Peering over the Declaration of Independence in the dim rotunda.
I went to see the Declaration of Independence yesterday.
I knew going in that going to the National Archives on July 3 would fall somewhere in between a poor idea and phenomenally stupid. And to be sure, the lines were long, but I'd been meaning to go for awhile, and I had the day off, and it seemed the thing to do.
I'm pretty sure I saw the Declaration before, as part of my eighth grade field trip to Washington DC. But I don't remember it, and I certainly didn't understand the importance of that one extremely faded piece of parchment in not only U.S. history, but the history of the whole world.
My history education up to and beyond that eighth grade year consisted of an endless stream of dates that I memorized, regurgitated for tests, and subsequently forgot. I thought history was boring, and like many of my classmates, I questioned why we needed to waste time on this stuff.
What I've come to realize in the last few years is that my history education failed me, in the most fundamental way possible. It failed me when it comes to facts, and it failed to instill that passion for history which had been lying dormant until popular culture roused it out.
Popular culture came in multiple forms, but two were key — the brilliant historical novels of Patrick O'Brian, and HBO's miniseries on John Adams. Fictional, and dramatized, respectively, these two things were the first real indication I saw that history was messy, and populated by real people, and seemingly impossible coincidences.
In the last year or two, I've learned that John Adams defended the British soldiers accused of the Boston Massacre, and won. I've learned that Adams and Thomas Jefferson concluded one of the most amazing correspondences in history by dying on the same day — the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. I've learned that our former Vice President killed our first Secretary of Treasury in a duel. I've learned that John Quincy Adams, after serving a term as President, and then being elected to numerous terms in the House of Representatives, defended the slaves from La Amistad.
Why weren't these a part of my history education? Why was I memorizing dates when there were such riches to learn about?
And why was I taught such a factually wrong version of some events? Up until I started reading history books, I was under the impression that the Revolutionary War went like this:
The British were really stupid, and wore red coats, and marched in straight lines across the country. We hid in the bushes and picked them off like snipers, and eventually they tired of this and gave up and went home.
Which is not remotely what happened. Yes, the Continental Army scored some amazing successes given that it was composed largely of militiamen with no professional soldiering experience. But the Revolutionary War was still a long, hard-fought (on both sides), bloody war, and the outcome was in doubt for many years. General George Washington had plenty of blunders in managing the war, particularly in the beginning.
And perhaps that's where my history education failed me most. I left school with the impression that the founding fathers were deities, far wiser than modern men, who knew exactly what they were doing when they drafted the documents that founded our country.
That couldn't be farther from the truth. They didn't have a grand, prophetic vision of a government that would see the country through the centuries. Once the fog of revolution had cleared, they devolved into party politics as vicious and bitter as any since. Republicans and Federalists disagreed vehemently on how to best govern the country, and hold the union together. They completely sidestepped the issue of slavery, holding up the reason — or excuse — of avoiding civil war, and left it to later generations to solve.
In short, these guys didn't know what they were doing any more than we do now. I find that kind of reassuring, personally.
And deities? Not at all. Each one of them was a real person, with both great virtues and great flaws. You could fill an entire library on the contradictions of Jefferson's character alone. But the fact that they're not perfect makes them far more interesting.
And the fact that they're real people doesn't make what they accomplished 233 years ago any less magnificent. This group of people — characters that grew larger and larger on the stage of history — signed their name to a document, committed treason, and launched democracy for the modern world.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Because I know that, now — because I understand those words — I care a lot more about that document. I understand what it means, and that's why I was willing to stand in line yesterday to see it.
If only I'd gotten that out of history class.
Signatures on a print of the Declaration. The signatures on the original are heavily faded. More pictures from the Archives.