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On Heritage Day, Easton gives a history lesson on how American democracy began

Ryan Gaylor
Performer Christopher Black, playing historic patriot Robert Levers, make his way toward a stage in Easton's Centre Square to reenact the historic reading of the Declaration of Independence there in 1776.

EASTON, Pa. — On July 8, 1776, crowds of what were until recently British subjects gathered in public squares in Philadelphia, Easton, and Trenton, N.J.

When church bells struck noon, someone at each site began reading copies of the Declaration of Independence, freshly adopted and printed just a few days earlier.

It was the first time that the declaration was read publicly to residents of the newly independent states.

Each year, Easton celebrates its place in the history of Revolutionary America by once again reading the Declaration of Independence to the assembled masses.

It's part of Heritage Day, an Easton tradition put on by the Greater Easton Development Partnership.

'Dissent' in public spaces

Shortly before noon Sunday, a group of costumed performers from the Bachmann Players marched around Centre Square to a stage set up on Third Street. At the head of the group was Christopher Black, artistic director for the Bachmann Players, portraying historic patriot Robert Levers.

Black took the stage and read the declaration, as the crowd cheered the Enlightenment-era ideals that Thomas Jefferson enshrined in the document, and booed King George III as if the grievances Jefferson lists were fresh in their memory.

Re-enactors also showed the disagreement among Eastonians in 1776 – for example, when one group of “loyalists” interrupted Black’s reading by pelting him and his fellow “patriots” with what appeared to be onions.

“It is easy to think that [democracy] will take care of itself, but it works because people want it to work and need to put effort into it.”
Dan Sabatino, of Forks Township

After Black called for support, actors playing musket-wielding militiamen pushed the interrupting loyalists off to the side, engaging them in a quiet standoff for the rest of his speech.

History brought to life

Spread around Centre Square, artisans displayed Colonial-era craftsmanship, showing off hand-smithed iron, working spinning wheels to make yarn or making glass art over a small torch.

Re-enactors and historians from other groups brought other parts of history to life, including the Lenape Nation sharing its cultural history, the First Battalion of New Jersey Volunteers portraying soldiers loyal to the British crown, and more modern eras of the armed forces.

Once Black finished his reading and left the stage with his fellow Bachmann Players re-enactors, a Lenape drum circle kicked off a series of live performances at the Third Street stage.

For attendees, Heritage Day provides a chance to feel their place in American history, and meditate on the ideas that gave birth to our nation.

Listening to the declaration is a reminder of “what is important. Why are we here? What brought us to this point? And I think that gets forgotten,” Rachel Diquatro, of Easton, sad.

“It is easy to think that [democracy] will take care of itself, but it works because people want it to work and need to put effort into it,” said Forks Township resident Dan Sabatino. “And imagining what was happening in the past and how people made those decisions is helpful to understand what our choices might be and where we could put our efforts.”

“As long as there is democracy, it is an experiment and it will be work,” said Jennifer Kelly, of Forks Township. “Just because we are further in time in the future doesn't mean that the experiment isn’t going on as actively as it was [in 1776]. And so we are it.”

'Everybody should know'

Acting out what happened that day in 1776 in Easton had an impact on folks.

“We had discussed earlier how scary it must have been to be somebody in the middle of this, and you don't know where your neighbor stands,” Diquatro said.

“The men who signed that document, you know, they were literally signing their death warrant if this all went wrong,” she said. “The ability of these men and women to stand for their convictions… I don't know if that's something that is as prevalent today in the world of politics.”

Added Forks resident Sue Moore: “I think everybody should know about all this.”

“When we first got here, we were saying ‘Why isn’t it on the Fourth of July?’ And then we found out why, and it makes it even more interesting.” said Frankie Moore, also of Forks. “I think it's our job as American citizens to pass that history along to our grandkids, to our kids, to our neighbors.”

Heritage Day continues Sunday night with a fireworks display, starting at 9:30 p.m. at Upper Hackett Park. The park is near the border of Easton, Wilson Borough and Palmer Township.

Wilson Mayor Donald Barrett said the borough's Meuser Park and Fisk Field will not be open as viewing sites.