Last Wednesday, I flew out to Washington DC to attend the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). But this trip was rendered eminently worthwhile for me well before the speeches and panel sessions began the next day.
I have been to DC a number of times in the last few years, but for a variety of reasons, I had never made it to the National Archives. Of course, the first “National Treasure” movie popularized it as a tourist attraction, but I had wanted to go well before that. It just never worked out; the line, when Pam and I visited DC in 2001, was several hours long and it was close to the end of the day. In 2008, we were in town for CPAC weekend, not even arriving until Friday afternoon. The National Archives is closed for the weekend. At last year’s CPAC, my friend Jed and I stayed in Alexandria and ate up so much of the time Metroing to the Omni that precious little time remained for sightseeing.
And so it went, on an ongoing basis. But I knew this time I would be arriving in DC early enough that I would have a whole day to spend seeing the town, so I decided the time had come to check this specific option off the list. Especially since it’s free.
I walked through the doors, grateful for a momentary respite from the chilly Washington weather and submitted to yet another round of security procedures. (I had already come through that once in the airport that morning.) I collected my belongings and followed the scenes to the second floor, intent on the object of my quest. There is, after all, floor after floor of worthwhile mementos, video footage and other forms of memorabilia that compose what the National Archives have to offer. But there was one section in particular that I knew I needed to see first. So I followed the signs to the Rotunda.
Just before emerging into the Rotunda area, I suddenly came upon a sight that I simply was not prepared to behold. In a corner a few hundred feet before the opening to the Rotunda stands the original Magna Carta. I had no idea. The Magna Carta is the forerunner of our founding documents. Signed in 1215, as the result of a confrontation between the noblemen of England and their ruler, King John, in which the noblemen demanded a voice in the determination of their direction, both individually and as a nation, it stands as a monument to the natural rights of man to dignity, to respect and to liberty. Bill Bennett writes, in Volume I of his history set, America: the Last Best Hope, that it was an integral knowledge of their rights as espoused by the Magna Carta that led the American colonists in the Virginia House of Burgesses to declare the Stamp Act unconstitutional in 1766.
I walked on around the corner to the Rotunda and halted on the threshold of that auspicious room for the first time. Even a week later, I remember the hush, the muted tones, the awe that fills that space. The ceiling is very high, vaultlike, at least twice what I had imagined or thought I remembered from previous photographic and video experience. I was immediately filled with a sense of the hallowed nature of where I stood. It was a more spiritual moment than I have encountered walking into many churches.
I walked forward and there they were, beneath casings of glass, shrouded deep in inscrutable metal. The Constitution of the United States of America. The Declaration of Independence. Not facsimiles. Not copies. Not reasonable modern renderings. The originals.
The Declaration, for many years, was not well preserved. Consequently, it is faded to the point of near illegibility today. But John Hancock’s signature is still plainly visible. He muttered in a satisfied tone, after scribbling that famous byline that now, “King George won’t have to put his glasses on to read this.” The King still wouldn’t need to don his spectacles today. Somewhere, I thought, Hancock must be smiling.
The Declaration is all contained on one sheet. The Constitution, on the other hand, spans over 4 large pages and the print is not nearly as faded. It doesn’t require near the strain on the eyes that the Declaration does. From the preamble, “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…” to the closing signatures, headed by George Washington, it is quite bright and clear.
I was transfixed, awash in reverie.
I thought of the closing sentence of the Declaration of Independence:
“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
Historian David McCullough paints a picture in his fabulous book 1776 of what these brave men faced. At best, if they won the conflict on which they had embarked (a highly improbable outcome), they would have to fashion an independent nation out of whole cloth, with severely limited fiscal and experiential resources. The alternative involved imprisonment in rat-infested, freezing hellholes, starvation, loss of all earthly possessions and public hanging.
Yet, they soldiered on. The quest for freedom guided their choices.
And in 1787, the battle won, the Founders crafted the greatest charter of government ever known to man, a document that spells out to the government what it cannot do to the people rather than detailing what the citizens are allowed to expect from the government. The Constitution, if carried out as designed, would allow the maximum of liberty to all men, consistent with law and order.
Our greatest President, Thomas Jefferson, understood the genius of what God had enabled the Founders to draw up and ultimately, the states to ratify. With the truth in mind that power is a heady and potentially corrupting force and that consequently, powerful men would one day seek an end-run around Constitutional prohibitions, Jefferson uttered the following:
“It would be a dangerous delusion were a confidence in the men of our choice to silence our fears for the safety of our rights; that confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism. Free government is founded on jealousy, and not on confidence, which prescribes limited constitutions to bind down those we are obliged to trust with power. In questions of power then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down with the chains of the Constitution.”
I tried to leave the National Archives Rotunda four times before I was finally able to pull myself away without walking back. My throat was choked and my eyes were brimming.
I asked God’s forgiveness for trivializing so often the inestimable heritage I have been bequeathed by those who have spilled blood on battlefields for the last 234 years so that I could be free. I repented for too often obsessing over the newest entertainment arcana, rather than becoming more familiar with my country’s history. And I vowed not only to master the concepts of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, but to fight to my last breath for the truths that animate them. Fidelity to God and country demands no less.