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The roar of democracy

An Independence Day outing serves as a reminder that in a democracy, some things are worth shouting about.

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No doubt about it, Boston is a great place to celebrate the Fourth of July. Holiday traditions benefit from a little tweak in the program every once in a while, though, and this year I was pleased to do something a little different: debate the tax on tea.

Or more precisely: I attended a reenactment (loosely speaking) of the great debate at the Old South Meeting House of Dec. 16, 1773. This was the debate that led to the Boston Tea Party, in which 45 tons of tea were dumped into Boston Harbor. This protest by the Sons of Liberty against the hated tea tax helped spark the American Revolution.

Some 5,000 colonists descended upon the meeting house, the largest building in Colonial Boston, for that original debate in 1773. Only property-owning males over 21 were allowed to have the floor. Last week's reenactment had a smaller but more diverse crowd of debaters, since the moderator, in colonial costume but equipped with contemporary amplification gear, suspended those rules.

Entering the hall, we visitors were handed slips of paper assigning us to either the Patriot or the Loyalist side and giving us a role in the community as well. (I was cast as a Patriot and a merchant.) Each sheet also listed several talking points for each side.

Men, women, and children took their turns being recognized by the moderator and speaking from the talking points or making their case in their own words and in their own voice. The kids' participation was endearing; the larger debate was enriched by those who really knew their stuff and could argue in terms of centuries of British constitutional history.

Those of us too diffident to ask for the floor were nonetheless encouraged to cheer or jeer those who did want to speak their piece. To keep our exuberance historically correct, we were instructed to yell "Huzza!" to signify approval, or "Fie!" to register disapproval. It didn't take long at all for everyone to get into the spirit of the moment.


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