The Grim American History Of 'The Bicentennial Minute'

The Grim American History Of ‘The Bicentennial Minute’

by Sarah Marshall

On July 2, 1776, in a letter to his wife Abigail, John Adams wrote: This second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the Day of Deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.

As it turned out, Adams was nearly right about this, as he was about most things. For the various and ungovernable reasons that often decide remembrances of national history, Americans would come to observe the 4th of July as their “great anniversary festival,” though Jefferson had finished the Declaration’s first draft — and the news of it spread, despite a “bar of secrecy,” to the people of Philadelphia — on the second. (Most of it signers would not make their mark until August.)

But the largest celebration of America’s “Day of Deliverance” came not in 1776, but at America’s Bicentennial in 1976, when the nation employed “pomp and parade, shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations” — as well as TV spots and commemorative gas station mugs — to commemorate its age. Some of you may remember it; some of you may not. (This divide is perhaps best encapsulated, as are so many seminal moments in American culture, by that episode of “Friends” when Monica sleeps with a college student and, afterwards, says, “Oh my God! I just had sex with someone who wasn’t alive during the Bicentennial!”)

Those TV spots I mentioned were called “Bicentennial Minutes,” and they starred everyone from Vincent Price to Betty Ford. The overwhelming popularity of the series — which aired every night on CBS for two-and-a-half years — shows that Americans wanted more out of their Bicentennial than the chance to buy souvenir Barbie Dolls and issues of Playboy. Revisited now, the spots are grim, intensely and marvelously so, and odd. They tell us not just how widespread Bicentennial enthusiasm was, but what kind of national history Americans sought. Their seriousness stands out even more when compared with the similar public-service projects Canada and Australia attempted a few years later, which proved infinitely lighter — and, in Canada’s case, far more maple syrup-heavy.

First, let’s acknowledge that, while there is something magnificent about a country whose origins lie in such strife and uncertainty reaching its 200th anniversary, there is also something deeply adorable about anyone thinking 200 years old is especially old for a country. When England observed it bicentennial, in 1266, Thomas Aquinas had just begun work on the Summa Theologica, Kublai Khan ruled the Mongol Empire, and, in France, villagers had begun worshipping a dead dog after a rash of alleged miracles occurred near his grave.

Still, many Americans most likely believed that their country, though only 200 years old, had dealt with some of the most difficult 200 years that could have been imagined — had dealt, in fact, with enough difficulty for a whole century in the last decade alone. In 1976, Watergate and Nixon’s resignation — following two years of growing scandal in which he had clung to the presidency like grim death — was still a recent memory. With Ford, America had, for the first time, a leader it had never cast a vote for, as either president or vice president. The country’s economic woes were not just a painful memory but a reality citizens dealt with daily, and in 1975, as the country began planning a year of Bicentennial celebrations, the last American troops had yet to exit Vietnam.

And perhaps this is why, even with all its attempted festivity, the American Bicentennial seems, in retrospect, to have been a somewhat grim affair — as the “Bicentennial Minute” so perfectly reflects.

In this one Jessica Tandy tells the story of how British Redcoats chopped down the “Liberty Tree.” It concludes, as all the “Bicentennial Minutes” do, with the narrator telling the audience that “that’s the way it was” — that is, these aren’t interpretations of history, but representations of what we know to have occurred. No ambiguity hangs over the story: the Redcoats cut down the “Liberty Tree” not because they wanted firewood, but because it “bore the name of Liberty.” History has only one version, and it can be parceled into one-minute increments and sponsored by Shell, then slipped in before the evening news as testament to the fact that whatever happened today can’t be as bad as what happened two hundred years ago today.

What are viewers of 1976 meant to take from this story? That their ancestors — and their trees — died so we could live in the America of today, and we’d better find a more meaningful expression of patriotism than taking part in the CB radio craze? That we’d better not attempt another revolution, since we just don’t have the grit of our forefathers? That, our woes aside — our President, who appears to be powerful and powerless in all the wrong ways aside — we are citizens of a great nation and should be thankful?

Though dozens were produced, relatively few of the “Bicentennial Minutes” are available online today, as they’ve never been released on video, and not many Americans were taping for posterity (at the time, a VCR cost about as much as a used car). A transcript of Lucille Ball’s minute offers the same grave tone, this time without even the benefit of Redcoats, and this trend — a seriousness bordering on scolding — seems to have pervaded the enterprise. Like any truly relevant cultural phenomenon of the 70s, it also inspired the inevitable parodies, on “The Carol Burnett Show,” in which the historic tableau has the temerity to argue with its narrator:

…and on “All in the Family,” where Archie Bunker’s version of the American Dream prove both more energetic and more in keeping with the ideals of many of the Founding Fathers than the minds behind the “Bicentennial Minute” would probably like to admit:

President Ford recorded the final “Bicentennial Minute” as Carter prepared for his inauguration, and, looking tired and fidgety, asked that Americans “pledge to keep the spirit of ’76 alive.”

1776 was the year the Declaration of Independence was drafted but it was also the year Americans came to grips with the fact that, noble ideas of freedom aside, they were engaged in a bloody and seemingly endless war they might have no chance of winning; its spirit was one of hope and idealism, but also one of fear, anxiety, and doubt. That many Americans were keeping the spirit of ’76 alive without even trying may not have escaped Ford, and may have informed the remarkable somberness of the Bicentennial Year. Even the 4th of July itself seemed somewhat lackluster in the offing. Reporting from Manhattan, Ted Koppel expressed surprise both at the relatively small size of the crowds and the fact that they had yet to dissolve into riot:

But what, exactly, was Koppel and Co. expecting? How can a country really celebrate in a way that reflects two hundred years (give or take a few days) of liberty? Did such an observance call for solemnity, or an extra cooler of beer? If Americans had been told the way it was, now they needed to be told how it should be. Here, not surprisingly, advertisers were willing to provide instruction — and sell some products, like Coke, 7-Up and airplane tickets.

Australia would take a few cues from America when it celebrated its own bicentennial twelve years later, but easily outdid us, managing to sum up the essence of Australia — a large group of extremely tan, vaguely dehydrated people clapping in a desert — in a single TV spot, all while managing to not make anyone feel guilty for daring to call themselves citizens:

But this is the kind of thing we expect from Australians (my father is Australian, so I am allowed to say this. I am also allowed to listen to as much AC/DC as I want). Even more interesting, though, is the comparison between our idea of promoting national heritage and a similar series of TV spots, called “Canada Vignettes,” that aired on Canadian TV in the late 70s. Government-funded (and now conveniently archived on the National Film Board of Canada’s website, hint hint, America), they range from the mildly whimsical, in the case of this piece on the Manitoba town of Flin Flon:

… to the concussively delightful, as in the case of “The Log Driver’s Waltz,” which remains the most-requested film from the NFB’s archives:

And of course, any Canadian worth his or her salt remembers the CRB Foundation’s Heritage Project minutes, which featured everything from the history of Baffin Island to basketball to a showdown between Mountie Sam Steele and a no-good American prospector, which I like to think directly inspired “Due South”:

Of course, Canadians are not universally adorable any more than Americans are universally depressed, hopped up on Coke, and complaining loudly at the airport. What this disparity shows us, more than anything else, is not the difference between our countries so much as the differences in the way we approach our histories. For Americans, our country’s legacy — and in particular the legacy of our founding&mdahs;has calcified into myth, and our Founding Fathers have become inhuman and larger-than-life. To have such an inflated sense of our own importance as a country is both a blessing and a curse; envisioning our forefathers as flawless men who could do no wrong, we are both ill-prepared to acknowledge our mistakes and somewhat overwhelmed at the prospect of living up to their example. If we regard our national history with more humility — and a keener eye for the wonderfully absurd — we may feel far more ready to contribute to it, knowing that, as anxious and overreaching misfits, we would fit in with our Founding Fathers far better than our schoolteachers would have us know.

Related: All The Presidents’ Menus

Sarah Marshall is probably watching “Due South” right now.