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OTTUMWA — The Wapello County Republican Party’s reading of the Declaration of Independence began at an appropriately celebratory event. Chair Trudy Caviness said it was a discussion with friends during a summer get-together.

Fifteen years later it’s a staple of the Fourth of July holiday for Ottumwa.

“It came up one time as an idea that we could do,” Caviness said. “Now it’s very constant. I have people calling me and asking if they can read.”

The event has evolved a bit, too. An ice cream social kicked off the 2019 reading, as it has for the past several years. It’s fun, but aimed at a very clear purpose.

The Fourth of July celebrates the signing of the document that declared the colonies independent of the British crown. The Revolutionary War was more than a year old — the shots at Lexington and Concord were fired in April 1775 — and the war would continue for another seven years.

But, up until the declaration, the British had a powerful propaganda weapon to use with the colonies’ potential European allies. No revolt against a colonial power had ever succeeded, and the British emphasized the possibility of reconciliation when dealing with other nations. The declaration served as a statement of intent, a message that the colonies were no longer interested in remaining part of the empire in any form.

The document rocked Europe. Americans revere it, but don’t often read the actual text. The chance to hear it read, as many would have 243 years ago, is an opportunity to reconnect with that history.

“I think that it’s part of the celebration and people realize this is part of the Fourth of July,” Caviness said.

There’s one other quirk to the day, though, as noted in the program. While the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence in July, most delegates signed the formal copy in August.

A lot happened in that hot summer in 1776.

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Matt Milner currently serves as the Courier's Managing Editor. Milner is a trained weather spotter and is usually outside if there are storms. He joined the Courier in 2002.