The park ranger wore a pannier. The side-hooped undergarment held her dress out about a half foot at each side at the hip, creating even wider girth for the already stoutish civil servant. Over the frock, she wore an apron, and over her flushed cheeks and damp curls, a white ruffled mob cap.
It was not regulation National Park Service issue, the olive uniform topped with a Smokey the Bear hat. But nor was it a dress code violation, for the date was July 8th, which all will immediately recognize as the anniversary of the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence.
Every year, Independence National Park celebrates the occasion with a dramatic re-enactment of the first reading, performed by park rangers in period costume on a bunting draped stage behind Independence Hall. The program begins with scene-setting – on this day in 1776, the mood would have been tense and uncertain. The Declaration was an act of treason for its writers and backers, a gamble that would result in either in the glory of a new country or a death warrant.
“But we’re here to encourage you to have some fun,” said the ranger at the microphone, straightening his wool brass-buttoned waist coat. “Think of this as an interactive event. Join in with cheers and with huzzahs!”
“Or join in with boos,” he added, wiping sweat from his brow. Among the thousands of people who attended the first reading, many were loyal to the British crown. He inquired whether anyone in the crowd was of British descent, (“or even Canadian”). After a beat of dead silence, he dispatched a few costumed rangers into the crowd, to play the part of the dissenters.
Among them, the ranger in a pannier.
“Long live the King!” she shouted, over the cheers, whoops and dog whistles that came during the Declaration’s first reliable applause line, we-hold-these-truths-to-be-self-evident-that-all-men-are-created-equal.
“You all shall hang!”
I should confess that I’m not a habitual attendee of historic re-enactment events. I’d only wedged myself into the crowd behind Independence Hall that day because Domestic Manners of the Americans had gotten into my head…