On memorizing the Declaration of Independence … again

by Glenn on July 10, 2016

Eight years ago, I memorized and recited The Declaration of Independence for a school and a church gathering. Among other reasons was the desire to see if I could do it. I wanted to be the kind of person who could, at least once in life, recite the Declaration of Independence from memory.

This year, there were a couple of motivators. First, I wondered if I could do it again, to see if my now 52-year-old brain still worked well enough. Happily, the answer was yes, with one minor mishap when I gave a formal recitation.

Second, it was a pleasant distraction from the mess that I would call our coming presidential election, which I think is the choice between a criminal and a crazy person. I feel sort of like this:

A bumper sticker created for this year's election which reads,

A rather sarcastic, yet somehow appropriately worded bumper sticker for the coming election year.

Perhaps more on that some other time.

I am grateful for my Central East Portland Rotary Club who allowed me to recite the Declaration at our regular Thursday morning meeting on June 30 before the July 4 holiday weekend. They couldn’t have been more respectful and engaged listeners and more affirming of the effort. A number of members said they had never heard the whole thing read aloud, yet alone recited from memory.

The last time I memorized the Declaration, I came across this video, which I’ve never been able to find in anything close to high resolution. The introduction, by Morgan Freeman, feels especially poignant.

In the introduction, Mr. Freeman says that the Declaration was written to be read aloud. Memorizing helps you “own it” better and heightens the impact.

The act of memorizing isn’t easy for me. I consider myself having better than average intellectual capabilities, but my memory is neither photographic nor exceptional. I have no one else’s experience to compare to and I marvel at stage actors who make it all look so easy.

I allowed about six weeks this time. As I recall, I took several months last time. I’ve learned that unless there is a reason to rush (e.g. you’re an actor and it’s your job to memorize quickly for a coming production), it’s somewhat counterproductive to do so. It takes a certain amount of time to get things into the part of your memory where you can recall them without effort. The more you try to force that process, which can add needless and hindering tension, you make it harder. (Corollary: The more quickly you have to memorize something, the more important staying relaxed becomes.)

To memorize the Declaration, I broke it up into parts. It naturally fell into four sections when I printed it out booklet-style on a letter-sized paper printed landscape and folded in half (see: DeclarationHalfSheet):

i. The opening
ii. 3 sets of 4 + a 13th that sets up …
iii. the 9 “For’s” (3 x 3) + 5 final “He has …”
iv. The conclusion: “Nor have we …” + “We, therefore, …”

So then the goal is to get a section at a time. My process is to block off some time most days and set modest goals for how much I want to get down in a particular session (this is a major project and attempts to multi-task in a session won’t help) while paying attention to the bigger picture of needing to get one section each week to allow a margin at the end for catching up and/or getting comfortable. Sometimes it seems to come easy; other times you wonder if you will ever get it.

Note: I use the text that you find at the National Archives. There are other versions out there, but I’ve noticed that a word or two will get changed or added, which is troubling when you’re trying to get it right. For example, I’ve seen “to dissolve the political bands” become “political bonds” on a website that purports to show the “final version of the text,” and heard “totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation” become “unworthy of the Head” on an audio performance. Obviously, these are small things, but annoying when accuracy is the goal.

The process of memorization that works for me goes like this: I read from start to finish (Sometimes I read the whole thing, sometimes a section as I outlined above, and sometimes just a sentence or two I want to get down. I think it’s helpful to vary the scope you are working on and take both a forest and the trees approach to how much to tackle at one session, time available, of course, a factor in how much to take on at a time.) and then start over from memory. As soon as I can’t remember any more, I read the rest of the passage. Then I start over from memory again, going as far as I can until I go back to reading. I suspect the more you train your mind to memorize things, the easier it gets.

The more you can do this aloud is good.

You work at it and then go do other things, like your job or sleep. I feel like some memory work before bed is helpful, but this is anecdotal and I have no idea if it is actually better to do it that way.

I supplement my memory work with a CD in the car. I talk along with the CD until I get to a passage I don’t know, then I simply listen.

And then I review. While I’m watering the tomatoes, it’s good to run those lines. When I climb on the elliptical machine at the gym, I can get a decent 10-minute warm-up in once I can recite the whole thing.

As far as reciting in front of people, well, that adds a whole other layer of something, doesn’t it? I am used to being in front of people, but when you “perform,” that turns this whole enterprise into a risk. What if you forget a line? It happens. It happened this time and I stopped to go back and pick up a “He has …” that I noticed I had forgotten to say. Slightly embarrassing but not world-ending in front of a generous crowd. (I probably could have let it go and kept going once I realized what had happened, but vanity kicked in—I saw someone in the back of the room who I think was following along on his phone and I felt self-conscious.)

It’s strange, to recite the Declaration I need to be in the moment, saying the words that come next, but I also need to be a step back seeing the overall structure so that I know where I’m at and what’s coming next. I don’t know if that’s the best way, but it’s the way I know.

Someone once asked me if I got nervous when I gave sermons at church. I said, “No,” which I admit now was a lie in the sense that that answer needed some qualifying. Am I terrified to speak at church? Absolutely not. Is there some anxiety? Actually, yes, but it’s not debilitating. I’m simply uptight knowing there is this thing I need to do that requires adequate preparation.

One of the most enjoyable things for me to do is to speak to a group of people when I am adequately prepared. The anxiety I feel in those situations is simply a reminder that I need to pay attention and be ready for the experience.

By contrast, one of the most painful things for me is to speak extemporaneously, or to go into a speaking experience under-prepared, which is why you can’t understate the value of high-stakes rehearsals—for example reciting out loud while imagining yourself at the actual performance—which are essential to helping you cope with that both troubling and helpful dose of adrenaline that predictably hits you when you take the stage.

As you gradually get more and more of the Declaration into your memory, things come up that need to be dealt with.

You realize you need to be concerned about the quality of your speaking voice—searching for the mellifluous—although it’s tough to be working on the quality of your speaking voice when you’re simply trying to learn your lines and manage the rest of your working and waking life. So you do the best you know at the moment—get tension out of your body, warm up your voice, and hum a lot.

Then you realize your articulation is important. I’ve heard it said that the emotion of a talk is found in the vowels, but that the understanding of a talk is in the consonants. With the Declaration, you want people to understand the words so you’re keenly focused on those consonants while trying not to sound like you are over-enunciating.

You want to sound natural while saying things in ways that people don’t say them anymore (for example, “Prudence, indeed, will dictate …” and “such is now the necessity which constrains them …”).

Adding to the challenge is  a combination of unfamiliar words (“magnanimity” and “consanguinity”), words that are susceptible to  sloppiness (for example, “foreigners” can easily become “farners” when you’re not careful and it’s tough to make the word “facts” not sound like “fax”), and difficult word combinations (“light and transient causes,” “public good,” and “submitted to”).

All of this makes me admire people, particularly good preachers and good actors and good radio hosts, who excel at the above and aren’t in the way when they speak.

(NPR offers a recitation of the Declaration each Fourth of July. I’ve recently eased my self-imposed ban on NPR and listened to this year’s rendition:

Interesting for me this year was how much I enjoyed so many of the actual voices and how, in one case early on, I felt like the person was absolutely in the way. Where most of the readers were simply reading the Declaration, this one person seemed to be saying, “Listen to me as I show you how much gravitas I can display as I read.” Something else I noticed: it’s hard to know how much of a dramatic arch to put into the reading. You don’t want to be a monotone but it’s tough to heighten the drama without going over the top. With so many people involved, the NPR rendition suffers a bit from a varied pacing and the practical necessity of holding a more neutral emotional line throughout.)

There seem to be three natural places to build toward—three lines that allow for some increased energy. The first is at the end of the introduction:

“The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”

The following line, “To prove this …” allows you to step off the gas a bit before heading into the “He has …” section, which is one long slow build toward,

“A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”

The final apogee arrives with,

“That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved …”

As far as tempo, I don’t feel the need for too much pushing and pulling. An even pace seems to work, although the nine lines that begin “For …” are a natural place to increase speed and convey urgency.

*   *   *

Part of the value of memorizing the Declaration is that you are thinking about the words in a different way. As you practice, you are in a way meditating on these words. As a Christian, the Declaration is a complicated document. One the one hand, you get four distinct references to God. They are bookends—two early on and two at the end:

“nature’s God”
“Creator”
“the Supreme Judge of the World”
“Divine Providence”

While I am not among those who proclaim this to be “a Christian nation” and have mixed feelings when I hear talk of “a shining city on a hill,” it’s hard not to lobby for some form of American exceptionalism and believe in what feels like a miraculous quality to the origin of our nation—considering the death of both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams within hours of each other on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration always gives me pause.

At the same time, it could be argued that the Declaration itself was a sin.

1 Timothy 2:1–2 says,

“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”

The apostle, Paul, offers a prayerful rather than a revolutionary alternative to a government you don’t like. Even more ominous, though, is his warning in Romans 13:1–2:

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” [emphasis added]

And while the document declares “that all men are created equal,” neither inclusive language nor equal treatment of women were priorities of the day.

The document also ignores the issue of slavery. I didn’t realize that Jefferson, in a draft, had actually included a passage on slavery (see here) that began like this:

“he [King George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.”

The irony that Jefferson, himself, owned slaves is tough to reconcile.

Further, we can’t speak of the greatness of this country without at least acknowledging another original sin. As a Christian and an American citizen, I feel all sorts of tension from living with dual citizenship. In fact, there’s probably something wrong with you if you don’t feel that tension. The whole notion of a “manifest destiny” for “us” required the death or subjugation of “them,” Native Americans, indigenous people who were living here before “we” arrived. And talk of “us” and “them” doesn’t exactly display a gospel sentiment or thinking pattern.

In the video referenced earlier, there is a surprise. One of the actors, who appears to be Native American, reads the line which says,

“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

It’s quite a moment.

*   *   *

No commitments or predictions at this point, but I do want to get back to memorizing more things—scripture, poetry, and more American documents. (Lincoln’s Gettysburg and Second Inaugural seem logical and I’d like to memorize Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, but I think it may be too tied in to his unique voice and speech pattern for me to ever say it aloud to anyone.)