Reading the Declaration

Can we revive an old custom?

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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

15 thoughts on “Reading the Declaration”

  1. No living Declarations, please. We’d probably end up disagreeing about what to leave out, and, if you’re going to read the Declaration, you ought to read the actual Declaration, not some edited, PC version.

    And, while we’re at it, how about singing all three stanzas of the national anthem?

  2. In Leonx, MA, they read the Declaration every July 4. I was there in 2008. I had long since resigned myself to the Republicans always winning Capture the Flag. But here was liberal Lenox, all red, white, and blue, and very anti-Bush, with people taking turns reading the Declaration. The guy sitting beside me said that the when the readers came to the list of grievances against the king, instead of saying “he,” they should have just said “George.” At those items that had contemporary overtones, the crowd applauded enthusiastically (“He has made judges dependent on his will alone.”). And the passage about the “merciless Indian savages” evoked a collective discomfort – silent but palpable nevertheless.

    I think they read it on NPR too.

  3. They read it on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art every year. Dunno if expurgated or not.

  4. So, was Jefferson “sore” when he wrote the Declaration? Didn’t know that!

  5. Well, the whole thing, anyway. It’s a pretty good song.

    “At those items that had contemporary overtones, the crowd applauded enthusiastically”

    You mean, like “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.”? Yeah, it’s actually kind of scary how much of the Declaration has current relevance. For instance, “For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:”

    Lon Horiuchi, anyone? That’s exactly why he’s not in prison to this day.

  6. They read it on Morning Edition on NPR every year. The whole thing, “merciless savages” and all.

  7. True, the grievances include the aforementioned swarms of officers. It is a bit down the list, though.

    The grievances were presented in a particular order, and the first several dealt with the King’s interference with passing laws of “immediate and pressing importance” and “for the accommodation of large districts of people .” He had dissolved legislative bodies “whereby the legislative powers, incapable of annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise; the state remaining in the meantime exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.”

    The swarms of officers had not been appointed by elected representatives. The usurpation of legislative powers by the Crown, not the legislative powers themselves, were the focus of the signer’s wrath. They wanted plenty of laws; they simply did not want Britain to make them.

  8. Wouldn’t July 4 be a good time to consider whether the colonists’ grievances were worth young men’s lives, even apart from the fact that the freedom that the colonists sought was solely for white males?

  9. They read it every year on the steps of City Hall in the town I grew up in. And at the Independence Day celebrations in the town I live in today. Of course, I grew up and live in New Hampshire; we take both our history and our liberties pretty seriously. I’m sure a lot of other small towns across the country can say the same thing.

  10. We read the Declaration at my 4th of July party last year–people started out rolling their eyes and ended up reading and listening with enthusiasm.

    This year, one of Chicago’s theater companies organized 100+ actors, directors, designers–and, for some reason, me–to read the document aloud on the stage of the Pritzker Pavilion, the city’s premiere downtown bandshell. It served as a curtain-raiser for the 4th of July band concert. I don’t know whether the audience got into it (there was one guy who shouted “Liar!” after one clause, whether ironically or not I don’t know) but those of us reading it–even those reading just the name and stage of a signatory–were transported.

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