What Is Living and What Is Dead in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, or, National Treasure and the State of Public Texts

By Epp, Michael | English Studies in Canada, June-September 2015 | Go to article overview

What Is Living and What Is Dead in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, or, National Treasure and the State of Public Texts


Epp, Michael, English Studies in Canada


For if it is true that all thought begins with remembrance, it is also true that no remembrance remains secure unless it is condensed and distilled into a framework of conceptual notions within which it can further exercise itself. Experiences and even the stories which grow out of what men do and endure, of happenings and events, sink back into the futility inherent in the living word and the living deed unless they are talked about over and over again. What saves the affairs of mortal men from their inherent futility is nothing but this incessant talk about them, which in its turn remains futile unless certain concepts, certain guideposts for future remembrance, and even for sheer reference, arise out of it.

Hannah Arendt

"The Revolutionary Tradition and Its Lost Treasure" On Revolution

THE HOME DEPOT, CAPTAIN KIRK, AND THE DOI

On 4 July 2001, the Declaration of Independence (DOI) Road Trip celebrated the second day of its official launch in Philadelphia. Sponsored by The Home Depot and founded by television and film producer Norman Lear, the Road Trip sought to bring "the 'People's Document' to the people" by carrying a Dunlap copy of the Declaration around the United States. The DOI Road Trip was specifically geared toward "young people" aiming "to inspire them to participate in civic activism, to exercise their rights, and above all, to vote" Throughout the tour, creative, even bizarre ways of presenting the text were practised, including a "once-in-a-lifetime" presentation of the DOI at a NASCAR race at the Daytona International Speedway on 4 July 2003, in which the copy of the Declaration was accompanied by Tony Stewart racing Home Depot's DOI-themed Chevrolet. But during the launch two years earlier, the people were presented with an even stranger spectacle, for the centrepiece "was an unprecedented live dramatic reading of the Declaration featuring distinguished actors, including Mel Gibson, Morgan Freeman, Kathy Bates, Michael Douglas, Whoopi Goldberg, and Kevin Spacey" The performance of the text of the DOI was broadcast nationally, and live, by ABC for their Fourth of July special. (1)

It was, of course, a simpler time. The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 were still two months away, and when Mel Gibson began the reading with "When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands" his words resonated more with his performance in Braveheart than they bumped uncomfortably against his disturbing rants to police. That summer, the road trip was simply resurrecting a particular text--the copy of the DOI bought by Lear from a man in Philadelphia who found it underneath a painting he bought "for four dollars at a flea market in 1989"--while bringing-the-People's-Document-to-the-people in a national political context still humming with complacent positivity after the boom of the late 1990s. Perhaps this accounts for the sombre clothing and serious facial expressions of the actors, who read the DOI from large theatrical folios, practising a kind of simulacrum of a grave dramatic reading. The incredible difficulty, indeed absurdity, of specifically performing a text that was never written to be entertaining, can perhaps be granted the gravitas it desperately seeks by virtue of the high stakes assigned to the reading itself, that is, the determination to reach the young people and get them to vote.

But as a dramatic performance, the strangeness of the reading dominates any other impression. Not only is the language of the DOI awkwardly out of place in a twenty-first-century television broadcast, the serious tone of the reading underscores the fact that the precise political position the DOI addresses can only be applied anachronistically to today. The dramatic reading of the denunciation, the list of grievances against the King, is (unsurprisingly) especially bizarre. Drawing on Pauline Maier's work on the making of the declaration, American Scripture, Jodi Dean explains that, even at the time of the writing of the declaration, the grievances were considered lacking in what a contemporary writer called a "lack of 'truth and sense'" and were instead simply evidence of George IIIS tyranny (55). …

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