Those of a certain age remember the hoopla surrounding the Bicentennial summer of 1976: the patriotic celebrations, the tall ships sailing into New York Harbor, the way everything was branded in red, white and blue.
If you were young enough to have missed all that, don’t worry: We’re about to do it all over again.
Not a bicentennial but a semiquincentennial — the 250th anniversary of 13 British colonies declaring themselves “free and independent states.”
If you haven’t heard of this upcoming event — 2026 is the date — you’re not alone. But after today, consider yourself informed. Go ahead and mark your calendars, because the runup to this event is already underway.
We think of much of the history of 1776 and the events leading up to it being the story of Boston, of Lexington and Concord, of Philadelphia — and, yes, of Williamsburg. You know, the whole powdered wig crowd.
The full history of that time was a lot more complicated than we often remember, so perhaps it’s fitting that the chairman of the state commission charged with organizing the Virginia portion of the semiquincentennial comes not from one of those eastern localities that still bear the names of English royalty but from the base of Purgatory Mountain where the Alleghenies squeeze up against the Blue Ridge. That chairman is Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt County — and to be fair, his home county bears the name of a British lord (the last royal governor we liked) and is bisected by a river still named after a king (James) whose great-great-great-grandson we eventually rebelled against. We tend to think that the Virginia portion of the American Revolution took place entirely on the eastern side of the state, but Austin is quick to point out that’s not so.
Austin says his first goal in overseeing the Virginia American Revolution 250 Commission is to make sure that Virginia puts on a celebration worthy of its role in the events of the American Revolution. “We can lead the nation,” he says. Another important goal, though, is to make sure that the 250th celebration isn’t simply limited to telling the story of rich white guys in Williamsburg, something we’re ideally more aware of now than we were in 1976. “We’ve got to properly represent all of Virginia,” he says.
Many of the issues that our nation deals with today were also issues then. Among them: race and immigration. More than half of Williamsburg’s population in the runup to the Declaration of Independence was enslaved, according to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. And while colonists originally set out to assert their rights as “Englishmen,” many of the colonists who took up arms were not English at all. Much of the Shenandoah Valley was first settled by German immigrants — by some accounts more than one-quarter of the population between Harrisonburg and Strasburg in those days was German — and the Germans were numerous enough that one unit of Virginia infantry was known as “the German regiment.”
Austin also wants to make sure that the role of Southwest and Southside in those days is made better-known. In some ways, you can’t tell the story of 1776 without telling the story of 1754 — and 1763. The former marked the beginning of what we called the French and Indian War. It was really part of a larger conflict between Britain and France — the Seven Years’ War — but for our purposes, the North American part represented a struggle over who would control the continent’s interior. Britain won the war but also nearly doubled its debt and sought to pay that down by taxing the colonists, on the theory that they were the ones who benefitted from the war. The colonists had a somewhat different point of view and weren’t keen on being taxed, particularly by a distant government they hadn’t chosen. It would take 13 years, and more taxes, before things finally became so intolerable that the colonists sent the king the world’s most famous breakup letter, but that whole “taxation without representation” thing didn’t just start with the Boston Tea Party.
King George III also tried holding down future expenses by issuing the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which prohibited western settlement. The king saw that as fiscal prudence: Those darned people west of the mountains required too much protection against Native Americans. Those on the frontier — and those who hoped to expand that frontier — chafed at the royal order as an infringement on their freedoms. Why should some king on the other side of the ocean be able to tell them they couldn’t live on the other side of those mountains, when there seemed plenty of land for the taking? He’d never set foot on Big Walker Mountain and gazed out at the vast acreage beyond. There were lots of other things that led to the violent divorce between the colonies and the British empire, but part of that story begins in Southwest Virginia, which was on the forbidden side of the king’s proclamation line.
You’ll hear plenty of that history told — and retold — in the next few years, so I’ll spare you all the dramatic details now.
First things first: Parties take a lot of planning, and the planning for this one is already underway.
The General Assembly has already appropriated $7 million to the commission; Dominion Energy has donated another $1 million. (Disclosure: Dominion is also one of our donors but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy.) Austin has also embarked on a series of fundraising events to bring in more private-sector dollars. He has one scheduled in Roanoke on Aug. 22 and another in Abingdon on Aug. 29 where he will emphasize the statewide nature of our revolutionary history. I’ve always considered myself a keen student of history but I’ll confess I had to go do some research when Austin started telling me about the importance of the Fincastle Resolutions.
Those resolutions weren’t in our modern-day town of Fincastle (the county seat of Botetourt) but in Fincastle County, a long-since-disbanded county in Southwest Virginia that got subdivided so many times the whole thing went away. In January 1775, though, Fincastle County was very much real and 15 of its representatives gathered in modern-day Wythe County (possibly at Austinville) and passed a strongly worded statement that started off by saying, “We are a people whose hearts overflow with love and duty to our lawful sovereign George III,” but then ended up saying that if Great Britain didn’t get back to respecting their rights as they saw them, “we are deliberately and resolutely determined never to surrender them to any power upon earth, but at the expense of our lives.”
The Fincastle Resolutions were soon followed by similar ones in Augusta County, Botetourt County and Pittsylvania County. Historian Jim Glanville has pointed out that their importance is that those rowdy westerners were signaling that they “would give their lives in the cause of American liberty.” Eventually the powdered-wig fellows in Philadelphia would do the same thing more than a year later — so, historically, that road to the Declaration of Independence led through some restive western counties. Austin hopes there will be events to commemorate those Fincastle Resolutions that helped spark the Revolution.
Founded by the General Assembly in 2020, the Virginia American Revolution 250 Commission now has a staff and a robust calendar of events, three years ahead of the actual anniversary (because, as we’ve seen, the revolution didn’t just spring forth fully born in 1776). The commission’s executive director is Cheryl Wilson, who comes to the Revolution fresh from the Civil War and two world wars, so to speak. From 2006 to 2015 she was executive director of the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission. After that, she was executive director of the Virginia World War I and World War II Commemoration Commission, which marked the 100th anniversary of World War I and the 75th anniversary of World War II. By now, she’s got this down: “You involve all the localities,” she says. “You tell all sides of the story, the good and the bad.”
The “involve all the localities” part will include grants to localities that want to stage their own events. Next there will be an interactive mobile exhibit that will tour the state to help tell the story. Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and a former Republican presidential candidate who now lives in Fairfax County, has been enlisted as the commission’s honorary chair.
After nearly two centuries and a half, is there still anything to learn about the Revolution?
Earlier this year, a deputy clerk of court in Rockingham County turned up a yellowed piece of paper that turned out to be documentation of a royal sympathizer who had threatened to kill George Washington. Not everyone in Virginia was on board with the Revolution. So, yes, there’s still history to learn.