I do assign the Declaration on the syllabus, and when students arrive, I pull a simple trick to change how they encounter it. I give them a brief synopsis of the early months of 1776 and the push for independence (including the publication of Common Sense and essentially a synthesis of Pauline Maier’s argument about local moves for independence), make one cutting joke about John Adams’ poor prediction skills (I cannot resist, despite teaching in Massachusetts), and then ask students to stand up. Many people first encountered the Declaration, I note, not by reading it in a history textbook, but by hearing it—at their church, in a town square, at a public celebration. And then we read it. What could be more patriotic?
Once we’ve finished, though, students invariably notice things they never notice before. The first paragraph, that rhetorical icon passed down as the embodiment of the spirit of American freedom, now seems much more like a brief preface. What stands out in reading the document aloud are the grievances. Many had probably skimmed them (Lord knows I have many a time) because they just knew coming in that that part of the document wasn’t important. Many hadn’t even noticed the final paragraph, which is, of course, the actual act of declaring independence.
In this case, I haven’t invoked race, class, or gender. I suppose it’s a bit of a bottom-up interpretation to ask students to hear the Declaration rather than read it, but not by much. Yet that simple act opens up a world of questions that students can address. Instead of staid language the conveys some inherent notions about America, we can discuss why the Declaration looks the way it does. What purpose does that first paragraph serve? Why so many grievances? Who were the audiences?
Now we don’t get very far in fifty minutes, which includes fifteen to read the whole thing aloud, and the survey moves fast – I’m probably unusual in setting aside a full class period for it. But it opens a series of questions about American politics in 1776 that are far more interesting than simply conveying a narrative about America’s creation.