Yesterday evening I watched a baseball game and, afterward, fireworks. It was a moving experience, standing in a stadium on a warm western evening, watching and listening to the celebration of our nation’s independence. I cried. It was hard to think of what I might write, here. Democracy always hangs in the balance. It is not a state of being – we have to work for it every day. This realization takes me back to an experience I had last summer, in Washington D.C. I wrote about witnessing the Declaration of Independence. Upon rereading my reflection, it seems even more powerfully relevant today. Retirement tip #11 – Do not take freedom for granted. Pay attention. Be kind. Stay involved. Use your voice – young people need the wisdom of their elders. Go see the Declaration of Independence if you can – it’s the best read in the universe. Vote.
I stood inches from the Declaration of Independence, in proximity to tangible evidence of this nation’s identity. I started to cry. As a teacher, I have read about and taught students about the Declaration of Independence. That Sunday morning, it became unexpectedly real for me. Fragile parchment spread with faded, gracefully executed script. Signatures penned by the very hands of men who conspired to create a new nation.
The Rotunda of our National Archives was filled with whispering patient visitors. We waited, in a group of perhaps 40, at the foot of wide stairs, and then advanced into a round room. Such beautiful stairs, landings, walls – marble and polished granite everywhere. Gleaming iron-spiked barriers, gracefully determined to protect this sanctuary. A banner hung in swag, tacked to the center of the domed ceiling, a time-line tracing the evolution of amendments to our Constitution. Gilded cases in circumference, held documents written more than 200 years ago. I imagined the warm palms of Colonel Timothy Matlack, Thomas Jefferson’s secretary, scribing the words. I imagined serious men gathered, searching for the best words to express their frustration, their beliefs and determination, electrifying yet still, hot, humid air on that day in 1776. The Rotunda, where I stood, was cool, dim, vibrating with measured voices, every pair of eyes fixed on words beneath glass. It was not hot or humid or turbulent with the excitement and trepidation that first gave the words life. It was pure awe. It was like being in church.
The passage of time whittles away, in increments, at these documents and their meaning. Air and light subtly degrade and disintegrate the paper upon which our promise of freedom is written. Those who take responsibility for preserving this heritage have given great thought to the particulars of doing so. It is not a photograph of these documents in a book that the people desire – it’s the real deal. Crisp and delicate paper traced with faded ink; the spirit of each man who touched that paper. That is what we line up to see. I am so grateful that these treasures have been preserved and made accessible.
In the context of unfolding events this July, I recognize that more consequential than the potential of time’s chemical decomposition, these documents face intellectual weathering and a dream of independence that has not yet been fully realized. The proper tone and spirit urged by Thomas Jefferson must be continually kept in our sights. The truths understood by our founding fathers seem self-evident, but not to all people – not in all circumstances. The unalienable rights to which we feel so firmly attached cannot be taken for granted. We must hold tightly to the belief that governments derive power from the consent of the governed, every citizen, and that people have a right to reject power that does not seem likely to bring about or preserve their safety and happiness.
As I reflect on my visit to the National Archives, the connection that I experienced to my own birthright, I find myself weary with concern. Troubling words that reflect conflicting values and political ideologies creep, like rising water, into our tomorrows, my tomorrows, and yours. I hear liberty and independence parroted, but I am not sure that I really hear of care for the protection of the rights of our people. We have heard hollow tone and misplaced spirit before; we have ferociously defended against what Dwight Eisenhower called demagogic extremists. We seem to be charging at windmills with self-serving arrogance, resentment and anger, greed, and righteous indignation aimed at reviving that which we have already determined is not right.
Being that close to our Constitution and the Declaration of Independence changed my sense of who I am. Those became words that belonged to me as a citizen and I cried at the very thought of being in the same room with them. I will not forget what it feels like to be inches away from the evidence preserved for me by our National Archives – that all men are created equal and that we all deserve to be treated with this level of respect, despite our differences. In order to form a more perfect union we must embrace our lack of perfection and dedicate ourselves to lifting one another toward our highest aspirations. When I listen to those who appear to elevate themselves at the expense of others, I will remember what it feels like to stand in the Rotunda of the National Archives, seeing the signatures of men who believed in one another and took a risk, trusted one another, to declare that we deserve to be free of bigotry and oppression.