Students re-enacting the Second Continental Congress gather around teacher Matthew Barry’s laptop to videochat with a class in Chicago.
Students re-enacting the Second Continental Congress gather around teacher Matthew Barry’s laptop to videochat with a class in Chicago.

There were anachronisms, to be sure. George Washington tweeted the whole event. Ben Franklin’s cane looked more than a little like a Halloween prop. One Founding Father wore a patch for the New England Patriots.

And in place of his usual tri-corner hat, John Hancock wore a cheese head. “It’s a triangle,” sniffed Adam Rubinger, explaining the orange headgear he wore as he played the part of Hancock.

Still, by the time this particular meeting of the Second Continental Congress was done, all the major points had been covered. The delegates had voted to rebel against Great Britain, drum up a militia and sign a short, to-the-point Declaration of Independence that read: “In 1776, we solemnly declare ourselves independent of Great Britain.” Who needs the real Thomas Jefferson and all his wordiness?

As Davis Academy history teacher Matthew Barry saw it, everything went just fine in this year’s version of his annual eighth-grade re-enactment of the Second Continental Congress, the gatherings in 1775 and 1776 that led to the creation of this country.

Barry played Washington, complete with buff-and-tan coat, white wig, tri-corner hat and Twitter account. “Thirty or 40 people are following [on Twitter] right now, including Independence Hall in Philadelphia, which is cool,” he said shortly after the start of the class.

(Washington isn’t the only historic character Barry plans to bring into class during the school year. He’s also got costumes he uses to portray Sitting Bull, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and a pair of Civil War soldiers, one from each side, and a few others, he said. “If there’s a chance for me to dress up, I will,” he said.)

Davis Academy student Ian Quegan discusses revolutionary ideas with fellow delegates.

This was the 11th time he had organized a recreation of the Second Continental Congress. The four-hour event has become a favorite part of the school year. Students look forward to it. Parents come and watch for part of the day. It’s Barry’s way of trying to get students engaged with history, and have a little fun with it, rather than just reading about it.

“It’s one of the most exciting parts of the eighth grade,” said parent David Rubinger, whose twin sons Adam and Eric were taking part this year and whose two older children had been through previous congressional re-enactments. “He really brings history to life in a way I don’t remember when I was going to school.”

This year, 58 eighth-graders from Barry’s U.S. history and government classes gathered in the school library to portray the delegates. Flags of the rebellion, including several showing a coiled snake and reading “Don’t tread on me” lined the back walls, and an image of a tax collector hanged in effigy was projected at the front of the room.

Each student played the part of a particular delegate to the original Second Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia back in 1775 and 1776.

Teacher Matthew Barry, portrayed George Washington, and tweeted the entire event.

Barry’s classes contained two students too many for the 56 actual delegates, so the extras portrayed other Sons of Liberty from the time, including Paul Revere.

The students dressed in a variety of costumes to represent their 18th century characters. Some wore white wigs. Others donned costume tri-corner hats, boots, vests or long coats with knee-length pants. At one point, someone shouted at Samuel Felner that he had a stain on his trousers. “They’re not trousers,” he replied. “They’re baseball pants.”

There were girls among the delegates, too. Several wore long braids. “I think we’re supposed to be boys,” said Gabi Louis, who played the part of Arthur Middleton of South Carolina.

Seated at 13 tables covered with green tablecloths and small, electric candles, the delegates shouted approval or disapproval as various positions were presented and argued. They banged on tabletops. They hooted at opponents. “Arguing is a very fun aspect,” said Adam Prass, who portrayed New York delegate James Duane and drew catcalls for arguing against independence.

Debate touched the major issues of the day: slavery, trade, how to raise a navy when you don’t have one, what to make of battles with British soldiers in Boston. At their table, Jonah Medoff and Arie Voloschin worked on a drawing of the tarring and feathering of a tax collector.

Once all the shouting and table-banging and presentation of arguments were done, 11 delegations voted to declare independence, Barry said the next morning. Two delegations voted to abstain. That suited Barry just fine. “I just let them go with it,” he said.
And you can take nothing for granted when it comes to recreating history. Past re-enactments have varied in their outcome. Over its 11 years, Barry said, the Davis Academy version of the Continental Congress is 10 and 1 when voting for independence.

Teacher Matthew Barry portrayed George Washington, and tweeted the entire event.

One year, the whole thing collapsed into bickering. “They went to war with each other,” he said. “North Carolina declared war on South Carolina.”

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.