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Constance Alexander: Reading of Declaration of Independence inspires quest for knowledge

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 The Visitors Bureau of Murray, Ky., promised that July 4 would be a day of, “Family fun and patriotic spirit” with a “jam-packed” calendar of events

They were not kidding.

Alexander

Starting on June 29 with Lil’ Mr. and Miss Freedom Fest pageant, the lead-up to Independence Day included the Murray Art Guild’s 50th birthday celebration, a 5K race, a Boy Scout Memorial Breakfast, a parade down Main Street, two concerts, and then the annual fireworks extravaganza, sponsored by the local Briggs & Stratton plant.

In the midst of all the hoopla on the 4th, there was a public reading of the Declaration of Independence at 11 a.m. on the west side of courthouse square. Individual readers were responsible for portions of the Declaration, and at the end, everyone in attendance was encouraged to join Mayor Jack Rose in reading aloud the final paragraph of the document that marked the beginning of independence from Great Britain and the tyranny of King George III.

According to the invite sent to local readers by Jane Shoemaker, City Council member and Regent of the Captain Wendell Oury Chapter of the DAR, the Declaration is “the real reason we celebrate July 4.”

I heartily agree, so when I was asked to read a section I was honored and excited to participate.

Independence Day, after all, is more than 5K’s, fireworks, and family barbecues. It is a reminder of the sacrifices and risks taken to break ties with England and, ultimately, to establish the United States of America and the Constitution.

What can get lost in the celebration is that the Declaration was a daring document. Just signing it marked a person as a traitor to the Crown, subject to execution. This goes way beyond electronically signing a bogus Facebook petition, where the biggest risk is being “unfriended.”

The Declaration of Independence used to be read aloud at public gatherings every Fourth of July. Today, while most Americans have heard of it, too few are unable to explain the difference between it and the Constitution.

According to a 2014 survey of 1,416 adults conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania:

  • Slightly more than a third of respondents (36 percent) could name all three branches of the U.S. government, and about just as many (35 percent) could not name a single one.
  • Slightly more than a quarter of Americans (27 percent) know it takes a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate to override a presidential veto.
  • One in five Americans (21 percent) incorrectly thinks that a 5-4 Supreme Court decision is sent back to Congress for reconsideration.

When the dismal results were released, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Center, expressed dismay and concluded that the survey “offers dramatic evidence of the need for more and better civics education.”

More recently, a 2016 study from Stanford University evaluated students’ ability to assess the validity of information sources, and found the results not only “dismaying” and “bleak,” but also “a threat to democracy.”

For instance, most middle school students could not tell the difference between a news story and a story branded as “sponsored content.” Most high school students accepted photographs as presented, without verifying them, and could not distinguish between real and fake news sources as reported on Facebook. Shockingly, most college students did not suspect potential bias in a tweet from an activist group.

Some insist the schools are at fault, but others realize it may be time to accept the personal responsibility to become informed. ConstitutionFacts.com – featuring extensive information and short quizzes — is a good place to begin.

If that happens, perhaps on July 4, 2018, even more people will throng the courthouse square in Murray, Ky. for the reading of the Declaration of Independence, and join in “support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence,” mutually pledging “to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

Constance Alexander is a columnist from Murray, Kentucky. Contact her at constancealexander@twc.com.

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