What we recognize of Independence
I wouldn't recognize George the Third if I saw him on the street. I have no idea what he looks like. I could look him up, of course, but I have no internalized sense of his face, or how he looked, or how he carried himself and would stand. If George the Third stood next to me, I wouldn't know. I could give him directions or say hello without even with the slightest sense of trickling recognition, that sense of knowing without knowing why one knows, of trying to place a face in a context and connect it with something. None of it.
Washington I would know. Even without the wig and in modern clothes, I think. I would recognize him, his face and how he stands, how he holds himself. Lincoln, for sure. Young or old. However much he did or did not match the pictures that we have on the penny and the five -- Lincoln feels as familiar to me a brother, and I think I could see him walking from across a field or far away and at his pace I'd quicken mine.
Franklin's easy, of course. Jefferson would be harder, but still. But George the Third, no, I'd never know "the present King" if I saw him.
It'd odd to me, reading the Declaration of Independence again today, hearing it again today, how much of it is historically contingent. How much of it applies to no one but those who signed, to no time or situation but theirs, except by the wildest possible reading.
Their are those few lines, of course, at the beginning, that move despite their situatedness, their contingent context and the way they're crafted from the stuff of philosophy and politics, stuff that doesn't always age as well as it's supposed to, but so much of it is a list of things no one before nor since has recognized. It, like history, happened once.
The present King and the colonial relationship, the facts presented to a candid world, the King who refused his Assent to Laws and forbade his Governors to pass some Laws of pressing importance, who endeavoured to prevent the population of these/those States: it's all so far away now. And of course that's not how we read it. That's not how we have read it, read it or will read, and of course there was no "we" when it was originally written, not even the fictitious "we" I imagine now. We are far too far from the original intent to read it that way, even if such a thing was there once or could be reconstructed, could be named and posited somehow singularly to the 56 signers scattered across the 1,300, 1,400 miles from South Georgia to North New Hampshire.
Our readings are all misreadings. But that's what makes them relevant. That's how it is applied to us. What's brilliant about the Declaration of Independence is exactly the way it has been and can be appropriated, misread by slaves, misread by women, misread by the poor and the masses, misread by the Vietnamese and French farmers, by poets and presidents, immigrants and itinerants and preachers of diverse creeds. What's so powerful about the words is how they have been gloriously and liberatingly misread and misunderstood, de- and re-contextualized and recognized on streets where they didn't belong, in places and contexts where they weren't conceived, without their wigs and in clothes that they didn't wear.The power isn't in the reading, and isn't in the words, but in the rereading, the misreading, and the reading again:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that
they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among
these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these
rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from
the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes
destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish
it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles
and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to
effect their Safety and Happiness.