In something approaching, but failing to achieve, respectful silence, shuffling in subdued light through the cavernous rotunda, separated from our prey by a sheet of bulletproof glass, the group comes within sight of the Declaration of Independence. Well: a copy of it. There are, i subsequently discover, twenty five others. But this is THE copy: the copy everyone has heard of, the copy that Cusack steals in National Treasure, the one that reverential children stare at worthily before heading to McDonalds for lunch. Something high on my own mind after queueing for an hour in the scorching heat to get into the fortress of the National Archive.
The Declaration itself runs to four pages: large parchment sheets, carefully flattened, lovingly held flat by clear perspex clips, laid out for our perusal, something between a document and a saintly relic, for the Declaration is more than simply words: it’s the aspiration and embodied sentiment of a nation.
Smudges are interesting: marks made despite care, signs of a hand, shadows of production. The closest we can get to the creation of the thing itself is the texture of the writing, the slope and pitch of the letters, the thickness and wastage of the ink, the scratching and indentation, the deposition of colour and the careful highlighting of key words, emphasised in heavier inking or prominent display.
The words are old, not ancient: still easily decipherable both in terms of clarity and language. And the words are familiar: phrases made famous through popular culture and permeation into everyday language. We the people.
I find it an interesting intellectual exercise to imagine how the original scribes would view the scene today: their manuscript, which once they rolled up and carried by hand now entombed in the truest sense of the word. I suspect it’s held in an inert atmosphere: argon maybe, too precious even to be entrusted to the air that we breathe. Nothing lasts forever, but it’s a fair bet that these four pages will outlast America itself, or at least won’t fail for lack of trying.
America has an uneasy relationship with formality: for all it’s claims of a new world order, it draws heavily upon Roman iconography and monumental architecture, albeit updated and made somehow more massive for a modern age. Indeed, DC itself reminds me somewhat of a purpose build capital and, simultaneously, somewhat of a mausoleum: a future archaeologists dream of ceremonial avenues, ritual scatters of sculpture and crumbled stone ruins. Perhaps in one of these they’ll find the still intact case of the Bill of Rights. Or maybe a fossilised Golden Arch and McHappy meal box.
There’s no escaping the sense of enclosure and constraint in this space: not just dim, quite dark. Much darker than in the photos. The light steals years from life: already the ink is faded to brown, in some places, almost lost to sight. As meaning is transferred to culture, the words themselves fade, their power elongated and distributed throughout the society that they created. When an idea is put into words, and the words spread into shared ideas, the words themselves become simply tokens, symbolic of the living ideal. The fainter the letters become, the stronger the idea is.
But everything is about context: studying ancient relics the context can be entirely lost. Words themselves are simply geometry, imbued with meaning. If the meaning is lost, decontextualised, the ideas themselves fade. It is possible for ideas to persist as shadows, thinly spread through philosophy and culture, guiding principles whose origin is gone.
The acolytes of this temple are not lithe, bronzed athletes, nor vestal virgins, but rather a motley crew of the overweight, over zealous and over bored. Well meaning and gentle, they fulfil the role of both guardian, tech priest and storyteller, almost in equal measure: tending to the crowds, issuing warning and greetings, shepherding the flock. One guard, manning an xRay machine, makes the same joke over and over to each new face: when i leave, half an hour later, he’s still at it. It speaks to the questions: what is the Declaration? It’s no war trophy, nor some carved sculpture, but it is both borne of war and tactile in itself.
It’s a tourist attraction, but also a site of veneration and worship: a focal point for school trips where children learn stories of times gone by. It’s education as entertainment: not simply a neutral display or scholarly presentation, but rather a coherent and crafted story of the history of a nation.
At the end of the document are a series of signatures, grouped by brackets labelled with the name of an original founding State. Some names are familiar: names that, after this signing, would go on into history, carving out a new role in a new nation. Others, obscured by history. The signatures are distinct: some strong and clear, some hesitant or more carefully scribed: each bestowing upon the Declaration an integrity and authenticity, each codifying it into history.
This last page is a polaroid: a snapshot of time, a gathering, a moment of unity out of conflict. The signatories united: in contrast to the careful lettering of the main document, the various autographs vary in both size and placement: additions to the document, not seamlessly flowing from it.
In some ways, i feel a little jealous: sure, in England we have some great history… not least of which, the Magna Carta, is around three times as old. But it’s more obscure, less penetrable, indeed, not easily readable with my schoolboy Latin and French. The declaration is, somehow, more immediate, more relevant, more full of hope (the Magna Carta was effectively a peace treaty: the Declaration is the birth of a nation).