WASHINGTON, July 4, 2011—Usually this column is about grief. Today’s column offers a change of pace to honor those who risked and gave their lives for this country, and for their survivors, who lamented their deaths while understanding why they died.
The Declaration of Independence: Why It’s So Hard for Folks to Read Today
Ever tried to read one of those reproduced copies of the Declaration of Independence sold in museum gift shops?
It’s almost impossible.
With access to the Internet available at almost every public library in the country, writers are advised to not crowd the page with text, make sure their fonts are large enough to read easily, leave plenty of white space, and add a few public-domain pictures if available.
When John Hancock took quill in hand, anything having to do with writing was expensive. This included such basics as paper, ink, and writing instruments.
As a result, people tended to write long paragraphs in a really small hand and clump everything together so as not to waste space. Now the opposite is true.
Did you ever notice that suitable-for-framing-and-hanging-in-the-family-room reproductions of the Declaration of Independence are always crinkly and yellowed, almost brown? And since these documents are usually all scrolled up, they want to keep rescrolling themselves.
Anyone seriously trying to read one of these ends up pressing down with both hands to squint at Hancock’s perfect-but-tiny 18th-century script or craning their necks and reading through highly reflective windexed glass hung on a wall just above their line of sight.
Yes, you can get through it, but by the end of it, you forget what you read when you started.
Back in the Day
Think about it: when John Hancock and his buddies signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, it was still white or maybe ivory or cream-colored. It wasn’t crinkly, and it was probably laid out flat on the table for the signers, not scrolled up tight, or under glass, or hung on a wall and hard to get at.
Furthermore, all the signers had gone to the same schools and were all taught to read and write the same cursive writing style when they were kids.
They treated it like the public document it was, with an immediate first printing and distribution of 200 copies, which was a lot back then. Today we treat it like a relic to be worshipped under the stern gaze of uniformed security guards and stylized murals of the founders elevated on high.
No complaints about that, but let’s bring the words to where they belong: fast-forwarded to now—our time, our homes.
First Impressions on Impressionable but Not-Quite-Ready Minds
The Declaration of Independence should never be presented as required reading; it is desired reading. It should be an essential part of every American’s education, but not just once.
Today’s kids might read the Declaration of Independence in middle or high school or maybe even both. If, as usual, every kid in the class is above average, they’re still not intellectually ready. Even for those students who understand the individual words, it’s really, really hard to understand the meaning inside those remarkable sentences.
Teachers may end up having to drag the class through it, fighting passive resistance, active resentment, and publicly expressed boredom all the way.
Why the Declaration Is for Grownups
There’s much more to the Declaration of Independence than simply, “We’ve had enough and we’re not going to take it any more!” Which is why it’s not a one-time read. The people who created it had already suffered plenty of grief at the hands of royalty, and they signed it fully aware of the future grief and impossible odds they faced.
Start off reading it as a kid before you’re ready—before you’ve suffered a little and learned a few lessons the hard way—and you’ll never willingly, or knowledgeably, look at it again.
The Declaration of Independence is for grownups and for people who plan to grow up. By reading it just once a year, Americans (and anybody else who takes it seriously) give themselves the opportunity to understand themselves as unique, changing individuals in civic and civil relationships with other unique, changing individuals.
What’s so remarkable is that the words resonate differently for individuals over time. Truly, reading the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 2010 and then reading it again today are two different experiences. Inquiring minds want to know.
How to De-iconize the Declaration of Independence
It’s only 1500 words and takes maybe 10 minutes, less if you read it silently. But reading the Declaration of Independence alone is like singing Happy Birthday to yourself in an empty room.
The point is to share it, and that’s best done aloud.
Funny thing is, some families can do sex education with more aplomb. So if you must, sidle up to sharing the Declaration of Independence in public with others. Start by reading it to yourself in private, first silently, and then aloud.
Still feeling shy? Remind yourself that the Declaration of Independence is unique in the history of the world. It’s one of the finest manifestations of free will ever, and it’s a clear-headed example of choosing the risk of grief and defeat over predictable, mindless obedience.
This is something you want for yourself and your kids, friends, and relatives, right?
Get Ready for Next Year
Perhaps you want to make reading the Declaration of part of your Independence Day tradition starting next year. Here’s how:
1. If you missed out last year, read it today, or tomorrow, or next week. Plan on reading it aloud at your next get-together on July 4, 2012.
2. In June 2012, figure out who’s going to read it. If not you, maybe one of your older children, or a friend, or even two people together or taking turns could do it.
3. Whoever reads it would need a brief rehearsal, but the Declaration can be read comfortably in a natural tone of voice. All readers have to do is practice pausing at the punctuation. No need to get twisted up anticipating those lengthy sentences; just slow up at the commas and pause at the periods.
4. To make the Declaration easier or read aloud or silently, I reformatted the text for modern readers. It’s got paragraphing, bullets, dashes, and lists. “Shewn” was changed to “shown.” The British-style spelling was retained as a starting point for talking about comparisons and contrasts, but only if somebody notices it.
5. Don’t read the Declaration at the beginning of the meal while everybody’s food cools in front of them. It’s assertive and subversive—not a prayer or a thank-you. Read it after the main course before people start playing or watching sports. During dessert is good. Serve patriotic sundaes: blueberries and strawberries on vanilla ice cream. Then stand up and read.
FREE! You can get the Declaration of Independence Reformatted for Modern Readers by emailing me from the top right of this page at Ask Frances a Question. [Subject line: Reformatted Declaration]
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Frances Ponick’s book, Only Angels Can Wing It: How to Prepare a Eulogy Quickly and Present It Compassionately, is available in paperback from the author and will soon be available online. She coaches written and verbal communications and is the writer’s block expert at AllExperts. Feel free to ask questions there, or connect with Frances at Twitter, Facebook, and/or LinkedIn. Read more about Stages of Grief in the Washington Times Communities.
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