The U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission, a federal body voted into life by Congress, approved by President Barack Obama, and appointed by President Trump to plan 250th birthday celebrations for the United States, gathered for the first time at Independence Hall on Friday for a closed-door personnel and organizing meeting.
The commission numbers 16 private citizens (most represent potential donors), eight members of Congress, and nine federal officials. Six of the 33 are from Pennsylvania: developer Daniel M. DiLella, the chairman; U.S. Sens. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) and Bob Casey (D., Pa.); David L. Cohen, the Comcast official who also chairs the University of Pennsylvania trustees; Penn president Amy Gutmann; and Andrew Hohns, an infrastructure-finance investor who founded the nonprofit USA 250 group in the late 2000s to spark interest. The group now hopes to coordinate private support.
The big Philly caucus reflects an expectation — others say it's not yet a certainty — that the city where the Declaration and Constitution were written will play a large role in the 2026 celebrations, said Jon Grabelle Herrmann, executive director of USA 250.
Organizers say a handful of big corporations have offered financial support, including Comcast, Johnson & Johnson, Walmart, and WPP, the public relations giant. New Jersey and Pennsylvania are among the states that are setting up state commissions.
The day before the first meeting, DiLella and other backers assembled in the snow at Bartram's Garden in Southwest Philadelphia for a ceremonial Franklinia tree-planting with the Daughters of the American Revolution, aided by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.
The DAR envisions a 250-tree "Pathway of the Patriots" along the Schuylkill River Trail from the city out to Gen. George Washington's winter campsite at Valley Forge, helping expand the rare tree species named for Benjamin Franklin by Bartram, the pioneer colonial botanist. That's the kind of historically rooted anniversary marker DiLella says he hopes states and towns across the United States will copy.
I asked if intellectually challenging and politically charged events would also be welcome. DiLella said it's up to towns and states to make proposals and organize most of the funding. The central body will coordinate and support major events, which takes a lot of planning and consensus-building. "We started with a blank piece of paper. We have to set up committees, approvals, bylaws, all the stuff you need to start a business," he told me.
The commission named Philadelphia's own Frank Giordano, the leasing-company executive and nonprofit-turnaround specialist who led the Philly Pops and has been DiLella's right hand in his early organizing work, as interim executive director. The New York PR firm Edelman is advising early outreach efforts. The Department of the Interior previously named the nonprofit American Battlefield Trust as the commission's administrative and fundraising support.
DiLella briefly set forth his marching orders as he sees them: "First, we're going to educate the country. Then, we're going to build infrastructure that takes us into the next generation." (Philadelphia got Fairmount Park from the 1876 Centennial, the South Philly stadium complex from the Sesquicentennial in 1926, and Independence Mall in preparation for the 1976 Bicentennial.) "And then the celebration, that brings us into the next period."