There are many ways to celebrate the American brand of political freedom on this Independence Day weekend, and the bookish way is to take a moment to ponder the Declaration of Independence. Its words are so familiar that it can be hard to hear them at all, so try the mental trick of imagining what it was like to read this little document in 1776: It must have sounded like a blank check for uppity colonists to make whatever kind of government they wanted to. If it hadn’t been followed up by the Constitution within a few years, the Declaration would have come to signify something very different than it does. So try reading it as if today is 1776, and recapture some of the suspenseful drama these words produced on the world stage, as the world watched the American experiment. Then play the whole thing out mentally, and watch this stream of liberty flow between solid embankments of the Constitution, broadening out in Lincoln’s interpretation (four score and seven years downstream) into a mighty river of freedom. Then set off some fireworks if your local municipality allows it! The best online presentation I’ve seen of the Declaration is here, with lots of explanatory notes: hyperlinks that define its vocabulary by reference to Dr. Johnson’s dictionary, historical background on George’s abuses, etc.
And here‘s a fun project, if your idea of fun involves translating eighteenth century documents. The Declaration in foreign translations. If you know another language (which they say is a pretty un-American thing to do, but I don’t believe them), hear how the Declaration sounds in Italian:
Noi consideriamo come veritÃ evidenti in se medesime che tutti gli uomini sono stati creati uguali; che han ricevuti dal loro Creatore certi diritti inalienabili; che nel numero di questi diritti vi sono, la vita, la libertÃ , e la ricerca della felicitÃ ;
(Oooh, diritti inalienabili, cool!) or Spanish:
Nosotros creemos ser evidente en sÃ mismo, que todos los hombres nacen iguales y dotados por su Criador de ciertos derechos inagenables: que entre estos son los principales la seguridad de la libertad y la vida, que constituyen la humana felicidad:
(Oooh, derechos inagenables, I want some of those!), or German:
Wir halten diese Wahrheiten für ausgemacht, daß alle Menschen gleich erschaffen worden, daß sie von ihrem Schöpfer mit gewissen unveräusserlichen Rechten begabt worden, worunter sind Leben, Freiheit und das Streben nach Glückseligkeit.
(Yeah, unveräusserlichen Rechten! And a little bit of Streben nach Glückseligkeit to boot!) It’s also available in French, Hebrew, Russian, Japanese, and the Malay language. In most cases, it’s re-translated back into English so that even if you don’t know the other language you can see what becomes of the founders’ words in a foreign tongue. What I’d like to see is an Arabic translation of the Declaration. Come to think of it, I bet they’d like to see that in Iraq right about now, and in a host of other places in the Arab world. Somebody should put that on their to-do list…