The Record - January 1998

Powerful Documents Inspire a Nation

By Senator Trent Lott


Recently, my wife Tricia and I had the opportunity to visit the National Archives Building in Washington. I have seen this magnificent building hundreds of times, and have even been inside on several occasions. On this particular evening, however, I was struck by the significance of the great documents housed there, such as the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

I could not help thinking, as we inspected those documents, that the National Archives vividly demonstrates one of the most important differences between our country and the rest of the world. Some of us have visited the great nations of Europe, and perhaps we have toured the famous palaces and seen crown jewels on display in the Tower of London or elsewhere. On this side of the Atlantic, we do not have anything like that. Instead, we have these documents, and they are far more precious—to us and the rest of mankind—than the gold and gems of all of Europe's dynasties.

I find it a striking difference that this country, the most powerful on Earth, places more importance on words and ideas than on material riches. We are widely considered the richest country on Earth, precisely because we place such high importance on the ideas expressed in our Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

Sometimes we as Americans forget just how dramatically the birth of this nation changed the world. Before our founding fathers gathered during the sweltering summer of 1776 in Philadelphia and formally set into writing the radical idea that a people should rule themselves, democracy did not exist. Monarchies ruled over all countries of the world, and the strongest nations used their armies to create colonies for the glorification of those rulers.

When the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired, it signaled one of the most significant changes in the human history. "The shot heard ‘round the world" started a struggle for independence not just from England, but from despotism. Our Founding Fathers were literally the first people in history to fight and die for their God-given right to self-determination. When those out-manned revolutionaries beat the English, a bold new way of life was born.

Of course, our democratic way of life has not always been easy. Trying to balance the will of the majority with the rights of the minority on every issue is a difficult task, but it has been well worth the trouble. Because of our commitment to freedom, the United States has not only become the most powerful nation on Earth, it has also become an example, and an inspiration for the rest of human kind.

We have repeatedly taken up arms to defend freedom around the globe, defeating dictators and would-be conquerors and setting their people free. Our reverence for freedom of speech and ideas has led to unequaled literary, artistic, and scientific achievement. We have also brought together the people of every nation to live as Americans.

As I looked at those documents in the National Archives Building, I realized just how extraordinary they are. Fragile as they are, those scraps of paper have had the strength to move the world. Faded as they are, they are still a beacon to those who cherish freedom. President Reagan wanted America to always be "a shining city on a hill." We are still that shining city, shedding light so that the rest of the world might see the way.

We preserve the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, not because they are our past, but because they remain the foundation for our future. Engraved on the walls of the National Archives are the words: "What is Past is Prologue." In this country's case, that is a beautiful sentiment.

Trent Lott, Republican senator from Mississippi, is the U.S. Senate Majority Leader. This article is reprinted courtesy of the Natchez Democrat.