- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Marylou Chicote, site administrator for a Revolutionary War monument in Vermont, was looking to make the Fourth of July about something more than barbecues and fireworks, so she turned to the piece of paper that started it all — the Declaration of Independence.

She recruited an actor to dress in Colonial-era clothes and perform a dramatic reading of the document in front of the soaring stone obelisk in Bennington to honor a famous battle there and bring the nation’s independence alive.

“It was a hit,” Miss Chicote says. “It makes people think about what the day means as opposed to just having a picnic.”

The tradition of reading the 1,300-plus word declaration dates to 1776, when it was disseminated around the colonies through public readings in town squares. The practice eventually fell out of favor, but some communities have revived it over the past decade to restore a more patriotic feel to the holiday.

Including the Declaration of Independence in Fourth of July festivities is a bit like “keeping Christ in Christmas,” says Jay Mechling, an American studies professor at the University of California at Davis. “That’s part of the anti-commercial, anti-materialism movement to talk about values rather than stuff.”

He attributes the return of the custom to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Ben Heckman decided to read the declaration from his second-floor balcony last year because he wanted his neighbors in Bexley, Ohio, to appreciate the efforts and courage of the nation’s Founding Fathers.

“Even if for one second they stopped and thought, ‘I can’t believe they did that,’ ” he says. “If I can make this more accessible to people, I’ll do it every year.”

The first time Jeremy Goodwin attended such a reading, he was struck by how poignant it was to hear the declaration read aloud.

“It’s so powerful and so moving to feel the resonance of those words and how relevant it still was,” says Mr. Goodwin, spokesman for the theater troupe Shakespeare & Co., which has organized an annual reading of the declaration in Lenox, Mass., since 2001.

The crowd responds with applause in spots, and some boos and hisses at the mention of King George III, Mr. Goodwin says.

At Miss Chicote’s Bennington Battle Monument, actor Willie Jones dresses in wool vest, pants and jacket for the event held there for about 10 years. He calls the oration a “magical” way to mark the birth of the nation.

“It’s a wonderful feeling to do it,” he says. “Every year, it seems more and more important to get the words of the Declaration of Independence out there.”

The audience rarely interrupts the performance, which prompts lots of conversation about personal freedoms. The addition last year of a high school choir singing patriotic songs and John Lennon’s “Imagine” heightened the impact.

“We had people tearing up,” Mr. Jones says.

The reading of the declaration is a perfect fit for Staten Island OutLoud, a community dialogue and performance group that promotes literature and cultural diversity in New York City. The group organizes two readings on Staten Island every July.

“The Fourth of July means barbecues, picnics and appliance sales to too many people,” volunteer Beth Gorrie says. “Think about what the day means, then, sure, go to the barbecue or go buy a toaster oven if you need it.”

The Declaration of Independence was written to elicit a response from the populace, says Brian LeMay, executive director of the Bostonian Society, where the document has been read each year since 1776 from the balcony of the Old State House.

“The declaration was drafted not just to be read by the king and parliament, but by the public,” Mr. LeMay says. “It was intended as a document that would be read aloud.”

On Staten Island, there’s often at least one recently naturalized citizen in the crowd, Miss Gorrie says.

“It causes us to stop and reflect about who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going,” she says. “It’s not just a day off of work. It’s a day we can enjoy because people gave their lives for us.”

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