Each year on July 4th, the Declaration of Independence is read from the balcony of The Old State House in Boston. I used to go listen to that reading with my family each year, so when I started spending the holiday weekend sailing on a friend's boat, I decided to bring along a copy of The Declaration and read it aloud to the few of us there. Reading The Declaration aloud has made me appreciate it far more than I ever did before and, interestingly, it has sounded different to my ears each time. Part of this is just the natural way a well written piece of philosophy unfolds with multiple readings, but there's more to it than that.
The Declaration of Independence is philosophy written to be applied to current events. It envisions a proper order to the world, and compares that vision with with how the English monarch was actually ordering one corner of it - our corner of it - back in 1776. I read this spirit in the words, and my thoughts turn from the dated events in the original document to the events of my lifetime, and of the specific year when I'm reading it. I read the same words every year, but they don't sound the same.
My listeners also hear more than just static words from a past century. Over my years of reading it aloud, they have accused me of adding words and passages for partisan political reasons - thinking that I was embellishing the original to accuse our current government of something. They have expressed doubt, disbelief, and more - always because something in that old document reminded them so much of current events that they assumed those pasages weren't original.
The list of complaints against King George is long and detailed, so there are plenty of opportunities to do what they accuse me of, but I have never changed or added even a single word in any of these readings. When I read, "He has made judges dependent on his will alone..." or, "He has affected to render the military independent of and superior to the civil power", some listeners thought I was accusing President George of those actions. In other years, people suspected I was making a modern political point when I read the complaints about limiting trial by jury, altering the forms of our government, using mercenaries to wage war, transporting people to foreign countries for pretended offenses, and more. The words donít change, but we hear them differently from year to year.
In 2008, I wrote to some progressive political organizations suggesting that they urge their membership to read The Declaration on July 4th. Later that day I opened the New York Times to find an Op-Ed by William Kristol urging the same thing for all Americans. The reasons he laid out in his article made it clear that he heard - and expected his readers to hear - a very different document than I did.
Later that year I voted for the candidate who I thought would most honor our Constitution in the wake of President George. I have watched that process happen in some ways and not happen in others, and each July the words of The Declaration sound a little different, as I read them aloud to those around me.
So now itís another year with another set of issues and challenges, old and new. Our government does what it does and avoids what it avoids. As July 4th approaches, I wonder how I will hear the words of The Declaration this year.
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