Bicentennial didn’t give Americans a large-scale opportunity to look ahead and to take stock.

Today, we aren’t having trouble envisioning what may come next. Now, people can visualize the future all too well, quite literally: the growing inevitability of climate catastrophe is foreshadowed in sophisticated visualizations and films like “2012” or “Don’t Look Up.” It touches our lives as rising temperatures, more extreme weather and global shortages.

Even as we try to grapple honestly with our past, returning to the old way of commemoration — by grappling with our future — would offer benefits. In the same way that the Bicentennial helped us find meaning in the past, the Semiquincentennial can help us find meaning in the future: one that is more just and equal than those imagined in Philadelphia and Chicago over a century ago.

In a sense we have no choice. In 2076, when this country reaches its next centennial milestone, the most well-known site of U.S.commemoration — the Mall, and many of its monuments — may be submerged in the Atlantic Ocean due to rising sea levels. Whether we like it or not, the future that we are headed toward will have profound effects on our ability to commemorate the past and the manner in which we do so.

As much as it is important to use the observance to reevaluate our understanding of the past, we must do so in a way that foregrounds the future, as well. Otherwise, we are missing perhaps the greatest opportunity to imagine and reimagine the world to come and to engage as many Americans as possible in this shared vision.

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