The McNeil Center was pleased to partner with WHYY, a local NPR member station and their News and Information Community Exchange program to host “We Hold These Truths: a WHYY Community Screening and Discussion” on January 25.
Friends and members of the public were invited to watch the documentary, We Hold These Truths, in which Federal Judge Douglas Ginsburg explores the promise and influence of America’s Declaration of Independence, both in the U.S. and around the world.
Following the screening, a panel of scholars discussed the Declaration of Independence in greater depth. Organized by McNeil Center Director Dr. Emma Hart, the panel included Dr. Aimee Newell, Director of Collections and Exhibitions at the Museum of the American Revolution (pictured, left); Dr. Sarah Barringer Gordon, Professor of History and Professor of Law Emerita (second from left); and Dr. Emily Sneff (third from left), a 2022-2023 Cincinnati Barra Dissertation at the McNeil Center and a scholar of the Declaration of Independence. Eric Marsh Sr. (right), Manager of Community and Engagement for WHYY News, moderated the panel.
The panel explored the social and political climate at the time of the drafting of the Declaration, and went on to discuss notions of liberty and freedom as they existed in 1776, and the influence these ideas have had—and continue to have—in the U.S. and other parts of the world.
“The reach of the Declaration has gone far across many generations and political circumstances for many different purposes,” said Dr. Sneff. Outside of the U.S., for example, the document, particularly its final paragraph about “free and independent states” has been used as a model for other countries and independence movements.
While inside the U.S., the focus tends to be more on the second sentence of the Declaration – the one that begins “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” This sentence is arguably the most well-known, and it has been used to advocate for a more inclusive United States.
With the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence coming up in 2026, Dr. Sneff recommended that rather than focusing only on the fireworks and celebrations, we can use the anniversary to consider “thoughtfully how different people over time have been inspired by or have been frustrated by the Declaration of Independence.” She also suggested that the Declaration and other historical documents of that time can be used to “encourage people to know their civil rights. As historians, educators, or politicians, we can use our positions in the community to empower others to seek political action, to become civic actors. This gives these historical documents more meaning for many more people.”
The McNeil Center would like to thank WHYY for inviting us to be part of this event as well as the attendees who contributed to a vibrant community discussion. This event was part of a series of events leading up to the Semiquincentennial (250th anniversary) of the Declaration of Independence. For more information on Penn’s observance of the 250th anniversary, see America 250 at Penn.