July 4, 1976, marked the 200th anniversary of when the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. It is little known that on that original day of independence, only two people signed the document – John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress and Charles Thomson, the Continental Congress’ secretary. It was not until August 2, 1776, that the other 55 signers penned their names onto parchment. John Hancock signed with a flourish, his signature large enough, he is reported to have said, so that King George of England could read it without his spectacles.
While July 4th is always a day celebrated in the U.S., in 1976 the Bicentennial celebrations lasted an entire year. Planning for the Bicentennial got underway ten years earlier under President Lyndon B. Johnson. Congress convened an American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, with senators, representatives, cabinet secretaries, leading historians and educators. At first, the concept was to have a single city exhibition in Boston or Philadelphia. That idea was soon abandoned.
By 1972 each state had formed a Bicentennial Commission. Plans for celebrations reached as far away as Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam and American Samoa. Washington, D.C., prepared for an expected 40 million visitors, the equivalent of nearly one fifth of the U.S. population. An official Bicentennial logo was designed and every sort of commemorative souvenir imaginable was marketed.
In Wyoming, $350,000 in federal grant money was awarded to Bicentennial-related projects. In all, the state organized 353 different Bicentennial-themed events. That included planting of commemorative trees on the University of Wyoming campus, constructing a Bicentennial Memorial fountain in front of the Douglas courthouse and the commissioning of a three-act opera, “The Sweetwater Lynching.” Wyoming developed its own patriotic Bicentennial logo, based on the iconic bucking horse. It incorporated the cowboy dressed in colonial era clothing and a stylized background evoking the Grand Tetons.
Eighth grade students in Laramie donned colonial garb and reenacted the signing of the Declaration of Independence, complete with quill pens.
Bicentennial festivities on Independence Day in 1976 included events in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia attended by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip of the United Kingdom. British interest in the celebrations extended to Wyoming, where a British Broadcasting Corporation crew was dispatched to film the Cody Stampede rodeo and parade.
In true Wyoming fashion, the town of Centennial hosted a buffalo barbeque and turkey shoot. Thermopolis celebrated with horse races. Some larger Wyoming communities celebrated with extravagant fireworks displays.
The Bicentennial also proved to be a marketing boon for enterprises across the U.S.. Local Wyoming companies like Laramie’s Cadwell Shoes gave customers free Bicentennial themed calendars.
Wyoming travel agents touted Bicentennial travel opportunities. In Washington, D.C., more than half a million people turned out to watch a three-hour long parade. And across Wyoming residents joined in on a nationwide tolling of bells in celebration.
Step back forty-six years in time to our nation’s Bicentennial by visiting the American Heritage Center where you can see the Daniel A. Nelson Bicentennial Collection.
Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.