Choices, Consequences, and the Declaration of Independence

I am a Public Historian and a Centennial Volunteer Ambassador at Guilford Courthouse National Military Park. I found my park by blending my Masters training in historic interpretation with my passion of empowering volunteers to interpret history themselves. My first history program involved creating a kid’s education program for my park’s July 4th observance. The main kid’s event involved signing an enlarged Declaration of Independence, and I wanted to give them a substantial understanding of why our Signers chose to commit treason and form our Nation.

I collaborated with our long-time volunteer interpreter Nancy Stewart, who knows the park and much of Revolutionary War history like the back of her hand. This was my first interpretation project and I was struggling to create a topic that could capture the short attention span of children, but still get into the meat of the event. Nancy suggested I turn to Common Sense by Thomas Paine for a narrative of why the Declaration of Independence was written and signed. Our park has an original pamphlet and we sold facsimiles of Common Sense. I then read 46 Pages: Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the Turning Point to American Independence by Scott Liell. Can we say star struck? The last time I analyzed Thomas Paine was early college, and I had forgotten just how powerful his ideas were for the time.

Paine’s influential ideas completed a feat that would be an ordinary occurrence for millennials. Common Sense went viral! After some research, I found that within the first three months over 120,000 copies were sold. His pamphlet was published in German and other languages, while making an equally big hit in France. Liell states “the number sold was probably still far below the true audience reached by Common Sense. As its reputation and popularity spread, individual copies were read and re-read to countless assembled groups in public houses, churches, army camps, and private parlors throughout the colonies.”[1] And that’s when I had my tie for kids – they watched YouTube, they know about viral videos – so why not learn about the first viral piece of literature in America?

I recruited three volunteers to deliver the program – a long term VIP interpreter, a high school AP US History teacher, and a high school student. We successfully delivered the program to 140 visitors – whites, African American, Swedes, and Brazilians. My volunteers wove a detailed narrative of what “Taxation without Representation” meant and Paine’s ideas of political representation. We also included the words of the North Carolina Signers of the Declaration, two of which are buried in our park. The presentation approach was simple and to the point, much like Paine’s pamphlet. I knew we could tie a kid’s annoyance of being told what to do by their parents to the lack of colonial representation.

My favorite moments during these presentations were the kid’s reactions. One of the VIPs asked a young girl if she knew what taxes are and her mother “said no she is too young,” and her daughter replied “No!! I’ve seen Robin Hood!” Color me impressed. Children listen, and pick up much more than we realize at times. As I wrote the program, I wondered how children would grasp the concept that signing the Declaration was treasonous and cost many people their lives. I could sense their understanding at the end when we invited them to sign the document; there was a mix of hesitation and enthusiasm. I hope that this program interrupted any simplistic ideas of American Independence they picked up with Hollywood.

Read the script here: Choices, Consequences, and the Declaration of Independence Program Script . If you choose to adopt it to your own museum or National Park, please contact me.

[1] Scott Liell, 46 Pages: Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the Turning Point to Independence (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2003), 16.

Kids signing the Declaration of Independence
Kids signing the Declaration of Independence

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