Denise Merrill, left, addresses the CT250 Commission. At right is the new state historian, Andy Horowitz. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

Connecticut’s new state historian, Andy Horowitz, sat in the Old State House on Wednesday, a member of a commission trying to decide how the state should celebrate the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution in 2026.

By design, the commission has a diversity that would be unimaginable to the men who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The chair is a woman, former Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, and members includes racial minorities, including a leader of an indigenous tribe nearly eradicated by colonists.

Merrill’s vision of the semiquincentennial is less a commemoration of battlefields and historic sites, though they will be promoted, than an exploration of American ideals.

“We’re hoping it will bubble up from the bottom,” Merrill said, adding that the commission will seek a contact in each of Connecticut’s 169 cities and towns.

The progress of their planning with be tracked on the commission’s web site, CT250.org. While the main celebration is three years away, Merrill said, “We are not exactly early. It takes a lot of planning.”

She said the commission, which was created last year, was challenged at an early meeting about the need to go outside history books and explore poorly documented aspects of the revolution, including the roles of women and Black soldiers. Merrill said the challenge was appropriate.

“I think the anniversary is an extraordinary provocation,” Horowitz said after the meeting Wednesday.

He means that in a good way.

“What we’re trying to do on the commission, and it’s one of the things that I want to do in my new role as state historian, is to help people so they can get to engage in acts of collective autobiography, to try to write our own story,” said Horowitz, a professor at the University of Connecticut.

The planning comes during one of America’s periodic paroxysms over what it means to be an American, whether there still are self-evident truths in the nation’s polarized politics.

In recent years, Connecticut has taken hard new looks at its founders over atrocities against the Mashantucket Pequots, the executions of women accused of witchcraft, and how southern slavery factored in the accumulation of northern wealth.

Horowitz’s predecessor, Walter W. Woodward, was called to testify at the state Capitol two years ago in what amounted to a trial about the conduct of John Mason, a founder of the Connecticut Colony and leader in the 17th-century war on the Pequots. At issue: Should a statue of Mason remain in one of the niches on the Capitol?

Woodward recommended Mason remain.

“As state historian, I believe history and the future are both best served by embracing the complex realities of Connecticut’s past, rather than by simplifying or erasing them,” Woodward said. “That past is filled with injustice, pain, inequity and violence. Our present moment has become a time of reckoning with these painful realities.”

Horowitz has yet to weigh in on Mason, whose likeness still looks out over Bushnell Park. But he said historians must be comfortable in confronting uncomfortable chapters of history, including the biographies of America’s founders.

“One of the obligations that historians have is to tell the truth, and I think that you respect people by telling them the truth and not lying to them either by omission or, by trying to make something complicated, appear to be simple,” Horowitz said. “A place as complicated as Connecticut, or the United States, are going to have complicated histories. We’re commemorating a revolutionary war here. So it is perfectly understandable that people are going to have very strong ideas and perspectives about what have always been very contentious events.”

Clear enough are the complexities and contradictions behind the most quoted passage of the Declaration of Independence: 

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

They were written by Thomas Jefferson, who owned and bedded slaves while so eloquently articulating the unalienable rights of man.

“We can look at the Declaration of Independence and recognize that Thomas Jefferson held people in slavery and also that the words he wrote about all men being equal animated much of the abolitionist movement, and both of those things can be true at the same time,” Horowitz said. “And one of the real challenges of reckoning with our history is understanding that both of those things are true at the same time.”

While the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 is deemed the birthday of America, the 250th will explore what came before and since the events of July 4.

“You can’t understand why that happened unless you ask about what gave rise to them before, and you can’t understand why they matter unless you understand the subsequent events they gave rise to that follow,” Horowitz said. “The events of 1776 are still unfolding today. And the way that I am approaching this anniversary is to try to understand why it matters to us today.”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.