Mark Twain records that, in his Missouri boyhood, a Fourth of July celebration culminated in a reading of the Declaration of Independence. It’s a custom that seems to have virtually disappeared, and which might usefully be revived.
Of course, you’d have to decide whether to expurgate the embarrassing bits of the catalogue of grievances: the complaint about “exciting domestic insurrections” (i.e., slave rebellions) and the nasty reference to Native Americans as “merciless savages.” I’d vote for leaving them in, on the Cromwellian principle that even heroic figues should be portrayed “warts and all.” But there’s a case for omission as well; racism, surely is “a custom more honored in the breach than in the observance” in the original sense of that phrase: something more honorable to omit than to follow. Or you could chicken out – and shorten the observance – by omitting the entire catalogue of grievances, leaving in the general arguments with which the document begins and ends.
The only time I’ve known the reading carried out was at a party my housemate and I gave in Cambridge fifteen or twenty years ago. The crowd seemed to regard it as fitting, or at least interesting enough to listen to; at my housemate’s suggestion, we balanced Jefferson’s rather soring prose with the more sobering poety of e.e. cummings’s i sing of olaf glad and big.
Unless there is a conscious and sustained effort to reaffirm the meanings of our customary observances, those meanings tend to be eroded away: as Christmas now means bad music, heavy food and the worship of material possessions, so the Fourth of July is now a celebration of beer and fireworks. It’s worth pushing back.
To recapture the sense – strongly expressed in Lincoln’s rhetoric – that the Declaration marked an epoch in human history, and that all Americans had an obligation to make the resulting experiment in self-government a success – would be a long step back from the abyss into which our political system is currently staring.