When R.C. Roberson first saw the Declaration of Independence in person, the faces of her father, her son, her uncle and her cousin — all of whom have served in overseas wars — flashed before her.
“Times have changed. Things changed. People change,” said Roberson, a 78-year-old hospice care worker from Eagar, Ariz. “But the idea, and the concept, is still there. If you don’t believe me, go look at that piece of paper. It’s the foundation of this country.”
This Fourth of July is the 240th anniversary of the colonists declaring their independence from Great Britain by adopting the declaration. Set against perhaps one of the most raucous political climates in American history, what does this anniversary — and the Declaration of Independence itself — mean to Americans?
On a sunny Monday afternoon outside the National Archives, which houses the Declaration of Independence, tourists gave no monolithic response. For some, it was a humbling experience to see the historical document in person. For others, it was a reminder of how far the United States has come in terms of racial equality — and how far it still has to go.
When she has a little time to spare, Lenora Holloman, 62, of Washington brings her son and her grandson to visit the archives. And though she likes to admire the historical significance of the document, and to teach her grandson about the progression of rights for African-Americans in the U.S. since the declaration was written, she admitted it doesn’t mean much to her.
“It really has nothing to do with me,” she said. “Because it didn’t include my people at all.”
Some also lamented better times that they view as long gone — the signatories of the Declaration of Independence are probably “rolling over in their graves” if they’re watching politics in the United States today, said Roberson — while others saw it as a reminder that politics in the 18th century were just as partisan as they are now.
“You know, I think everyone gets really discouraged. It’s very divisive,” said Dain Ehring, 50, of San Francisco. “But I read a lot of history. And it was equally divisive back then. You had (Samuel) Adams and (Thomas) Jefferson. You had (Aaron) Burr. It was incredibly divisive.”
Because of the divided politics in the country, the very ideal that the declaration espouses — a voice for the people in the government — is a hard concept to understand right now for some, said Ehring.
“You have half of the United States feeling like the other half is wrong and they’re right,” he said. “You have to remember that we’re all citizens.”
Still, some visitors said the Declaration of Independence could be a reminder for politicians and citizens alike to put aside political differences. Nathan Haeger, 42, of Costa Mesa, Calif., said that for him, seeing the document in person was an awakening of sorts.
For those who come to see the declaration, he said, it’s a reminder of the fundamental values the country was built on and how hard-fought the battle was for independence.
“It seems like we’ve gotten away from what it’s all about,” he said. “But when you come and see this, it kind of reminds you.”
Haeger, a high school history teacher, said he gave the same lesson every year about the Declaration of Independence, and always tried to leave his students with one takeaway.
“It just means freedom. We get to make our own decisions and not live any under real authority,” Haeger said. “If you look around the world — I try to teach my students to look at other places in the world. I mean, you don’t get half the freedom we have here.”