At 10:16 a.m., Ernest Sult, a retired Commerce Department administrator wearing a long, blue Colonial coat and wig, rang a brass handbell to part the gathering on the National Archives steps.

"Make way, make way! I am all the way from Philadelphia," cried Sult, who had really driven in yesterday morning from Alexandria. "I have the document. These United States are and, of right, ought to be free and independent!" Sult, 65, exclaimed, breathless from his sprint up the Archives' 40 granite steps.

The crowd clapped compliantly at this show of Revolutionary fervor. It clapped again as another patriot approached the podium and, in a rich baritone, began reciting the familiar words: "When in the course of human events . . . "

But in truth, it wasn't the Declaration of Independence -- even a heartfelt rendition by a retired history teacher -- that had lured most of the 500 or so people into the day's early heat.

Some were military buffs who had come to watch a "Virginia regiment" exchange musket fire with "British troops" in the middle of Constitution Avenue. Some were hosts in search of suitable entertainment for out-of-town guests. Many were children, indulging their parents' urge to enhance their education.

And a few had simply gotten confused. "I wanted to see the parade, and I thought it was going to be at 10 a.m.," said Donald Flowers, a Washington resident of 13 years who had arrived two hours early for the Independence Day parade.

Still, there were small signs of patriotism. A woman clutched a green foam replica of the Statue of Liberty's crown. George Willingham, 29, of the District, wore two tiny American flags tucked in his hair, one above each ear.

On this day of cookouts and fireworks, they witnessed a rite unusually faithful to the holiday's original meaning.

Yesterday was the 214th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Since the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976, the reading of the Declaration has been an annual ritual outside the building that holds the real document.

The ceremony began with Revolutionary-era tunes, played by the Old Fife and Drum Corps, the only members of the U.S. Army with a uniform of red coats, cream-colored britches and white wigs under three-corner hats.

The program ended with the Revolutionary "skirmish," in which the ragtag colonists pleased the crowd by outfiring the more professional British regiment.

And, in between, Henry G. Morgan, a former history teacher and retired Army lieutenant colonel, read the famous declaration written by Thomas Jefferson for the Continental Congress. This was the fourth consecutive Fourth of July on which Morgan, chairman of the Alexandria Meeting of the Jefferson Society, has acted the role of John Carlisle, a successful merchant who was a friend of George Washington.

Some well-known phrases drew applause. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . . "

But other passages were unfamiliar, such as the list of grievances ascribed to the British king. "He has . . . endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions . . . "

Children found the meaning elusive. "I thought the cannon was neat, and the music was neat," said Shasta Svenson, 11, who is visiting Washington for the first time from Clearwater, Fla. As for the Declaration, she said, "We couldn't hear it all that well. It was pretty much gibberish."

And it didn't become clearer afterward, as she and a cousin entered the cool, dim Archives to peer at the document itself. "We had to go fast, and the paper was green," said her cousin, Stephanie Madsen, who is also 11, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.

But others reacted differently. In the shadows of the Archives' huge columns, Dudley Humphrey, of Odenton, stood alone, listening intently to Jefferson's words.

"I came to visit some friends, but I decided to come over here to be part of history," said Humphrey, 28, a courier for the U.S. Department of Energy. "Every time they do this, history is being made again. It is like you were there. With the Bill of Rights and all the important documents the Archives have, it is beautiful."