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An encounter with history May 12, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have just returned from a whirlwind weekend in Washington, D.C. visiting family and friends. We had a great time, and would like nothing better than to hibernate for about a week now just to process everything we saw, but the garden and (gulp) deadlines make that a non-option. Before we plunge back into daily life, though, I want to share with you two of the amazing things we saw.

Our friend Ben is a Smithsonian junkie. I’ll be the first to admit it. The National Galleries, the Museum of Natural History, the Hirshhorn, the Sackler, the Freer—ah, yes, our friend Ben is ready to settle in and enjoy a lengthy season of exploration, much to the dismay of, well, pretty much everyone. Silence and our good friend Susan had agreed to indulge our friend Ben yet again this weekend, and Susan dutifully drove us all over toward the Mall (as the two long rows of museum buildings and the broad strip of ground that runs between them is called, ironically indeed in this age of strip malls with their tedious low-end chain stores). But as always, parking proved to be an issue, and by the time Susan captured an empty space, we found ourselves in front of the National Archives building.

National Archives, what’s that? Another of the many government buildings crowded thickly in the District’s downtown? How nice. Can we move on now? Our friend Ben had climbed out of the car and was basically waiting for Susan and Silence to assemble themselves when my eye fell on a large banner on the Archives building, announcing that you could see the original documents of the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and Bill of Rights inside. Our friend Ben’s head started swimming. I faintly heard a voice, belonging, I belatedly realized, to Silence (always at least one step ahead of our friend Ben), asking Susan if in fact the famous documents were in the National Archives building and, if so, could we see them?

Now, our friend Ben is admittedly not the brightest bulb on the string, but I’d never heard of the National Archives. If you had asked me, I’d have said that the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Bill of Rights, if they were on display at all, would have been under glass in our nation’s Capitol building, where our illustrious Senators and Representatives could view them daily to remind themselves of what the bleep they were doing there to begin with. Not so, my friends, my fellow citizens, my colleagues worldwide.

If you have a hankering, like Silence and our friend Ben, to see the originals of the famous documents that shaped the nascent United States out of a bunch of disparate British colonies, they’re on display in the National Archives building and are free for all to see. Who’d’a thunk?!! We rushed across the street and lined up to see the very foundations of America.

And yes, there they were. The thrill of seeing the signatures of George Washington, Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Hancock, and others was beyond description for a Colonial- and Federal-era enthusiast like our friend Ben. Knowing as I do that another of my favorite Founding Fathers, Gouverneur Morris, actually composed and wrote the Constitution (despite a publicity grab by Madison enthusiasts to designate him “Father of the Constitution”), and seeing the actual writing on the document, which was his, sent chills down my spine. Yes! Yes!!! Go Gouverneur!!!!!

Believe it or not, there were thrills and shocks aplenty in the short time our friend Ben, Silence, and Susan had to check out the National Archives before they closed. On the plus side, they had one of the four copies of the British Magna Carta, dating to 1295, on display. The Magna Carta is crucial to the British, of course, but it’s also of vital significance to Americans, since without it, our country could never have become what it was and is. To look at the near-microscopic but unbelievably, elegantly precise writing of the Magna Carta was to almost experience a time-warp: How could anyone create such minute, perfect, exquisite writing at all, much less with a quill pen? Ah, ah, impossible!

Other thrills included the many documents beside the “big three” that shaped American history: the Articles of Confederation, our first stab at a constitution; the Emancipation Proclamation; JFK’s inaugural address; and thousands more. The National Archives is truly a national treasure. 

And the shock? Oh, dear, it was the condition of the Declaration of Independence, the foundation of our freedom. The document those brave men, John Hancock and the others, signed so brazenly, had become almost invisible in time. Men who risked their very lives to sign the document (as our hero, Ben Franklin, so wonderfully pointed out to laggards, “We must hang together, gentlemen…else, we shall most assuredly hang separately”) would not be able to decipher it today, so faint has the ink become. Oh, no, no, our great document! Can no one save it?!

Mercifully, offsetting the horror of the almost-invisible Declaration of Independence was the fine, decisive script of Gouverneur Morris on the Constitution. It was marvellous! Our friend Ben will doubtless post on Gouverneur Morris at some point—he, with Franklin, Hamilton, and (of course) Washington—are the Revolutionaries who capture both my imagination and my admiration. And here’s a tidbit for you Thomas Jefferson fans—unlike the ornate script of other Founders, the writing of Jefferson in his notebooks detailing the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition struck our friend Ben as astonishingly modern. Hmmm. Our friend Ben leaves each of you to make of that what you will.

At any rate, seeing these seminal documents of my country, seeing them unexpectedly as I did, was an incredible experience for our friend Ben (and for Silence, too). If you enjoy American history, please don’t wait like our friend Ben to see the National Archives display. Go as soon as you can! Make it a vacation destination. You’ll be so glad you did!

As if that weren’t enough of a historical high, our friend Ben and Silence had to drive past Gettysburg to return from Washington to our Pennsylvania home. So of course we stopped at the Gettysburg Battlefield to look out over the decisive battlefield of the Civil War. (Who on earth decided to call that bloody horror “civil,” anyway?!) We even got to see some reenactors firing off a cannon (ouch!!! cover your ears), and of course we went to the visitors’ center to check out the displays. The whole thing was pretty awesome, and Silence managed to snag a cookbook containing Robert E. Lee family recipes. (Our friend Ben is related to both Abe Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln, and would have preferred a Lincoln family cookbook, but no luck.) Anyway, I’m sure you’ll hear from Silence if she decides to try any of the Lee family recipes.

For now, we’re wiped out from our exciting weekend, but we enthusiastically enourage you to see the treasures at the National Archives building if you’re in Washington, and of course to stop in Gettysburg if you’re in that part of Pennsylvania. Talk about an encounter with history! Our friend Ben is still reeling.                           

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1. deb - May 12, 2008

As late as it is, I didn’t spit coffee, but something made of hops and barley when read that our reps should see the actual documents to remind themselves what the BLEEP they were doing to begin with. Common sense is sometimes really funny. Don’t do me this way after 10:00pm.

Er, sorry! But wouldn’t it be great if they had to start each day by reciting the whole thing, sort of like the Pledge of Allegiance in school? Do ’em good, I say!

2. ceecee - May 12, 2008

Hooray, what a great weekend! I am constantly amazed that such documents still exist—there weren’t modern ways of making sure mold, mildew, and silverfish didn’t make short work of those paper documents.

Civil war–oxymoron at its best.

Tom Jefferson’s handwriting??? Now I’m intrigued and will have to spend an hour or so wandering around in Google. Maybe his penmanship teacher was from another country??

I don’t know what shaped Jefferson’s handwriting, CeeCee, but it was in stark contrast to everyone else’s. Maybe he used one style for formal documents and another in his journals and notes. Or maybe it was just the sign of a modern mind!

3. ceecee - May 12, 2008

As I predicted, I spent way too much time on Jefferson this morning. Time well spent, as history can only be learned from.

I have a theory as to TJs penmanship. In the short amount of time I spent Googling him this morning, I discovered that he was VERY educated in many things. I wonder if his penmanship could be chalked up to taking far, far too many notes as a student? Much like “doctor scribble” of today. The documents that I saw that seemed like he wrote the entire thing (not just signed after a secretary penned) were awful.
What I can’t locate, is why he crossed the f’s in his name, as though they were t’s.
No matter, great brain food this early in the morning. Thank you.

Thank *you*, CeeCee! Now we all know a bit more about Mr. Jefferson! Time well spent, indeed.

4. Thomas Clump - May 12, 2008

Seeing those documents is enough to cause a lump in the throat. The public vault in which they reside houses the soul of America and all that is best in it.

Blessedly, there is no admission charge, which makes the National Archives one of the best bargains for any visitor. But that only makes sense — how can you put a price on the priceless that is our national heritage?

It’s fitting that Gettysburg figures in your post. The battle preserved what the Constitution enshrined, giving steel to the words.

Good points, Thomas, and thanks for sharing them! The fact that all the Smithsonian museums are free is a wonderful opportunity for Americans and international visitors to enjoy a broad spectrum of cultural treasures.

5. scm - May 13, 2008

Oh, what fun, Ben! You led me astray because I just had to go check out the online exhibits section of the web site for the National Archives: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/
In the Charters of Freedom portion of the web site, there’s the usual image of the Dec. of Ind. but there’s also an image of what the poor thing actually looks like these days. I see what you mean! Let’s hope it’s not some metaphor for disappearing liberties.
The photo collection of workers and some of the other exhibits are fun too. …And probably should share the blame with you for absolutely preventing me from doing what I was supposed to.

Thanks for the link, scm! We certainly had a grand time checking it out. I forgot to mention the Archives gift shop in my post, but it, too, is a lot of fun. Not only can you buy full-size reproductions of all three documents (mercifully, with a legible Declaration of Independence) and all kinds of history-related products for adults, but they have an outstanding selection of books and history-themed games for kids. I couldn’t resist buying two children’s books myself (one on Ben Franklin, of course!).

6. Cinj - May 13, 2008

I actually visited the national archives when I was in ninth grade. Of course I had zero interest in history at the time. What I would give to be able to go back to D.C. again. Well, on the bright side I got a picture of my crush in front of the building. Or was that in front of the library of congress? Ahem! Well, it was a *few* years ago….

Ha! Well, at least the trip wasn’t *completely* wasted! And you can always do as my parents did and plan a family vacation there when the kids are a bit older. I’m sure we didn’t appreciate it as much as we should have, either, but it did make a lasting impression on us!

7. Curmudgeon - June 4, 2008

This post cristalized something for me that had been nagging at my brain for a while now. My family settled in NJ and later DE when we arrived in the US. We often took school trips to PA and DC. There was/is such a sense of History in your area. I remember feeling it again after a decade in the midwest when I returned to DE to teach for a year. The architecture contributes much to this sense. Out here in the PNW I don’t get that sense of History. Instead I am stopped in my tracks every morning by the natural beauty splendor. Being nestled between two mountain ranges is quite spectacular. And the smell of the sea also is most compelling. But not so much a sense of History.
–Curmudgeon

Wow, yes, that would be quite splendid! I agree with you about the architecture around here, though, especially the old stone buildings. They almost reek history!


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