The National Archives Experience

Stephanie Flores
February 23, 2009
DC History

City as Symbol: The National Archives Experience

Washington, D.C., the speculative “city of magnificent intentions” has become the Mecca of America’s “secular civic religion.” The purpose of the construction of the capital was to show the world America’s strength, capture its idealism and embody its aspirations. According to Charles Dickens it has turned into the site of national pilgrimage where Americans as well as foreign citizens “come to seek some kind of communion with the secular civic religion.” Washington, DC captures the beliefs and ideals of the secular civic religion in its physical form. The beliefs and ideals are captured through its temple like buildings and its democratic institutions. What was a speculative illusion many years ago is now a great physical symbol of America. Americans as well as foreign citizens can encounter the communion they want with Washington, DC where democracy comes to life.

One of the most visited temple-like buildings in Washington D.C is the United States National Archives building. Since its creation in 1935, the National Archives has become the repository of the most sacred documents of the United States of America. John Russell Pope, the architech who also designed the Jefferson Memorial, designed this neo-classical building. This building maintains a permanent display of the Charters of Freedom, which are the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Americans as well as foreign citizens come to visit it and wait long lines to see the documents that define America’s democracy. These sacred texts capture American ideals. The Charters of Freedom displayed at the National Archives capture the magnificent intentions of the United States’ secular civic religion founders and it shows the path it had to go through to reach those intentions.

The exterior of the National Archives represents democracy through two visible eagles. Each eagle is holding a book that serves to show the purpose of the National Archives, which is to preserve and protect the government’s documents and records. On the interior of the National Archives there are two murals, both painted by Barry Faulkner. They are the first things that visitors are exposed to. The two murals are also the first impression that the people who visit the Charters of Freedom get. One of the murals is titled, The Declaration of Independence, which shows Jefferson handing the declaration to John Hancock and the other The Constitution, which depicts James Madison giving the United States Constitution to George Washington. The two paintings also include other founders of America’s secular civic religion. The enormous murals provoke powerful emotions among the people who visit the National Archives. Through the murals visitors encounter the founding fathers and the creators of American democratic secular civic religion.

The National Archives is an essential part of the secular civic religion since it holds its most sacred texts. The Charters of Freedom exhibition shows the evolution of America’s democracy through several documents. The Archive’s experience allows Americans to remember the continuous path of the United States to reach its magnificent intentions of providing every citizen with “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Though the Charters of Freedom defined America’s magnificent democratic intentions, reaching them have taken a long time, proving that history refines those intentions. The presentation at the Archive’s rotunda reminds us of this. The presentation of America’s governmental history at the Archives shows that there was struggle to reach the country’s magnificent democratic intentions.

The first document at the start of the Archive’s rotunda is the Declaration of Impendence, which states, “ 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.” During the creation of the nation’s capital the founders neglected their ideas expressed on the Declaration of Independence and enumerated in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. To build the capitol the founders permitted the use of slave labor. Slavery represents one of the major contradictions in American history of its values and ideals. Slaves were denied equality, liberty, and their ability to pursuit happiness. In his text Charles Dickens states that Washington, DC, “stands as a monument of to the most disturbing truths in our racial history, for embedded in the story of its creation is the role that slavery’s protectors and enslaved African Americans played in the formative years of the nation.” African Americans played a significant role in the formative years of America. During the time of the American Revolution some slaves fought against the British and gained freedom. Part of the Charter’s rotunda at the National Archives includes the name and picture of one of these slaves. The rotunda demonstrates that America had to go through a path to reach its intention and encompass everyone in its ideal of democracy, which is to provide equality, freedom and justice to every American citizen.

In her essay Capital Speculations Sarah Luria argues that “citizens cannot bond emotionally and psychologically to a written Constitution.” L’Enfant, the artist who designed the capital, saw his design as “an allegory of the new Construction,” meaning that city of Washington, DC was going to serve as a physical manifestation of the Constitution. Holding the Constitution at the National Archieves and opening it to everyone contribute to the emotional and psychological bond that American and foreign citizens create with a pilgrimage to Washington. Beeing close to the Constitution and seeing the signatures of their creators generate a sense of pride and democracy among everyone who sees it. This sense of pride and democracy eventualy translates into the bonding of visitors to the United States Constitution and the values that it represents.

The original handwritten Constitution at the National archives is an essential part of Washington, DC. The construction of the nation’s capital was similar to the “construction” of the constitution. They both had to go though conflict and compromise to be approved. To decide the location of the nation’s capital there had to be a compromise between the North and the South and to create the contitution there have to be an accord between federalists and anti-federalists. The United States Constitution and the United States capital reflect each other. Washington, DC is the physical manifestation of the U.S. Constitution, while the constitution reflects the process that the capital had to go through to become a reality.

“In his geopolitical description of America, J Hector de Crevecoeur… ties political behavior to its physical environment: ‘Men are like plants; the goodness and flavor of the fruit proceed from the particular soil and exposition from which they grow.” The nation’s capital constrcution was influenced by this theory. The Charters of Freedom like other touristic sites in Washington, DC play an important role in America’s political culture, values and civic behavior. Visitors who come to the National Archieves seeking a communion with its secular civic religion take with them the Archieves experience, which alters their connection with American values. Visiting the Archieves generate a stronger sense of pride in being part of America. At the National Archieves people are exposed to their ancestor’s political behavior and learn from it. At the National Archieves many visitors realize that they can have a communion with the secular civic religion and also participate in it to change its course. They learn that America’s democracy is refined by citizen’s actions. At the Archives they are able to see the process that America had to go through to become more democratic. They can see the original document that gave women more equality by giving them the right to vote and the document that freed a slave. These helps visitors value democracy because it opens the doors for people to fight for equality, justice and liberty.

Seeing the original handwritten documents of the American government with the signatures of the founders inspire visitors to venerate them. This part of Americans as well as foreign citizens pilgrimage to the nations capital provokes many emotions that attach them more to the secular civic region. Having a close physical contact with the sacred texts of American democracy and an encounter with the founders help visitor reach a communion with America’s secular civic religion

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License