Why We Read the Declaration

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Tuesday, July 30th, 2019
Why We Read the Declaration

Ten years have passed, and the annual Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association Declaration readings are now a valued tradition throughout the Lone Star State. Perhaps it is time for reflection on how this began, why we do what we do on or before Independence Day each year, what it means and what it does not mean.

The first reading was in Houston on Thursday, July 1, 2010. The Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association was involved in an ongoing struggle with abusive judges. The struggle led to the filing of judicial misconduct complaints against some of the judges.

As an act of protest against tyrannical judges, Robert Fickman organized a reading of the Declaration of Independence at the Harris County Courthouse. Seeking no permission, 15 criminal defense lawyers gathered in front of the courthouse. As an act of protest and disrespect, they turned their backs to the building and read the great document with firm resolve.

They felt electrified and empowered by the reading, and similar readings slowly gained traction across the state. In 2016, readings were organized in all 254 Texas counties in honor of the 240th birthday of the great document. Last year, the readings were highlighted by a poignant reading held at the children’s immigration tent city at Tornillo.

That’s how the Houston readings started, but why do the rest of us continue the Houston tradition, and where do we go from here? The historical context of the Declaration leads us in the right direction.

The Declaration of Independence has been called one of the greatest documents ever written, but it is certainly imperfect.

One paragraph is particularly unfair and offensive to Native Americans. “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.” Native Americans were totally subjugated to U.S. power about a century later.

The drafters of the Declaration envisioned a new order among the 13 colonies, but they did not include women in their vision. In Colonial America, women were pushed to the sidelines as dependents of men. Married women were under control of their husbands. Following the Revolutionary War, under the laws of the new United States, women were denied property rights, lacked the ability to vote. and could not make or enter into a legal contract. More than a century passed before women were granted the right to vote, and the struggle began for truly equal gender rights.

The Declaration promised life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all, yet that promise did not apply to the thousands held in slavery across the Colonies.

Frederick Douglass eloquently addressed this dichotomy in his famous speech of July 5, 1852 (refusing to speak on July 4), dedicating the new Corinthian Hall in Rochester, NY:

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What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy —a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

This year, TCDLA Declaration reading founder Robert Fickman also reflected on the Declaration’s shortcomings in his introductory remarks to the Houston reading:

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King observed, when the architects of our Republic wrote the Declaration, they were signing a promissory note to which all Americans were to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Dr. King eloquently observed “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note.”

Now, in 2019, insofar as minorities and the poor are concerned, America continues to be in default. On a daily basis, in these courts, minorities and the poor continue to find their liberty stolen.

As defense lawyers, it is our duty to fight those who would deny others their liberty. So, we read the Declaration as a reminder that as a nation, our work is unfinished.

Let us work together toward that day when the promises of the Declaration are a reality and not a dream. Let us work toward that day, when all Americans have the Declaration’s guaranteed unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

When reading the Declaration and celebrating our independence from Britain, we should keep in mind Frederick Douglass’ hard truths and Dr. Martin Luther King’s admonitions. We must not forget our founding forefathers’ shortsightedness and the shortcomings of the Declaration. Instead, these issues should be confronted head-on and directly.

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In future readings, we will encourage organizers to stress that the Declaration freed not one slave, offered not one woman the right to vote, and recognized the human rights of not one Native American. Yet the Declaration spawned the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the American rule of law that eventually began to address these shortcomings.

Freedom, self-reliance, patriotism and protest are concepts all Americans embrace. The Declaration embodies and represents these concepts. Criminal defense lawyers everywhere understand how these themes evolved from the Declaration to the Constitution to the Bill of Rights and beyond.

In our daily work, we often speak of these themes, in jury selection, final summation and in other legal settings. We hope our listeners will understand and accept our reverence for such concepts and apply them accordingly in making decisions. But we all know it is not so. Judges, juries and prosecutors often carelessly and casually cast aside the rule of law in making decisions, as do politicians and lawmakers, and we are the ones who must attempt to pick up the pieces on behalf of our clients.

Organizers of future Declaration readings should reach out to those slighted by the Founders—African-Americans, women, Native Americans—and invite them to participate. Organizers should also explain to their audiences the reasons the Declaration is not a perfect document and how we should all strive to overcome those imperfections.

So, why do we read? Because John Adams told us to kick up our heels on July the 4th! Our readings are a part of an American tradition Adams foresaw in 1776:

I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty; it ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.

Why do we read? It is to call public awareness to the meaning of Independence Day, to celebrate its historical significance, to celebrate the principles we as criminal defense lawyers use every day in courthouses across the land, and to call attention to the value of public protest then and public protest now. It is to encourage our listeners to employ our heritage and the rule of law in their lives.

Why do we read? The readings are probably the best public relations tool for our great organization and its many affiliates and individual members. By reading the Declaration, we are educating the public that we, the criminal defense bar, are our Founders’ heirs. We alone fight to secure the liberty referenced in the Declaration. We are the living part of the continuum. We are the point of the spear, fighting daily to maintain the individual rights our Founders fought for.

And, we read because it is such great fun! It is an opportunity for us to feel good about ourselves and what we do for living, to show off in front of our families and our local folks, to get our picture in the paper.

With firm resolve, we will do it again next year.