A Declaration Worth Declaiming

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2017/07/04/a-declaration-worth-declaiming/

An online poll came up on the computer screen last week with one question:  Have you ever read the Declaration of Independence?

Why yes, I thought. Once a year. Out loud. To a hostile audience.

It’s not that they’re fans of King George III. It’s just that anything that takes away from hot dogs, hamburgers, Cape Cod potato chips, and root beer is The Enemy.

The Declaration of Independence is today treated mostly as a shibboleth. It’s something to refer to (in a vague way), particularly useful in a history final exam essay or a hot-air political discussion. But the details, beyond Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, are lost in the fog of Long Ago Land. Most people would just as soon read Magna Carta in the original Latin as they would the Declaration.

For me, though, the Declaration of Independence is an emotional experience. And that emotion is mostly anger. I get angry on this day every year reading it. A lesser emotional response, which ought to be more prominent, is gratitude.

It takes about eleven minutes to read the Declaration of Independence out loud. Allowing for 18th century circumlocutions and a little bit of hyperbole — not a lot — it’s at least as powerful as it’s rumored to be. It’s easy to imagine Thomas Jefferson’s indignation rising as he sat at a desk during a hot June day in Philadelphia, quill in hand.

There are 27 accusations made against George III in the declaration. Several have to do not with the broad American experience but with the Boston experience. Here are a few:


“For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us”

Residents of the town of Boston had little choice when it came to giving over portions of their houses to British officers when the British army showed up on Long Wharf on October 1, 1768. British troops stayed in Boston until March 17, 1776, when George Washington kicked them out, never to return. This experience led eventually to the Third Amendment of the federal constitution. You almost never hear it mentioned because it’s unthinkable that the U.S. military would demand living quarters in someone’s private home. But for Boston residents, such obtrusiveness was part of their daily life.


“For protecting them, by mock trial, from punishment for any murders which they should commit on the inhabitants of these states”

This passage refers first to the so-called Murder Act of 1774; but it also calls to mind the Boston Massacre, when on Monday, March 5, 1770 a group of British soldiers fired into a mob. The two trials afterward resulted mostly in acquittals, with two soldiers getting relatively light punishment. Today the trials are often presented as examples of American magnanimity and sense of fair play, along with two cheers for the brilliance of defense lawyer John Adams. But actually, the juries were stacked with Loyalists who were unlikely to stick it to the troops they themselves had called for and depended upon against the Patriots. They looked like real trials, but the outcomes were never in doubt.


“He has dissolved representative houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.”

The British royal governor Thomas Gage’s decision to dismiss the Massachusetts colonial legislature in September 1774 because he didn’t like what they were doing is as outrageous as it sounds. The colonial legislature didn’t accept it, and instead formed the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, which ruled most of Massachusetts outside Boston until the new state legislature was formed late in the war.

Governors and presidents in America nowadays try to manipulate legislatures or get around them; but it’s hard to imagine a chief executive officer claiming he can dispense with them entirely.


“He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance”

We’ve all heard that the American Revolution was about taxes. But it was about a lot more than that. Not only did the British government try to tax Americans directly without their say. They also tried to take away local control over judges, the governor, and even Town Meeting. They also intended to use a portion of the expected tax money to enforce government policy. Bureaucrats in London intended to use some of the funds the government collected from Americans to pay for the British Navy to patrol the American coast to prevent what the British considered smuggling. The London bureaucrats also intended to hire more bureaucrats to enforce government regulations on land in America.

In short, Americans were subject to unaccountable far-away authorities charging them taxes they had no control over and using some of it to send government men to enforce unwanted and increasingly burdensome laws and regulations that threatened their way of life.

We should all be grateful that that sort of thing doesn’t happen nowadays.


Matt McDonald is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of New Boston Post. Read other articles by him here.