So this is kind of a different Fangirl Friday. It’s not my usual shtick, but I kind of wanted to share some history luv. Also, don’t worry. There’s a method to my madness.
I was recently in Philadelphia (PA). I haven’t been since I was a wee child, and I don’t recall that I was ever at some of the amazing sites in the city, including the standard symbols of Americanism, which derive from the U.S.’s founding as an independent nation in the 18th century.
I visited Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed and where the Constitution was drafted, and I was talking to a park ranger (the sites are National Park Service) there and I asked him if the bell tower of Independence Hall was ever open to the public and he laughed and said, “Have you seen the movie ‘National Treasure’ with Nicolas Cage?” And I was all, “YEAH!” And he said to get the DVD and check the extra scenes, because there’s a scene in which Cage talks about being in the bell tower (this might be the scene). The ranger said that he’s worked at the site for, like, 20 years and the tower has never been open to the public during his tenure there, but, he said, clearly the filmmakers offered something amazing to allow Cage and film people up there.
I told him that the publicity might’ve been enough incentive and he laughed and said that a case could be made for that, because ever since that movie came out, it’s been a boon to the park. As an aside, I got yelled at by another ranger because I was trying to peek into the Assembly Room without a tour. Yikes. Just a heads up, y’all. If you go to Independence Hall, DO NOT TRY TO BE NICOLAS CAGE AND COP A PEEK OF ROOMS IF YOU ARE UNACCOMPANIED BY AN OFFICIAL TOUR GROUP.
Anyway, for those not in the know, National Treasure is a 2004 movie in which Nicolas Cage plays a historian and cryptologist (named Benjamin Franklin Gates) who has been obsessed with finding the legendary Knights Templar treasure, and there are clues to its whereabouts in one of America’s most sacred documents — the Declaration of Independence. See, American Freemasons back in the Revolution era (some of whom were Founding Fathers) ended up hiding the treasure, too. To unlock the clue, he has to steal the Declaration, while being chased by nefarious forces. His search for clues takes him and his cohorts through American historical landmarks in Washington DC, Philadelphia, and Boston.
It’s basically a heist film, with lots of fun history and what I call “what-if” history. And yeah, some not-so-accurate history. But for reals. who hasn’t wanted to hunt and find treasure? I mean, c’mon!
Anyway, I enjoyed the film when it came out and I’ve seen it a few times since and I usually pick up on stuff that I didn’t notice in my initial viewing because I got caught up in the pacing and the story the first time around. Regardless, you can totally see how it might make people interested in the history of the American Revolutionary War era, and why it might encourage people to go to the historic sites that Cage and his posse went to in the film.
The funny thing is, National Treasure never entered my mind when I recently went to the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall in Philadelphia. I didn’t even make the connection until I talked to that ranger. Weird, I know.
But my friends, context is everything. I was not thinking about pop culture when I was in Philly. I was, instead, thinking about what it means to be an American, especially in the wake of what happened in the most recent elections. I was thinking about how in the hell we ever managed to get our shit together as a nation and create a movement to defy the country with the most powerful military in the world at that point.
Philadelphia itself is a symbol, in many ways, of the American ethos. It was founded by Quakers who supported the right of people to worship how they pleased, without fear of repression. It was a foment of revolutionary fervor, and the birthplace of the Declaration and the Constitution, the seminal documents of the independent American nation.
And if you know anything about American history, you know this wasn’t a seamless, rah-rah moment when everybody was on board. There were factions within this country. Many people remained loyal to England. Others were opposed to war and violence in general. Still others didn’t want to get involved because they thought no good could from it. And others were really into independence. And many of these people treated each other badly, took to the streets, engaged in violent, horrible acts, and sowed fear.
Americans haven’t really changed all that much, I got to thinking. We were contentious then, and we argued about what makes “liberty” — especially then, when a sizable portion of the American population was enslaved. We argued about what course to take with independence and what course to take in terms of setting up a federal government. We argued over slavery, we argued over women’s rights, we freaking imprisoned Japanese Americans in WWII — shit, we’ve been pulling this whole “liberty” rhetorical flourish for centuries while denying segments of the population access to it.
We are a nation of contradictions. And though we have, at various times throughout our history, come together to do the right thing in terms of the moral arc of justice and history, we are still a nation of contradictions that often does things that are completely at odds with our deep and abiding love for this amorphous principle of “liberty.”
So no, a movie was not on my mind when I went to the interpretive centers in downtown Philadelphia. And I was glad to see that they addressed this contradiction, that slavery was very much part of the debate during this era, that there were active abolition movements and groups in Philadelphia even while white men were creating documents that excluded blacks from full equality.
I was moved by the materials presented. I was moved by how the Liberty Bell has been a symbol not just for the Revolutionary era, but for many, many marginalized groups since. I like knowing this, because for too long in this country, one political ideology has laid claim to the symbols of America, and defined what it means to be American, and those definitions continue to exclude and divide, and gloss over the history or deliberately misinterpret it to fit their own narrow agendas.
That’s what I was thinking about, and it pissed me off, that according to that line of thinking, I’m not American. Or not American ENOUGH. And I thought about all those white men creating the Declaration of Independence and then the Constitution, and how they grappled with what independence meant for them, and what it meant for people not like them (in their worldview), and how some fought and argued and even came to blows over it. How some of them died for it. How some of them took to the damn streets and raised their voices in dissent or support.
And I realized that there is NOTHING more American than that, that those involved in the formation of this country ensured that Americans after them would be able to do just that, through their own arguing and debate and the enshrinement of it in documents.
As a country, we’ve screwed up since then. OMG have we screwed up. But there have always been people willing to take to the streets and call attention to things that are not moral, that do not support justice, that need to be dealt with by fellow citizens and elected officials.
And as I stood in the Assembly Room where delegates argued over the tenets of the Declaration and later over the Constitution, I could almost feel the frustration and the tension and all the mix of emotions that comes when you are at a defining moment in history and you are called to act.
I was inspired by my visit to these sites that played such a pivotal role in the founding of this nation. These sites and these documents are not only an American story, however. They’re a story of what it means to engage with your communities, and to work for change and to stand together and create something amazing even in the face of what might seem to be insurmountable opposition. These sites reminded me that the human spirit perseveres, and that yes, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it always bends toward justice.
I’m a total fan of that.
So yeah, I did find some treasures on my visit. And I didn’t need a movie to do it.
Happy Friday, Happy Fan-ing, and may the odds be EVER in our favor.