In the context of a world where everything is partisan, everything is divided, everything pushes us to make an affirmative choice between red and blue, conservative or liberal, this week I watched the second confirmation hearing of Dr. Colleen J. Shogan to be Archivist of the United States. As the custodian of the records of all three branches of our government and the manager of all presidential libraries, the position is, by law, apolitical and non-partisan. The aggressive questioning of the nominee again sounded like we were in search of a candidate who was not only non-partisan but had grown to adulthood with no opinions on issues of the day, no scholarly footprint, and no engagement with the marketplace of ideas. Like Athena, we are in search of a candidate sprung from the forehead of Zeus to become a symbol of wisdom, the arts, and classic learning. As usual in the search for an Archivist, the Senate is longing for a candidate who doesn’t exist.
It made me think back to the night in 1995 when we opened our exhibit American Originals in the rotunda of the National Archives in Washington DC. We were experiencing the aftershocks of the Republican Revolution. Bill Clinton was President and his party had suffered an historic defeat in the 1994 midterm elections. The Senate Republicans had gained eight seats and made Bob Dole the Majority Leader. Newt Gingrich and his disciples had run on the Contract with America and put 54 new Republicans into the House, thus making him a powerful new Speaker. There were 10 new Republican governors and the party also made major gains in state legislatures.
The public history world of Washington was still reeling from the firing of the founding Historian of the House of Representatives, Dr. Raymond Smock. A former history and geography professor at the University of West Georgia (Go Wolves), Gingrich assumed that the devil lurked in the hearts of all former Democratic appointees, and replaced Smock with Dr. Christina Jeffrey. It was soon learned that she had once evaluated a junior high school curriculum on the Holocaust as unworthy of funding because it failed to adequately present the point of view of the Nazi’s. To his credit, Gingrich quickly pulled the plug on that nomination and stopped the bleeding.
On that lovely night in the rotunda, while shaken by the early tremors of the revolution and worried what it would mean to the heretofore non-partisan world of American history, we had no idea what we were in for in Washington, America, and the World.
One specific memory of that night stands out as proof that the political litmus tests that would become routine had not been fully formed and patented. Take immigration for example.
We were still one year away from the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform Act of 1996 that increased resources for border patrol, added to interior policing authorities and added additional requirements for asylum seekers. But compared to welfare reform and other debates of the day, it was still getting bipartisan support in the village square.
When Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy arrived at the reception that evening, I was asked by his staff to accompany him through the exhibit. In those pre-renovation days, the rotunda was ringed by bronze and glass exhibit cases that were used to display our documents. The American Originals exhibit featured some of our “greatest hits” of American history and were accompanied by text and graphic panels attached to the wall above each encased document.
When we reached the exhibit case containing the deed of gift for the Statue of Liberty, the Senator abruptly stopped dead in his tracks and as I described the document he was clearly moved. I explained that on the fourth of July, 1884, the French people presented the deed of gift to Levi Morton, the US Minister to France, officially bestowing America with the colossal “Liberty Enlightening the World”. Sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi created the Statue of Liberty both in honor of the friendship between France and the United States and to commemorate the centennial of American independence.
But when I looked back at the Senator he was transfixed on the panel above the exhibit case. It contained a little-known quote from President George Washington, probably to this day the most iconic figure in American history. The quote read:
“I had always hoped that this land might become a safe and agreeable asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong.”
Senator Kennedy turned to me and said, “Now there is a vision that needs to be shared with the American public. By George Washington, none the less.”
Kennedy quoted it the next day on the floor of the US Senate and often used it in speeches thereafter.
He asked me that night whether there was any possibility that he might get that text panel when the American Originals went off display. I always knew the right answer to such requests and told him that I would personally see that that happened. I still remember the day I delivered it.
I recently thought about that night during a presentation by Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church Michael Curry at my parish, St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Raleigh, NC. As the former Bishop of North Carolina, we have a special relationship with Bishop Curry and this is his second recent visit.
His theme on Monday night, February 27 was the need for the Episcopal Church to help lead America away from the extremes and back to the quiet center. He presented it as all of our jobs to live out Jesus’s directive to love our neighbor.
As the Presiding Bishop of not just the Episcopal Church in America, but dioceses in Haiti, Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Honduras, Venezuela, and Micronesia, Bishop Curry sees his ministry including that “persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong.”
In that context he recited the full text of that elegant poem that is written on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. We all know a couple of the most famous phrases, but it’s totality is a brilliant reaction to the colonialism that was sweeping the world in the late 19th Century including the carving up of the African continent and America’s own Chinese Exclusionary Act.
Emma Lazarus, American poet (1849-1887) wrote the poem “The New Colossus” in 1883 to raise money for the construction of the pedestal for the statue whose full official name is Liberty Enlightening the World. The opening imagery references the giant Colossus that guarded the harbor at Rhodes, not as a welcoming beacon, but as a memorial to victory in war.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land,
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch,
Whose flame is the imprisoned lightening, and
Her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she with silent lips.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”