One of my favorite Williams summer traditions:

This year the Chapin Library at Williams College and the Williamstown Theatre Festival have prepared a video program of the annual reading of the Declaration of Independence and related documents.

We begin with a brief document of local interest. On May 10th, 1776, the Massachusetts legislature, called the General Court, asked the various towns of the state each to consider whether its people would support a declaration of independence by the Continental Congress, then meeting in Philadelphia. Williamstown replied on June 24th, sending its consensus under the name of Town Moderator Nathan Wheeler. In our program, the town’s response is read by local historian Dusty Griffin.

This will be followed by a reading of the Declaration of Independence, from the text passed on July 4th, 1776, when it was not yet a “unanimous declaration” – the delegates from New York State having abstained from the voting. The Declaration will be read this year by Williams College faculty, staff, and families, organized by Gretchen Long, Professor of History.

Next, Chris Waters, the Hans W. Gatzke, Class of 1938 Professor of Modern European History at Williams, will read a rare document sometimes called the British reply to the Declaration. This was a text issued by Admiral Lord Howe and General Howe, the King’s Commissioners for Restoring Peace in North America, on September 11th, 1776, speaking directly to the people when a late appeal to the Congress – basically, a demand for surrender – failed to stop the fighting. It was too little, too late, more than a year after Lexington and Concord. The “constitution” referred to at the end is the government and laws of Great Britain, embodied in King George and Parliament.

​Finally, please welcome Michael Obasohan, who has been part of the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Community Works initiative since 2016 as an actor and choreographer. Michael will read excerpts from a speech by Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Douglass was born into slavery, escaped to the North, and became a noted abolitionist, speaker, writer, and diplomat. In 1852, when he delivered this speech in Rochester, New York, African-Americans like himself did not have the freedom and independence praised in the Declaration, and of course that freedom is still in question today.

Kudos to all involved. Sadly, I could not figure out how to embed the video here. Is there a reason it is not up on Youtube or Vimeo?

It is a sign of my wrong-think that this passage from Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities comes to mind. The [white] mayor of New York City is talking with Sheldon Lennart, his press flunky.

As the comments argued last year, the fact that I would be reminded of this is another example of my wrong-think. Yet, if President Trump’s speech last night demonstrates anything, it is that there is a major divide in this country about both our past and our future. Ten (20? not sure) years ago, the 4th of July reading only included the Declaration itself (and other similar documents). Now, we spend 50%+ of the time its takes to read the Declaration on a Frederick Douglas speech.

What will this event look like 10 or 50 years from now? We will still read the words written by Thomas Jefferson, a slave-owner? Should we? I am interested in both the predictions of our readers and in their preferences.

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