On a cold, gray day in Washington, D.C., I stood in a line. At the other end lay the opportunity to view the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

The United States started as a humble collection of settlements on an unknown continent. Over about a century and a half, a stubborn bunch of colonials eventually threw off the heavy hand of King George III and declared independence.

The decision was a courageous one. Britain was then the most powerful nation on earth.

For the colonists to brazenly challenge that power was incredible enough. That they succeeded was miraculous.

Once inside, I end up outside a huge rotunda. Before me are two massive and ornate titanium gates.

A guard appears, talking in a heavy accent – West African, unless I miss my guess. There’s something very appropriate about that. After a few brief instructions, we enter.

I see two massive murals depicting the Founding Fathers. They flank two huge granite columns topped with eagles, at the base of which lie America’s most precious written documents.

I have to wait my turn, but standing at last before them, I am curiously moved. Encased in everything-proof glass are the documents that launched our nation.

To my right stand a couple from Germany, to my left, another couple from Russia.

Both converse in hushed tones. I don’t understand the languages, but I know awe and respect when I hear it.

Looking closely, I see that the ink has faded. I wonder how long it will be before these words vanish completely.

There are copies, yes. But as long as the originals exist, people will feel inspired, connected in a personal way.

Eventually, time will leave nothing but blank parchment.

I marvel at the writing. It is ornate, yet readable; lines ruler-straight and even, each word, each letter, perfectly formed.

In a world of word processing and laser printers, it’s hard to imagine that a mere human was responsible for such flawless artistry.

At the top, three words are written boldly, with obvious pride: “We the People.”

Even more than two centuries later, these are the words that define our nation.

I turn to the Declaration of Independence. About 11 years older, the words have almost completely faded. But memory supplies them …

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed.”

“We, therefore … solemnly publish and declare, that these united colonies are … Free and Independent States.”

For the first time, America had spoken, clearly, loudly and bravely.

Independence wouldn’t be easy. Ahead lay two destructive wars against Britain. While soldiers were fighting in the fields, other men were struggling in Congress, trying to define this new thing called the United States of America.

Despite their age, the words ring just as loudly today as they did then. They are unique in human history, because no other nation has tried so hard to dissolve caste and class, to ensure that individual success is limited only by the will and effort of that individual.

My eyes are suddenly drawn to the document’s lower right quadrant. There, three words survive, the ink still bold and black: “Free and independent.”

We are still a young nation, as history measures, and we have made our share of mistakes. But no nation has ever been more committed to the highest of human ideals. No nation has ever shed so much blood in defense of others, of liberty for all. And in the eyes of millions throughout the world who desire freedom, there is still no place on earth that shines as bright.


Ralph Couey is a freelance writer living in Somerset.

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