Over the past few months, I have been extremely patriotic. Some may say over-patriotic. I have been to the Historical Society, watched HBO’s John Adams and sang along with 1776: The Musical. There is a central theme that ran through all three of these events that made this past Fourth of July an particularly meaningful one. All three events, to a certain degree, revolved around the Declaration of Independence, the document written by Thomas Jefferson stating the Congresses’ grievances against King George and its reasons for separation. What was left such an impact on the presentation of the Declaration during all three activities was how powerful the document became when it was read aloud, a far cry from the dry, silent readings I remember from my school days. I am ashamed to admit that throughout my history studies, even through my college years, never had I listened to the Declaration in its entirety until recently.
I am fortunate to have some wonderful friends in working in wonderful jobs that allow for some wonderful experiences. A few month ago, the Minnesota Historical Society was home to one of the original printed copies of the Declaration of Independence. I was fortunate enough to be invited by a friend to a sneak peak at the event. There was no glamorous set up. No red carpet to the document. Only a single docent standing ready to answer any questions we had about anything remotely related to American History. Standing in front of the page was truly amazing. This printed copy, which looks strikingly different from the handwritten page many of us are used to seeing, looked only slightly warn, baring the familiar signatures of the Continental Congress, dominated by that of John Hancock. It was truly a unique experience to see one of the original copies. After studying the page for a few minutes, I ventured down to a lower level where there had been a few banners set up in honor of the visiting display. Near one of the tables, there was a small television playing a video featuring a large handful of rather famous Hollywood personalities reciting lines from the Declaration. Although the actors would have no problem making the readings seem larger than life, there was no need; they read the Declaration with out excess pomp relying on the words to convey the emotion. This was truly successful. I stood mesmerized by the words I was hearing, imaging the courage it had taken the writer, along with the signers, to support the words on the page.
Watching John Adams and 1776, were no less effective in their efforts to give the Declaration life. While neither recited the Declaration completely, what they did was to give a sense of urgency to its creation and support by the Congress. It is one thing to read in history books about the desperate times in the American Colonies in the 1770’s, but it is quite another to see them as though you have an exclusive CNN coverage of the rebellion against the British Empire. And, it is another thing entirely to see the debates and arguments being sung and danced out as sort of West Side Story for colonial times. While John Adams and 1776 each took a completely different approach to how they addressed the Declaration’s creation, both were able to illustrate the power of its words and what it truly meant to declare independence.
After hearing the Declaration of Independence I am reminded of why I study history. This document is not one that is to be read to oneself. In order to fully appreciate the weight and tone it must be read out loud. Most of the population in colonial America were illiterate, or had very low reading level. That is why it sounds so much more powerful being read aloud. I have challenged myself to read, out loud, the Declaration in preparation for next year’s celebration.