Every year on Independence Day, I like to read all the way through the Declaration of Independence — from the immortal opening lines to the self-evident truths that define who we are as Americans all the way to the end of the long list of grievances against the king. This year, I had the added pleasure of spending several hours yesterday reading through the material collected in Amy and Leon Kass’s new e-book The Meaning of Independence Day.
This anthology of essays, speeches, and stories is the latest installment in the Kasses’ series on the American federal holidays. It is suitable for both children — in the classroom or in a family-discussion setting — and adults wishing to reflect not just on the July Fourth holiday but more generally on the meaning and obligations of American citizenship.
The Declaration of Independence is included in the book, of course, as are numerous letters and texts by George Washington, John Adams, Tom Paine (“These are the times that try men’s souls”), and other figures from the founding era. There are poems and short stories from some of the greatest voices of the nineteenth century, from Hawthorne to Longfellow to Whitman. There are memorable holiday orations by political figures ranging from Horace Mann to Calvin Coolidge to Ronald Reagan. And there’s a smattering of songs, too, both obscure and familiar (who knew there are sixteen verses to Yankee Doodle?).
When we concentrate just on the opening passages of the Declaration of Independence, it is easy to forget that the subsequent list of grievances amounts to a fiery political rant. The Kasses include in their anthology another fiery rant modeled on the Declaration: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott’s famous 1848 Seneca Falls “Declaration of Sentiments” demanding equal rights for women. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal,” they write. “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman.” Modeling their document on the Declaration of Independence was a clever way of tying their then-radical political agenda to the nation’s cherished past, of seeming at once both revolutionary and conservative.
Among the most important participants in the Seneca Falls Convention was Frederick Douglass, the activist, writer, and publisher who had escaped slavery at the age of twenty. The Kasses’ book also includes a long excerpt from a famous speech Douglass delivered in 1852 called “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” In language that sears, Douglass indicts the hypocrisy of the individual and institutional defenders of slavery; in language that soars, he praises the Constitution as our “glorious liberty document.” If you have never read Douglass’s speech before — this was my first time — its power and eloquence will be one of the highlights of the Kasses’ book. (Over on the homepage, Rich’s latest column is about Douglass and says a bit about this extraordinary speech.)
Each of the readings in the Kasses’ book is prefaced by a few sentences that give some background information and ask a few questions to help readers appreciate the text. The most bracing of these questions may be the ones the Kasses ask in introducing the Declaration of Independence: “Imagining yourself in Philadelphia in July 1776, would you have pledged your Life, Fortune, and sacred Honor to support this Declaration? Would you — and in the name of what? — make such a pledge today to support the American Republic, should comparable support be needed?” These are questions we all ought to contemplate every year when July rolls around.
– Adam Keiper is editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.