A Declaration for All Generations

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Local Tiverton history buff and patriot-group advocate Sue Anderson organized her second annual Fourth of July reading of the Declaration of Independence at the Doughboy Statue near the old stone bridge for 9:00, this morning.  Volunteers from among the seventy or so people each read a few lines from the document.

Sue Anderson

The passage marked to read in the pocket Constitution that Sue handed me were these:

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.

It was from that passage through the end of the paragraph that some in the crowd began to exhibit a welling of emotion.  Although I was among those “some,” I would not presume to interpret the feeling for others, inasmuch as I could not quite interpret it for myself.  There was something of awe at the historic bravery of the signers listed on the next page, yes.  There was something of pride in being a constituent part of that brave experiment, true.

But it may be that there was a bugle-note’s more of fearful loss.

Two observations stuck me during the reading.  The first was how relevant so many of the enumerated complaints are in our time.  Of course, the specifics have changed, but the echoes are clear and deepening.

  • Refusal to “Assent to Laws” and having “utterly neglected to attend to them”
  • “Unusual, uncomfortable, and distant” convening of public bodies so as to make the process of self-governance more difficult and more amenable to a manipulative top-down will
  • Manipulation of “the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners” as a means of manhandling the balance of political power
  • Making “judges dependent” on the “Will alone” of political bodies
  • “A multitude of New Offices,” sending “hither swarms of Officers to Harrass our people, and eat out their substance”
  • “Standing Armies… kept among us, in times of peace”
  • Contriving “to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution,” giving “Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation”
  • “Abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments”
  • “Declaring” the altered forms to be “invested with power to legislate us in all cases whatsoever”

It is wholly unnecessary to assign these phrases to specific modern controversies. Anybody who is likely to acknowledge their relevance will have a sense of how they apply to the way in which our modern governments — federal, state, and local — treat the people.

Or then again, perhaps it is necessary. The second observation to strike me involved the words over which the adults stumbled.  The children who read hesitated over large or largely antiquated words, but the few hesitations and mispronunciations among the adults came with the markers of civic vocabulary — words like “legislature” and “appropriations.”

This is not a criticism of individuals.  People who have any specific interest should not expect that the words their brains have ready-formed in their mouths will be so natural to others, and even those who are very well informed, indeed, may be more accustomed to the sight of those words in print than the sound of them from lips.

What a project of education faces us, however, when even those who are inclined to stop of a fine summer morning to remember our history can be surprised by its relevance to our own times.  What of those driving by, or yet to wake up?

Where, I wondered, as we closed the pamphlets and chatted our well wishes, is our President?  Is he still in Africa, south of Egypt, where masses of people filling the streets this very week veritably embodied the Declaration’s assertion that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive… it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it”?  Could we, on our own continent, still articulate those words?

Perhaps the strange emotion evoked by our forefathers’ “pledge to each other” could best be characterized as the clash of, on one side, confidence that we will not live much longer without finding out the answer with, on the other, trepidation that for the first time in our history we will not recognize it.

 

Addendum: In fairness, I should note that the President apparently arrived back in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday night.