When I was in school, it never occurred to me that the history we were being taught wasn’t the whole story. I just assumed that we hit all the highlights. It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I realized whole sections had been left out. (You can read my recent column on how our official textbooks never mentioned that the state’s 1902 constitution, imposed without voter consent, disenfranchised about half the voters in Virginia.)
No wonder we find ourselves arguing so much over the past — some of us never learned the full story. Indeed, that column I just mentioned, about a new historical sign that just went up in Charlotte County, prompted an email from a reader in Halifax County who said he had no intention of reading the sign because he preferred his version of history. That’s also much like saying I preferred reading how Virginia Tech scored 17 points in Saturday’s game without knowing that Florida State scored 39. (Hey, I’d prefer knowing only half the story, too, if only if it were the whole story.)
That’s one of the challenges Carly Fiorina faces as she embarks on her duties as honorary chair of the Virginia American Revolution 250 Commission, a state panel that’s charged with organizing the Virginia side of the celebrations marking the nation’s 250th birthday in 2026. (The official chair is Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt County; see my earlier column on that.) How do we tell the story in a time when we don’t just disagree about how to interpret certain facts but we sometimes disagree about the basic facts themselves?
Fiornia — the first woman to lead a Fortune Top 20 company when she helmed Hewlett-Packard — likens the challenge of commemorating America’s Semiquincentennial to that of many American families as they work through old hurts and grievances. “When we sit down to Sunday dinner, a couple of things inevitably happen,” she told me in a recent phone call. “We talk about the people of the day, the issues of the day, the gossip of the day, but we also ultimately go back to the people who came before us. We always do. The reason we tell stories about the people who came before us is we know intuitively we can’t be complete in the present if we don’t connect to the past. It’s why 23 And Me is so popular, it’s why Ancestry.com is so popular — we all want to know where we come from. And unless we understand all that and deal with it, a family won’t heal. I think the same is true of a nation. I think our nation has been divided for our entire history — division is not new. Fractiousness is not new. But now we are faced with a level of lack of awareness — we don’t teach history anymore or people are cynical because they think it’s cherry-picked or political, or it’s abstract and they think it’s irrelevant. The media is divided so we only speak to our own tribe. So it’s immeasurably harder to tell a complete story now, but it’s even more important because unless we come to grips with that we’re not going to move forward.”
She was just getting warmed up.
So why bother telling the story of a bunch of dead rich white guys in white wigs? For one thing, it’s not just a story about a bunch of dead rich white guys in white wigs. There were, of course, rich white guys in white wigs who did a lot of important things but they weren’t the full story, just the one we usually get taught. I’ve been reading “Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia,” a book published in 1999 that won a treasure box of awards. That book tells a side of the revolution I certainly never learned in school. For instance, we were taught that at one point the fed-up colonists decided to boycott imported British goods and make their own clothing. What we weren’t taught — but which in hindsight maybe should have been obvious — is that it was women and girls, both enslaved and free, who were doing that patriotic work. We also weren’t taught that Native Americans helped accelerate American independence, perhaps accidentally, when northern and southern tribes entered into an unprecedented alliance to keep settlers out of Kentucky — something that the British crown happily acceded to but that white colonists most definitely did not. That isn’t so much a revisionist history as it is a more complete history. You might even recognize the name of the author: Woody Holton, a history professor at the University of South Carolina and son of former Virginia Gov. Linwood Holton.
Fiorina, who majored in history at Stanford University, adds a few more examples that don’t deal with white guys in white wigs. For instance, when the rebellion was breaking out, Virginia’s governor, Lord Dunmore, offered slaves a chance at freedom if they fought with the British. Relatively few did. Instead, many Black Virginians chose to serve the cause of the American Revolution, often as spies, sometimes as soldiers and sailors. (There were 140 Black Virginians freezing during that cold winter at Valley Forge; they weren’t depicted in the famous painting by William B.T. Trego but they were there nonetheless.)
“The reason I believe that understanding our founding in all its dimensions, the good, the bad and the ugly, is important,” she says, “is because what ultimately we know to be true: When you tell people the story of who we are, where we come from, the documents and the people who forged this nation, people come away knowing that our structure of government allows us to solve our problems and drive progress every day as we realize we have more work today to form a more perfect union. Despite the horrors in our history, which are real, our story is a redemptive one. That’s a long answer, but it’s why I’m so passionate about this. It deeply matters that people connect with our past in fulsome ways. History, if told fully and truthfully, is a mirror into which we look to see ourselves more clearly.”
Perhaps in another life, Fiorina would have been chair of a history department somewhere, instead of a corporate leader and, for a time, a presidential aspirant. Today she lives in Fairfax County but that only partly explains how she came to be honorary chair of the Virginia 250 project. She traces that route back to former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. He suggested she join him in serving on the board of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “When Justice Kennedy calls, you pay attention,” she says. “I fell in love with the place.” In time, she became chair of the board, which made her a natural pick to become honorary chair of the Virginia 250 commission.
“Honorary” conjures up an image of cutting a ribbon or two, certainly nothing that involves real work. In practice, this “honorary” position is almost a full-time job, with an emphasis on raising the project’s profile (such as through interviews like the one she did with me) and raising money. (The General Assembly has already appropriated $7 million for the project but it’s expected to cost a lot more.)
Fiorina says the first challenge is making sure people know about the upcoming anniversary. “Most people are unaware, so if you say ‘2026 is our 250th‘ most people give you a blank look,” she says. “We have to build awareness of this, so we have to think of this as a three-year event, not a one-time event.”
The plan is to have a rolling series of events, with three “signature events” each year leading up to July 4, 2026.
This isn’t just about Williamsburg and Yorktown, she stresses. “We want every community in Virginia to be engaged in this commemoration,” she says. (Many historians begin the story of 1776 in 1763, not in Philadelphia but on the western frontier following the French and Indian War when the king forbade settlement past a certain line to hold down defense costs — that upset both the gentry that engaged in land speculation and potential western settlers.)
Eventually there will be a mobile exhibit that will tour the state that Fiorina wants every middle schooler to see, along with adults.
She also makes a point of saying “the only way to convince people that this is everybody’s story is to tell the whole story.” More to the point: “You have to tell the story of slavery.”
That’s an uncomfortable topic to be sure — I was around during the Bicentennial in 1976 and I sure don’t remember much mention of it. Fiorina says there has to be this time. “The men in white wigs did not believe the rights they espoused belonged to anyone other than them — that’s indisputably true,” she says. “It’s also true that the words they wrote inspired every moment for liberty, dignity, equality, sovereignty ever since.”
And those words invariably came from the pens of Virginians. “Every founding document was written by a Virginian,” she points out. “What they wrote, the system of government they designed, allows us to repair our faults.” That’s why she says the American story is ultimately a “redemptive” one. People, she says, “don’t want a positive story that isn’t true, but they do want a redemptive story of what’s possible” — and here it is, just waiting to be told. Sometimes re-told, but maybe sometimes told for the first time to some ears.
“I think the 250th is a moment in time where we either reeducate and reconnect Americans to our story or we just set off a bunch of fireworks,” Fiorina says. “I think fireworks are great” — but reconnecting Americans to our story, that’s a lot better.