The National Archives here in Washington was first on my list of Next Museums To Visit, but having Claus here, a German with an interest in American politics, made it happen sooner than it probably would have. After all, I have emails to answer and everyone knows emails are more important than the Bill of Rights. So yesterday we took the train down to Penn Quarter and walked about 20 paces to the Archives building.
In case you’re not aware, there is no entry fee for most of the museums in D.C., thanks to federal funding. The museums are ours, you might say, and you can get away with saying that with more than a touch of pride because it is a remarkable thing to be able to open the doors to a building, walk up a short set of stairs, and go into a rotunda where the documents upon which your country was designed are waiting for you. Inside the Archives, in a single room, the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence — all originals, mind you — are on display. Inside bulletproof cases filled with inert argon gas, these papers cease to be .jpg files online or images in your son’s American History textbook. They become living things.
I’m a crier anyway, but I cried when I walked into the rotunda. These weren’t sobs; I wasn’t freaking out or hyperventilating. But I had to blink a lot to keep warm tears in. The U.S. is a different country from the one the founding fathers had in mind — by a lot, no matter what political camp you’re in — but regardless, these are words that men wrote to assert their independence from oppression and their vision for something way better than that. We’re here because of these sheets of paper and everything (oh, everything, everything) that has come after.
When you have a visitor to your town or city, you see the place through new eyes. When you have a visitor to your country — especially when you’re with them in the capitol city — you see the place with new eyes and, at the risk of sounding super gross, a new heart.