I believe the core of our national identity resides at 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. The National Archives is home to the United States Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, the two documents that created us.
“Genius loci” is Latin for “spirit of a place.” The Romans dedicated alters to genii loci of their empire to capture the greatness of their vast reach across the continent.
Things are bad. As a country, we’re on our knees. Gunmen are waltzing into schools with assault rifles, ICE raids are pulling families apart, and our leader can’t get off Twitter long enough to care. My best guess is that this isn’t what Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had in mind when they wrote our country into existence. Now, more than ever, it is time to look back and remember where we started.
I believe the genius loci of our country is found at the National Archives. This black and white photo essay consists of images that best capture the vast importance of the building and the history inside.
Congress authorized construction in 1926 and broke ground in 1931. The Archives opened to the public in 1935. The Greco-Roman architecture is imposing. The columns, the glass, the carvings of the guardians over the columns. The details reinforce the idea that this is a place of almost unimaginable historical importance.
The National Archives, like most of the buildings downtown, is carefully guarded by a committed team of men and women. This is Brian, he has been assigned to the Archives for six years.
When he was hired for this job he had dreamed of his whole life, Brian took an oath, like all government employees do, to “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Except unlike all the other government officials who utter those words, Brian physically protects and defends our Constitution. He and his fellow officers are responsible for putting their bodies in between danger and the most important pieces of paper in this country. Brian is the guardian of our past. He protects where we come from and who we are.
In a million many ways, America today is not the America the Framers knew. Technological advances, population changes, 37 new states, and 242 years of progress would make our country almost unrecognizable to them today. As I sat on the sidewalk along Constitution Avenue, I watched the past and the present come together.
Tourists stopped to take photos, D.C. business-people sauntered along, talking loudly into their cell phones. Mothers pushed strollers along, and teenage boys flew by on skateboards. Metro buses glide past the building. It was a sea of modern humanity surging all around the fortress of history. No one ever stopped to take it in.
“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.” Thomas Jefferson’s words mean more today than they did in 1776. We’ve expanded the meaning of “men are created equal” to include people of all genders, races, sexualities, and backgrounds.
We’ve expanded our definition of American, but we’ve held onto the promises the Framers made for what it means to live in a country of liberty and justice and peace. That isn’t where we are right now, but we can’t give up on those ideals.
I’m not saying that the National Archives is going to solve political strife in America. But I am saying that maybe if we all spent a little bit of time here, we would remember that we’re not as different as we think. The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were written to unite us, not tear us apart. Maybe the occasional reminder of that would make us a little bit more apt to compromise, to love our neighbor, to remember what it means to be an American.