Mr S and I joined other members of the 10th Mass and National Park Service staff and volunteers at the North Bridge in Concord, Mass last Saturday for the postponed reading of the Declaration of Independence. It was one of those perfect New England summer days, breezy blue skies and dry wind smelling of grass and flowers: days like that I finally get the Transcendentalists.*
Some of those present in modern and historic clothes alike had never heard or read the Declaration all the way through; it is one of my favorite documents, and not just because I was in a 5th grade play about the document. Questions of slavery and principles aside, the Declaration is a great poem of a break-up letter. It makes poetry of the list of King George III’s crimes and reminds us of the core principles that undergird our government and that began with the Magna Carta, limiting the power of the king.
Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed
Leaning against a tree near the North Bridge, you could close your eyes to the shorts and kayaks and baseball caps and listen to a document being read as it would have been 238 years ago, and imagine what it was like to hear this for the first time (at least until the airplane passed overheard).
I have a complicated relationship with patriotism, which makes me a curious candidate for this living history business. But that moment in Concord reminded me of the enthusiasm I had for history as a child, and the passion I had for what educators now call narrative play, and what some of us now grown up call reenacting, and others call historical re/creation.
There is something we can learn, as participants, and that the public can learn, as we go about this business of re-investigating the past, through making clothing and reading and cooking and re-learning historic processes and crafts. We may not always learn what we expect to about the past or about our selves, but if some in the audience enjoyed the smell of grass in the wind, and heard the true poetry of Jefferson’s text, maybe that’s enough to be getting on with. Because for all the questions about how a musket works, the real point of all of these events isn’t the musketry, it’s the history.**
*They clearly did not wake up to the “what the hell’s that smell?” game tidal canals like to start on summer mornings.
** Sorry, lads, but I think it’s true: wars are about words backed by muskets or other weapons.