The Great American History Tour: The National Mall to The Library of Congress

by Derrick G. Jeter

Friday, 4 July 2008

 

When a free people forget the high cost of obtaining and maintaining their freedom, they are in grave danger of losing their freedom altogether.

 

A visit to Arlington National Cemetery—and in particular a visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the changing of the guard—it’s difficult to forget. On this Forth of July, we did just that—remembered the sacrifice too many have given so we might celebrate our freedom in the nation’s Capital.

 

Watching precise young men silently keep vigil over a white tomb, in the heat of the day, and surveying white grave markers dispersed over a carpet of green I couldn’t be prouder of being an American and grateful that God raised up men and women to give their lives for freedom.

 

That was how our Fourth of July began, with solemnity. It ended in on the nation’s mall, with celebration.

 

John Adams believed our great national commemoration would be July 2, the date independence was voted. He missed the date, but he didn’t miss the spirit of our celebration.

 

The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the Day of Deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more. [1]

 

For 232 years Americans have observed the birth of our nation—just as Adams described. And this year was no different. Sitting on the nation’s mall, around the stone obelisk dedicated to the man who, arguable more than any other, brought about the actuality of independence, we commemorated America’s birthday once again.

 

Citizens from all the states and freedom loving people from around the world flocked to the mall to watching the fireworks rise and explode above the Washington Monument, the World War II and Lincoln Memorials.

 

Though rain soaked it didn’t dampen our patriotic fervor and gratitude to God. Despite our country’s many faults and difficulties, we were grateful that God allows us to be free citizens in the land of free.

 

And we didn’t forget those who died to make us free.

 

Saturday, 5 July 2008

 

The Library of Congress started somewhat modestly, and misnamed. It was really the library of Thomas Jefferson, who provided the books which founded the library. Today the library houses over one hundred million books, manuscripts, maps, and various other documents and artifacts.

 

The building itself is beautifully ornate. Paintings and mosaics cover its vaulted ceilings. Statues and portraits of famous authors, historians, philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, and thinkers line its walls. And this is just the public spaces. The reading room—the actual research room—is covered in dark wood with wonderful stain-glassed windows provided natural light.

 

But as magnificent as the building is, it is the exhibits and holdings that are the real attraction. The library houses one of the complete Guttenberg Bibles. Rare maps, dating from the 15th century, were on display. But the real riches were original manuscripts and letters of our country’s founding—Thomas Jefferson’s theses on the rights of rebellion, Congress’s “Olive Branch” petition, King George’s proclamation declaring America in rebellion, John Hancock’s letter to George Washington requesting the Declaration of Independence be read to the troops, the Treaty of Paris, copies of the Articles of Confederation, correspondence regarding the creation of a Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

 

But the treasure of them all was the working copy of the Declaration of Independence. Written in Jefferson’s own hand, you could see the deletions and additions of Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable self-evident, that all men are created equal and independent” was changed by Franklin to “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” [2] It was all there. Two pages of hand written copy, front to back, which became the founding document of our nation. Unlike the original signed copy, which is faded with age and exposure, the working copy, though just as old, is pristine in comparison. And what you don’t see in the signed copy is the working of great minds as the monumental question of independence was being debated—a debate that could have cost them, in Jefferson’s words, their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

 

[1] John Adams, Adams Family Correspondence, L. H. Butterfield, ed., II, 30, quoted in David McCullough, John Adams (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 130. 

[2] See the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence with changes at http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/trt001.html.

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