Videos: Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer Reads Declaration in Plainfield

  • Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer reads the Declaration of Independence outside old Plainfield Town Hall in Plainfield, N.H., on Tuesday, July 4, 2017. The 78-year-old Breyer has a summer home in Plainfield. Photo by Thom Wolke Thom Wolke photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/5/2017 11:44:53 PM
Modified: 7/6/2017 10:40:04 AM

Plainfield Village — More than 200 Upper Valley residents got a high-level civics lesson on Tuesday morning as Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer read the Declaration of Independence as part of the town’s Fourth of July celebration.

“It’s pretty long,” Breyer said to laughter, according to a video clip of his appearance outside the old Plainfield Town Hall along Route 12A. “But it’s interesting to go through, you’ll see in a second. Because we work with the Constitution every day, and you see in this document, which really keeps us together as a nation — 320 million people — you see a lot of the responses to the complaints they had in the Declaration of Independence.

“They said we’re not going to do that again, we’re not going to let anybody do that to us.”

The Declaration of Independence, which is about 1,400 words long, lists a number of grievances against King George III, including “a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states.”

The 78-year-old Breyer noted that John Adams thought the July 2, 1776, vote for the American colonies to leave the British empire to be the “key day,” but that the Declaration, written by Thomas Jefferson, and formally adopted by the Continental Congress two days later, proved to be what is so celebrated.

After reading the opening lines, Breyer, a former Harvard Law School professor, told his audience, “The next sentence, Jefferson wrote it, made him immortal, and you will see in one sentence the basic ideals of the United States of America. Incredible. This is the sentence:

“ ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.’ ”

Breyer departed again from the text to add, “We used to have to memorize that sentence. I hope they still do.”

The justice, who with his wife, Joanna, owns a summer home in Plainfield, previously had read the Declaration of Independence outside of a general store in Plainfield Village 11 years ago, in 2006, but repeated the performance to a bigger crowd this week at the invitation of Meriden resident Steve Taylor, a former town moderator and New Hampshire commissioner of agriculture.

“Two-hundred-fifty or more people just stood there rapt,” Taylor recalled on Wednesday. “When you (recite) it in this clear, strong voice, it’s different from reading it. You hear it.”

Breyer arrived without fanfare shortly before he spoke, and several state and local police officers, some in plainclothes, stood guard nearby during his appearance.

The Breyer family had to skip their annual vacation in Plainfield in summer 2007 because of security concerns prompted by the tax protest that year by their then-neighbors, Ed and Elaine Brown.

Breyer in his remarks on Tuesday made clear that they enjoyed the tranquility the town normally offers, saying, “This is very nice to be up here in Plainfield. We’re up here most summers, and there couldn’t be a nicer place.”

Breyer said his family had been summering in Plainfield since he was an appeals court judge before he joined the Supreme Court in 1994.

Plainfield resident Thom Wolke, who took photographs of Breyer’s appearance as well as video from a drone, said he was moved by the event.

“I’m a pretty jaded, cynical, progressive kind of person, and you can’t help but feel a twinge of patriotism inside you when you have someone like Judge Breyer who has dedicated himself and his life to this country in such a way” help celebrate the day, Wolke said.

Taylor said Breyer’s reading prompted some musings on the country’s current state under President Donald Trump.

“More people afterward said, ‘Oh, man, what he is talking about is so relevant today — if you crossed out the king and put in Trump, a lot of it would hold up today.’ ” Taylor said.

John P. Gregg can be reached at

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