Today the room is fairly empty; only about 60 people mingle in the semidarkness. I lean over the case displaying the only original signed copy of the Declaration of Independence, my eyes traveling the faded elegant cursive, spidery lines of iron gall ink on yellowed animal parchment. I’m searching for those precious words, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” when a woman comes up next to me. Soon we are talking. Like me, she hadn’t planned to come to the National Archives, in Washington, but in the wake of the president’s recent executive order regarding immigration, felt compelled to visit. “I just needed to see it,” she says quietly, “I am afraid for our constitutional rights.”
As we’re standing in front of the Constitution itself, staring in awe at the magnificent document, a man with two young boys approaches. The boys snake his legs, desperate to leave, but they don’t interrupt. The man says he’s in the military and overheard our concerns. His voice is quiet and polite when he tells us that he feels Barack Obama took his constitutional rights away. I ask him what rights he lost, and he says he lost his religious freedom; then he mentions abortion. The woman, also polite, points out that our government has never forced any citizen to have an abortion. I ask him how he can tolerate a president who openly disparages women, and military vets? The man quickly explains that he’s libertarian and he didn’t vote for Trump, but adds that he’s a Marine, so he can’t comment on the behavior of the president, his commanding officer. The woman has moved away, upset. I thank him for his service and share with him that my father was a Marine in World War II. He tells me he did three tours in Afghanistan.
We’ve had a civil encounter, but it’s clear his views haven’t been changed by our exchange. Have mine? I look around the room, which rises into a white dome and oculus. Painted murals depicting the signers, with George Washington in the center, fill the walls; this room tells the story of the rights of these property-owning white men. Yet the Founders had the genius to create a document that was not a set of laws, but a set of principles that could evolve as the country grew. Immediately after one views the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution — collectively called the “Charters of Freedom” — one encounters a page from a draft of the Bill of Rights, the scratched-out lines and rewritten sections showing how, from the beginning, our democratic history was dynamic, a grappling with a diversity of views. Then there are displays documenting the Constitutional amendments that ensured rights for women and freed slaves.
These are probably the most secure documents in the world. Two armed guards stand on either side of the Constitution in order to watch the 1.2 million people who visit them yearly. Recently, the Charters were rehoused in state-of-the-art aluminum and titanium cases that took more than five years and $5 million to design and build. Since 9/11, the Archives does not discuss security, but prior to 2011, the documents were lowered into the public vault each night, locked behind layers of fireproof, bombproof steel.
I’m standing in front of the Constitution again when the Marine returns. “Look at that, boys,” he says, giving me a nod and steering his sons toward the case, “those words are important, they founded this country.” The boys peer over the glass. “I’ve just had a conversation with this woman,” he continues and then squats down to their level, “and we’ve been able to disagree. If we were in China, she’d be arrested.” The boys stare up at me. “But here in our country, we can disagree with the government and not go to jail.”
I look up then at the impressive lines of marble columns that surround the Constitution, creating a beautiful replica of a Greek temple facade. It suddenly feels like I’m standing in more of a reliquary than an archive; the Charters of Freedom floating in their high-security chambers of argon gas, being treated as if they had mystical powers. However beautiful and valuable these sheets of parchment are (iron gall ink is made from oak bark in which a wasp has secreted an enzyme), it is not the documents themselves that are sacred, but what the words written on them represent.
If we lose the values that the Charters of Freedom proclaim, then this magnificent room becomes an edifice not to democracy, but to power.
Leila Philip is a professor in the English department at the College of the Holy Cross. Her latest book is “Water Rising,” a collaboration with artist Garth Evans.