Every year as Independence Day approaches, I grin and ask anyone I meet, "What are the first words of the Declaration of Independence?" This cheeky effort often surprises. One might expect dirty looks and sneers. But nobody minds my asking.
Over 15 years now, I've observed various reactions and responses. Typically the face yields a brief, pained expression and slight squint, as if summoning a memory of an old classroom. Many say, "I know I knew this."
About 98 percent can't say how it begins. Some 60 percent say, "We the people," some quickly realizing that's from the U.S. Constitution.
About 5 percent offer, "Four score and seven years ago." Even former President Bill Clinton once got confused, saying, "Last time I checked, the Constitution says 'of the people, by the people and for the people.' That's what the Declaration of Independence says!" No, those lines are from the Gettysburg Address, decades later.
Most American youth studied the Constitution at some length; far fewer the Declaration of Independence. But the Declaration, in Thomas Jefferson's beautiful language, enshrines the principles of liberty, individual rights and government's subservience to the people. The Constitution is much longer, drier and more functionary, dealing with the organizational structure of government -- branches, limits, rules and approval processes. Take out the Preamble and Bill of Rights, and it simply cannot inspire as the Declaration of Independence can.
Still, my annual question draws blanks. Even closer answers like, "We hold these truths to be self-evident" or "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are rare replies.
Still, my favorite answers are the wrong answers. From these puckish replies, I know folks have the idea, if not the words.
Monisha serves me at the cafeteria. When I asked her, she stopped her spoon mid-scoop. "First words? Must've been 'Hallelujah!' "
I asked some landscapers resodding a neighbor's lawn. They stood straight up, projecting that pained, faraway look. Suddenly one punched the sky and shouted, "Freedom!" We laughed, faces wider than the U.S.-Mexican border. I gave him points for capturing the spirit.
No matter the response, I hand each individual a copy of the text of the Declaration of Independence. Everyone thanks me. Many recall the first words once they see them; some admit they do not recognize them. Some say they plan to test their spouse or read it to their kids. I move on. Often I look back, finding the recipient reading intently.
At times I think I'm planting little seeds of liberty, one individual at a time, the American way. Then humility strikes.
Walking to the fireworks display one year, I passed a small, mixed crowd. One adult, with a Hispanic accent, asked, "Excuse me, are the fireworks this way?"
"Yes, just two more blocks. Or just follow me." Three very excited young kids from the group took my offer.
I asked, "Why are we celebrating today?"
"Because it's the Fourth of July!" one shouted.
"Yeah, but why is the Fourth of July different from any other date?"
"Because it's the day we got our Independence!" yelled another. He said it with a capital "I." I rewarded them with their own copies of the Declaration. Each unfolded it rapidly. One said simply, "Wo-ow." They thanked me and ran back to show the adults.
Suddenly, "capital-I" kid ran up beside me again, waving the paper at me. "Mister, I'm really glad we have our Independence!"
All I could get past the giant lump in my throat was a feeble, "I really am, too." I fought back tears as he ran off. Then I got a prideful swelling in my chest, feeling I'd made one youngster's holiday a little more meaningful. Then I realized I wasn't the first. Someone had already taught him the day's importance.
These words mean something. Dorlene's teachers, decades ago, taught her the meaning of the Declaration.
Springing into her office, I pitched my question. Dorlene smiled. "Oh, our teachers made us memorize the entire Declaration. We couldn't graduate junior high until we could recite it." But she was a bit upset at her inability to recall the first words.
I said that's a tough assignment.
Dorlene clarified. "It's too long to memorize. Our teachers were good. They told us 'these words mean something.' We had to understand the reasoning. That was the only way to pass."
She scanned the document again, apparently both savoring the words and scolding herself for forgetting.
Dorlene repeated, "They told us these words mean something," snapping the paper. "And they really do."
With no worthy follow-up, I walked back to my desk, covered with goose bumps. Once again, that said it all.
I'm glad we have our independence. The words of the Declaration of Independence do mean something. And every year, just by asking, I get these genuine, personal reminders that people know it.
Eric C. Banfield is a financial risk manager living in Brookfield, Ill. His favorite holiday is Independence Day.