New Love for the Old Stuff: A Lesson in National Monuments

    The famous cracked Liberty Bell is located in Philidelphia, a city with a wealthy abundance of historical landmarks highlighting the founding of our nation. (Katie Corotto /Guardian)

    With the general election looming closer and closer every day, television and newspapers bombard the political circuit with candidates’ opposing principles and policies, which all claim one thing: the right course. Whether it be in the form of extensive change promised by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) or the central reform touted by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), politicians on the Hill have been asserting their capacity to put America back on track. But most students of political history will tell you that the country is always on the wrong path come election season, and politicians often forget their promises to the American people once votes are cast. It’s a never-ending cycle of change and turnaround that brings petty politics and hollow promises to every level of government.

    If politicians were smart, they’d stop focusing solely on the future and pay a bit more attention to the past. As McCain would say, “My friends, you must look at the records.” In this case, the records are American history 101.
    Besides being the political center of the nation, Washington, D.C. boasts an enormous amount of history that beckons to millions of tourists from around the globe who want to see how one simple act of treason more than 200 years ago became the model for the free world.

    As a history enthusiast — one who can recite the preamble to the Constitution by memory and who watched an entire John Adams miniseries with unusual zeal — I’ve been enjoying my opportunity to visit Washington, D.C.’s historical sites. I’ve been to the National Mall twice, and every Tuesday, if I don’t have class or work, I wander the Smithsonian museums, which are finally free of the weekend’s bussed-in tourists.

    While I enjoy touring our colonial history, I try to avoid sites filled with fanny-packed tourists, staggering through an unfamiliar setting with no idea where they’re going, staring at the past through a camera lens and clicking away in whatever direction their tour guide points.

    Even representatives, who rub the toe of George Washington’s statue on their way into the House chambers for luck, can forget the ideologies that Americans have trusted them to protect. Luckily, the words of wisdom and warning from the Founding Fathers are everywhere: carved into the stone floors, painted onto the high ceilings, strung along the walls and corridors of the Capitol, the White House, the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress. Elected officials and see-all-the-sites-in-a-day vacationers would do well to take a tour from a capable guide, one who dispels the stereotype of tedium and really brings the past alive. Mary, the tour guide from Philadelphia, can do just that.

    When she arrived for our scheduled tour in colonial attire, complete with a white lacy bonnet, I inwardly groaned. However, she led us around the landmarks of the old city with ease, pointing out the various points of interest with a matter-of-fact attitude that made me wonder whether she’d been alive during the time period she’d just discussed.

    “You know, Benjamin Franklin was appointed as an ambassador to France in 1776, where he developed a fetish for French women,” she said. “But he liked the French and eventually reworked his approach to European diplomatic relations, which later helped secure the Treaty of Paris in 1783. He showed that it pays to have foreign friends.”

    In one go, she told me more about a Founding Father’s life, both political and marital, than I’d ever read about in a history textbook — and I retained it. Mary kept history fresh, entertaining and relevant.

    In the same way, because our country is so young, our history is well preserved. There are preserved copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and our Constitution, the last of which looks as though it was signed yesterday. That kind of history is tangible enough to generate pride even from us, the 11th generation of Americans since the founding of the United States. The time capsule-like preservation makes monuments and documents more than just history and grounds them in modernity, for better or worse.

    Abraham Lincoln, sitting high in his marble chair, may inspire awe or a camera-happy reaction, but the words carved into the sides of his memorial are true to the time and lessons of history — a characteristic similar to many of our monuments and much of our national history — that sometimes go unheeded.

    A student studying in Washington, D.C. snaps a photo of one of the many statues standing throughout the Rotunda, a room inside the Capitol building that divides the two chambers, the House and the Senate, and a popular site-seeing attraction in the nation’s capital, where history is the biggest tourist attraction. (Courtesy of Katie Corotto)

    George Washington’s warning against unwarranted involvement in foreign nations’ affairs in his farewell message must have been overlooked by President George W. Bush when he entered Iraq. James Madison wrote about the evils of political factions and partisanship in dividing the nation to the point of inefficacy in legislation, a lesson that would have been helpful to those who failed to foresee and properly address the financial market crisis until now. The list of politicians who should have heeded history only grows by the day: Ted Stevens should have known about the consequences of corruption from Thomas Jefferson; Michelle Bachman might have learned something about Americanism from John Adams; and as Mary the tour guide pointed out, there is something to be said about sexual discretion, a lesson Tim Mahoney learned too late.

    America is a country divided by religious, racial, social and economic disparities as well as regional boundaries. There is one thing that tethers us to each other and to this land: the preservation of the principles upon which our nation was founded. And the easiest way to remember this tie is to study a little American history, to see the monuments, museums and memorials and to appreciate this country for what it has been and what it can become.

    With any luck, the first act of the new president-elect on Nov. 5 will be to take a tour of the Washington they live and work in, carefully taking note of history to learn a thing or two about the right course for America. Hopefully, they’ll bring more than a fanny-pack and a camera.

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