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I went to work in the Virginia State Library (now the Library of Virginia) on July 1, 1974, in the capacity of an assistant to Robert L. Scribner, the historian for the Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, which the General Assembly created in 1966 to develop and coordinate plans to commemorate America’s war for independence.

For more than a decade until 1983, events and programs were held around the commonwealth and three bicentennial centers opened (one of which transformed into the Yorktown Victory Center, now known as the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown).

The commission also recognized that the bicentennial provided an opportunity to expand research and education on the period and developed a program of scholarly publications. Scribner, who had an office in the basement of the old library building, was engaged in compiling, editing, and publishing the records of the Virginia conventions and committees that between 1774 and 1776 transformed the colony of Virginia into the Commonwealth of Virginia.

The documentary editors of Revolutionary Virginia worked on the mezzanine level of the Rare Book Room in the basement of the Virginia State Library building on Capitol Square (now the Patrick Henry Building).

Library of Virginia, Visual Studies Collection.

Scribner had succeeded state archivist William J. Van Schreeven in that work following Van Schreeven’s death. The project was well underway when I went to work because the commission had been established and begun its planning many years in advance of 1976. In 1973, Scribner had already published volume one of the seven-volume Revolutionary Virginia, The Road to Independence: A Documentary Record, and volume two was being set in type. I worked on the project for eight years and completed the series after Scribner died. I am the last surviving person who had any kind of substantive role in the publications project of the state’s 1976 celebration of 1776.

Published between 1973 and 1983, the volumes of Revolutionary Virginia contain all of Virginia's county, town, and state records pertaining to the actions of Virginians from the onset of the war to the signing of the Treaty of Paris, and were described by historians at the time as an unsurpassed contribution to knowledge of the Revolutionary era.

As the title to the documentary edition indicated, our focus was entirely on independence. The agenda for the commission’s publications and the state’s commemoration of the bicentennial had already been set long before I joined the staff, and I had no opportunity to redirect it. We did good work, I think, but the commission members were, for the most part, white, male politicians who knew little about the history or the historical literature of the period. For them, history was past politics and nothing more. They showed no interest in anything else or anything new.

Documents such as this August 1775 vote tally for the election of delegates to the Constitutional Convention are currently being digitized and made available online in the Virginia Revolutionary Conventions, 1774–1776, Digital Collection in the Library's Digital Collections Discovery.

The commission, its projects, and its programs completely ignored the campaign that began in 1776 and led to the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia a decade later, one of the truly great accomplishments of the epoch in the state.

We undertook no new research on—indeed, did not even consider—the consequences of independence and the Revolution on women. We did not consider whether or how slavery could be compatible with life in the democratic republic that independence created. Or any of the demographic, economic, or commercial consequences of the war. We did not even pay attention to the war.

We did not examine the influence of what I have subsequently termed “the Revolutionary Language of Liberty” that the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Declaration of Independence unleashed. The unintended promises of those documents, that all Americans, not just all white men, are born equal and are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness has animated much of Virginia’s and America’s histories (including campaigns to abolish slavery, grant all men the right to vote, and grant women the right to vote) and was at the heart of both the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements of the twentieth century.

We now know a great deal more about slavery, women’s history, the separation of church and state, demographic and economic history, and other topics that the bicentennial of independence overlooked. I’m looking forward to the ways in which the celebration of the 250th anniversary of independence explores these topics and the legacies of independence.

Brent Tarter

Co-author of The Campaign for Woman Suffrage in Virginia, and Founding Co-editor of The Dictionary of Virginia Biography

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