SPIRIT OF ’76: Forty years on, America’s bicentennial cohesion may be unrecoverable.
The Bicentennial was blessed with good timing, arriving on the heels of a long post-1960s hangover that culminated with two bleak closing acts, less than a year apart: the fall of an American president elected in large part to quell the previous decade’s disorder, and the fall of Saigon to the Communist North Vietnamese, bringing a tragic end to the war that had inspired much of the disorder. With that depressing coda, there was nowhere to go but up, and the Bicentennial became, as Lance Morrow wrote in Time, “a star-spangled ceremony of self-forgiveness.” After a long gaze inward, many concluded that the country and its republican traditions still looked pretty good.
That pride was reflected in the American Freedom Train, a 26-car locomotive loaded with historical exhibits and decorated in stars and stripes. It stopped in all 48 contiguous states from April 1, 1975, in Wilmington, Delaware, to December 31, 1976, in Miami. “It was by far the greatest event on rails since the end of the steam era,” declares a commemorative website, which estimates that tens of millions of Americans stood to watch it pass by and that more than 7 million bought tickets and attended.
I was one of those 7 million, or at least my parents were—they paid for the tickets. We stood in the Freedom Train’s fabled long lines on a hot summer day in suburban Illinois. Sometimes people waited for hours before they could get on board and see the exhibits, and even then, they were hustled along on a moving walkway that rushed them through in 15 minutes (later slowed to 22). It was all a bit overwhelming: “Zuni necklace, golden spike, first English Bible, first edition of Poe, Henry Aaron’s home run bat, Edward G. Robinson as Little Caesar, the familiar, sinister voice intoning ‘The Shadow knows,’ Thomas Hart Benton’s painting, Gerald R. Ford proclaiming, ‘Our Constitution works’—more than half a thousand features flash by before one has a chance to focus,” the New York Times observed. Still, the Freedom Train is remembered fondly, and, like the gifts sent to President Ford, it’s hard to imagine it happening again. The political battles alone—from what stops to make and what exhibits to include to whether to employ unionized workers or use renewable energy—would probably keep a twenty-first-century Freedom Train stranded in the station.
In-between Walter Cronkite droning on about the impending eco-disasters of a new ice age and overpopulation to viewers of the CBS Evening News, and episodes of M*A*S*H as a thinly-disguised Vietnam War commentary full of moral equivalence between the US and North Korea, CBS could still muster up some of its biggest stars to host “Bicentennial Minutes” on the important events that led up to the nation’s founding. Today, the network would likely draft Stephen Colbert and Colin Kaepernick to opine on how the nation was born in Original Sin. Perhaps it was the lack of a 24-hour cable news cycle, or the increasingly left-leaning network remembering that it still needed to serve a wide swatch of viewers. In any case, even with a Republican president in the White House, the Bicentennial proved that as late as 1976, the Democratic Party-dominated overculture still offered room for all, decades before today’s “no escapism” mentality on the elite left.