So how would you explain, in a day when the influence of the written word is supposed to be at an all-time low, why people would still line up by the hundreds for a chance to peek-maybe for just 30 seconds or so-at the handful of documents that shaped the birth of America?
It was 97 degrees in the shade-one of the hottest days of the summer in Washington, D.C.-when I found myself standing outside the National Archives in a line of people dripping perspiration along Constitution Avenue. The guard said we would wait 45 minutes just to get in the first door. Then we would linger impatiently for another quarter hour for our security screening, which would qualify us for still a third line to gaze on the documents themselves. We had headed for this appointment about 2:30 in the afternoon, and wouldn't get out of the building until after 5:00.
It had been at least 20 years since I had done this with my own children, and now my wife and I were doing it with our oldest grandson. We had asked Emmett, when he turned 10, to pick a city where we could spend a few days sightseeing and getting to know each other better. I was pleased when he picked Washington, D.C., but a bit surprised when one of the first things he put on his must-see list was the Declaration of Independence.
"Why?" I asked him. "To see what those people thought was so important to defend," he told me. His own dad is in Iraq for a year, serving with the National Guard, so his sense of the cost of freedom has a personal if not yet fully developed dimension.
But neither is my own sense of the cost of freedom fully developed. So I was curious, and went back to the National Archives building the next day; it was even hotter, and the lines were slightly shorter. But I wanted to ask half a dozen people what specifically motivated them to put up with such sweaty discomfort just to see something so faded it was quite impossible to read.
Fred Burns of Fort Worth, Texas, said he had come for inspiration. "Probably not before then or since have human beings ever spelled out the cause of freedom so grandly," he said.
Such eloquence was also on the mind of Donna Holtzclaw from Pittsburgh. "I can't imagine anyone in government these days being able to state all those important ideas so beautifully-and so succinctly," she observed. "They had to be inspired." We chatted about an internet note we had both received comparing the length of the Declaration of Independence (1,300 words), the Gettysburg address (286 words), and the Ten Commandments (179 words) with a purported version of government regulations on the sale of cabbage (26,911 words).
Don and Marie Braun of Portland, Ore., were there, as were dozens of others, with their family-in their case, two homeschooled sons and three daughters. Indeed, the line might well have been only half as long if everyone had dropped out who was being semi-forced to get this history lesson. Yet even that meant something. What was it that compelled these parents, grandparents, teachers, scoutmasters, and others to say to the children in their charge: "This is important."
I was hoping I might bump into someone in the long line who came from Iraq, so I could ask whether they could imagine a circumstance 229 years from now in Baghdad. But I found instead a young Turkish couple who told me they wanted to see these foundational documents just because they had proved to be a pattern for so many other new governments, including some from the Islamic world perhaps now coming into being.
Indeed, it is a measure of the documents ensconced on Constitution Avenue that even though dozens of new democracies have been established around the world since 1776, nobody turns-at least not yet-to any of them to see how it ought to be done.
"Roots do matter," said LeRoy Bontrager of Goshen, Ind., when I asked him why the Archives are so popular even on a roaster-oven day in Washington. And especially the roots of a tree that, with all its deficiencies and imperfections, still flourishes.