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There are different ways to become familiar with our nation’s founding documents: reading, memorizing, studying, reciting are a few. But in our keyboard- swipe-click-centered world, rewriting by hand is not one that immediately comes to mind.

A story feature in the NYTimes The Constitution, By Hand (6/30/17) written by Morgan O’Hara explained her process for copying the United States Constitution out by hand with a few sharpies. She noted that:

Hand copying a document can produce an intimate connection to the text and its meaning. The handwriter may discover things about this document that they never knew, a passage that challenges or moves them. They may even leave with a deeper connection to the founders and the country, or even a sense of encouragement.

Whatever her original intent for deciding to hand copy the lengthy document, her explanation for discovering things about a text echoes the arguments put forth about close reading that were initiated with the Common Core. Close reading requires students to read and reread a text several times; each time for a different purpose.

The first reading is to understand what the text says. The first reading is for comprehension: Who (character); What (events); Where/When (setting); Why (plot or information) questions asked.

It is the second reading, however, that asks a reader to become familiar with how the text operates:

-What does _____ this word mean in this context?
-How is the text organized? (sequence. cause and effect, compare/contrast, description)?
-What ways does the author use punctuation to control the reading of the text?

Asking students to write out by hand the  United States Constitution with the Bill of Rights is akin to having them perform a second close read. In copying the words and the punctuation and imitating the structure (sequence),  they could, like O’Hara, focus on how the text operates. How this particular text operates is exactly what constitutional scholars, lawyers, and judges debate regularly in courts.

How the Text Operates

For example, if you copy out the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, you will notice that the framers used three commas and two semi-colons in order to to separate clauses:

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Recently, the first semicolon after thereof was at the heart of the case (January 2010) Citizens United . The Supreme Court determined that this semicolon links the free exercise of religion and the free exercise of speech and that the framers did not mean that each clause of the First Amendment should be interpreted separately. The decision gave corporations the same free speech rights as people, and that corporations should have the same free religious exercise rights as people as well.  Handwriting the First Amendment and pausing to consider that semicolon can bring attention as to how the author(s) or Founding Fathers used punctuation to control the reading of the text.

Punctuation in the Declaration of Independence is also recently under scrutiny. Danielle Allen, then a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., caused a stir when she located an extra period on an original copy of the document at the National Archives after the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (see photo clip)

National Archive copy of the Declaration of Independence (with questionable period)

Allen suggested that this period -which could be an ink blot- might be misinterpreted to mean that that the list of self-evident truths ends with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Ink blot or intentional sentence stop, Allen argues that Thomas Jefferson did not intend to separate the phrase using a period, but had intended a continuation with the phrase that follows:

“— 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.”

In an article that followed in The Atlantic, Have We Been Reading the Declaration of Independence All Wrong?Allen explains,

“The logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights…You lose that connection when the period gets added.”

Legislators and scholars have argued about the intent of Thomas Jefferson since the release of the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. Students should have the opportunity to add their voices to the impact of different interpretations on their lives as well.

Muscle Memory

Outside of noting the punctuation in primary source documents, there is a fair amount of research that promotes the writing by hand as a great instructional tool in developing muscle memory, which is described on the Logic of English research blog as meaning “the students can write quickly and legibly with little conscious attention.” Writing by hand helps students as a multi-sensory approach to reading and spelling. This understanding contradicts long held beliefs that copying does not improve understanding. There may have been examples of monks who copied Ancient Christian manuscripts who were unable to even read, but in these cases the goal was artistic, not  literacy. Moreover, in the 21st Century, there is an increase in attention being paid to the loss of writing by hand in our tech obsessed culture.

New research shows that a multi-sensory approach that combines the finger movements (kinesthetic) with the sensorimotor part of the brain shows how writing by hand helps us recognize letters. Researcher Anne Mangen (The University of Stavanger-2011) explained the connection between reading and writing and how the sensorimotor system plays a role in the process of visual recognition during reading, saying:

“The process of reading and writing involves a number of senses. When writing by hand, our brain receives feedback from our motor actions, together with the sensation of touching a pencil and paper. These kinds of feedback is significantly different from those we receive when touching and typing on a keyboard.”

Feedback like this may be helpful to students. Of course copying the primary documents such as the United States Constitution or the Declaration of Independence in their entirety would be a lengthy commitment. Copying entire sections or even phrases, however, can give students that same kind of motor action and brain feedback and help them better appreciate a passage for what it says (meaning) and how it says it (text structure).

At the very least, they will experience the same process of duplicating these documents in the authentic way they were created by our Founding Fathers….by hand.