BENNINGTON — There were barbecues and fireworks, of course, but for about 150 area residents, Independence Day started with the foundation of the holiday itself: a reading of the Declaration of Independence, on the spot where Bennington marks its role in the American Revolution.
Mike and Phyllis Chapman of North Hoosick, N.Y., donned Colonial-era clothes and the personas of Stephen and Ruth Child Fay, delivering a reading of the declaration in the shadow of the Bennington Battle Monument. A parade of classic cars and area veterans motorcycle riding clubs followed, leading revelers downtown for a ringing of the USS Bennington bell and singing of patriotic songs at Town Hall.
Visitors from as far away as Michigan joined residents young and old, many decked out in some form of red, white and blue for the occasion.
Rotary member Shep Jones, who led the group in songs including “God Bless America” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” had on a red white and blue boater hat, and red, white and blue striped suspenders for the occasion. A retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who served in Germany, Korea and Vietnam, as well as domestic assignments, Jones asked the crowd to sing “God Bless America” with him a second time, and they obliged.
“The words and the meaning is what’s important,” Jones, who has a deep bass singing voice, said afterward. “When you can do that, it’s a real joy. The words to me are very important — that’s the message. ‘God Bless America’ is dear to every patriot’s heart.”
Later, sailors from the USS Vermont, touring the state while their submarine is docked in New London, Conn., made a loop through the state, delivering treats donated by Wilcox Ice Cream to the Vermont Veterans’ Home and visiting the Battle Monument for themselves.
The evening was expected to bring fireworks displays at Willow Park in Bennington and at Thompson Memorial Park in Manchester.
As has been the case for the past six years, Phyllis Chapman, who serves as an interpreter at the Bennington Battlefield State Historic Site, read first, from Abigail Adams’ March 31, 1776, letter to her husband, Continental Congress and future President John Adams.
That letter is often referred to as an important harbinger of the suffrage and women’s rights movements, as Adams exhorted her husband to “remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.”
But this time around, Chapman was reading Adams’ words in the shadow of a Supreme Court decision that rolled back Roe vs. Wade, the precedent-setting case barring states from limiting reasonable access to abortion.
This time, when Chapman read Adams’ words aloud, there were shouts of agreement and applause from the audience during her reading. Most notably, after these words from the future first lady: “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation.”
Chapman was struck by the reception those words got.
“People usually respond to it, but not like they did this year,” she said later. “There was applause in the middle of it … that is totally different.”
Mike Chapman said every year he gets something new out of the Declaration of Independence, as every year he studies it for the recital.
“Each year there’s always something that it touches,” Chapman said of the declaration. “And I think that’s the brilliance of the writing. It’s not stagnant — it’s something that laid the groundwork for revolution.”
Once the readings were complete, many attendees followed a long cavalcade of motorcycle riders from American Legion Post 13 and VFW Post 1332 from Old Bennington to downtown, where the Bennington Rotary Club was set up for its ninth annual bell ringing.
As club president Mike Day noted, a congressional resolution passed in 1963 promoted the ringing of bells throughout the nation on July 4 to mark the anniversary of the declaration of Independence — much as the Liberty Bell summoned Philadelphians to hear the declaration in 1776.
Thirteen members of the Bennington Rotary Club — one for each of the 13 colonies — took a turn ringing the bell, which crossed the globe aboard the aircraft carrier USS Bennington from World War II until it was decommissioned and scrapped in 1970.
The 14th ringer, representing Vermont’s place as the 14th state, was Donald Miller, on behalf of the Bennington Historical Society. It’s an honor given by the Bennington Rotary Club to a person or organization who has served the community with distinction. Former society president Don Miller rang the bell, as Joe Hall, who had been expected to do so, had to bow out at the last minute.
“Everybody appreciates the honor, but it’s for Bennington, it’s the history of Bennington. We really appreciate them asking us to do it,” Miller said.