Things to Do in D.C.–National Archives and Library of Congress

Interior of Library of Congress
Interior of Library of Congress

As an American historian, there are some sights and cities that I feel compelled to visit—almost as if I’m on a holy quest. Although there are plenty of things to do in Washington, D.C., I want to concentrate on just two historic places—visiting the Library of Congress and the National Archives. These DC hotspots house the works of my nation’s greatest thinkers, statesmen (and women), writers, and artists. The United States was inspired by Enlightenment thinking that stressed the ability to use logic and reason to govern. We the people created a nation that would be strong as long as we had a knowledgeable and informed citizenry actively engaging in it. Our forefathers placed a lot of stock in knowledge, it “being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind…” (Northwest Ordinance, 1787) As collectors of the nation’s knowledge, the Library of Congress and National Archives help forward our democracy.

20140102_143251The Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress (across from the Capitol) was designed in the Beaux Arts style and finished at the end of the 19th century. It’s elaborate façade foretells the treasures inside. It’s main reading room is one of the most beautiful in the world. Upon entering, I am inspired. The building is palatial—the rooms are exquisitely designed as befits the ruler of this estate—wisdom. In the main reading room, statues stand like sentries protecting the readers as they study. Other rooms house exhibits highlighting historical documents, Thomas Jefferson’s library, and much more. Bibliophiles will be ecstatic, but those with an appreciation for arts and architecture will be delighted, too.

Free, one-hour tours of the Library of Congress are offered regularly and allow you to learn about the symbolism of the building and view its main reading room. Location: 10 First St. SE

At 700 Pennsylvania Avenue stands the neo-classical building (1935) that houses our National Archives. Four sculptures representing the Future, the Past, Heritage, and Guardianship flank the entrances. Walking into the National Archives always gives me a thrill! The colonnade out front is reminiscent of a Greek temple. I think about how the Greeks used this design to honor their gods and I smirk at how frequently the deity theme is replicated throughout D.C. (and also our financial institutions). 

Although the Magna Carta, the Louisiana Purchase Treaty, and the Emancipation Proclamation undoubtedly thrill, for me the pieces de resistance are the foundational works of our government: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. I get butterflies as I get closer to the “Charters of Freedom” room. Isn’t that a great name!?! For a history geek like me, having these three documents all in the same room is pretty much utopia. The room itself is grand. With a large rotunda and two Faulkner murals (depicting the presentation of the Declaration and the Constitution), the room befits the riches it holds.

You can no longer really read the words of the Declaration because they are too faded, but that is alright since it wasn’t meant to be read–it was meant to be declared. The sentiments were meant to be held in our minds…and our hearts.  At the New York Public Library, they have a copy of one of Jefferson’s speaking drafts of the Declaration. On the copy, you can see the marks that he made as to how the piece should be spoken. He noted when the reader’s voice should elevate and when it should fade away. That document reinforces to me the importance of stating our intentions aloud, with eloquence and pride, for all to hear (especially for those who could not read).

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.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

I’m not sure that more beautiful words were ever crafted. They bring tears to my eyes and I love thinking about how Thomas Jefferson was chosen to be the primary creator of the document. I laugh thinking about a part of the conversation between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson when Jefferson questioned why he was chosen.

Jefferson to Adams: You should do it.
Adams to Jefferson: I will not! You should do it.
Jefferson: Why?
Adams: Reasons enough…Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise.

Of course, writing prowess also played a role as did the fact that Jefferson was a Virginian, but still, to think about the role that popularity played in such a pivotal moment in our nation’s history is flabbergasting. Revolutions are not led by unpopular people!

Once you have finished viewing the “Charters of Freedom,” there are many other exhibits to uncover. The “Records of Rights” exhibit shows how different groups came to achieve the “blessings of liberty.” The “Public Vault” displays family/citizenship records, legal documents, war/diplomacy records, frontier documents, notable firsts, and explains how documents become records. Traveling exhibits change frequently and, at the time of this publication, “Spirited Republic: Alcohol in American History” was displayed.

A trip to the National Archives is a pilgrimage for me—my soul is full once I gaze upon all the works that have contributed to our republic and to a more inclusive vision of equality. I hope that you can visit soon, but in the meantime you can check out digital versions of the exhibits at both locations: http://www.archives.gov/museum/ and http://www.loc.gov/

Tip: To avoid lines, you can reserve your spot online through the National Archives website. Also, you might want to make a trip over to the Smithsonian Museum of American History where, upon other things, you can see the desk that Jefferson used while crafting the Declaration.

Photo attribution: NARA website (photography not allowed)
Photo attribution: NARA website (photography not allowed)