It has been called both the physical and symbolic heart of our democracy, located within the very walls where our elected representatives in Washington make our country’s most important decisions.
The Capitol Rotunda is an impressive room, even by today’s standards. Its dome looms some 50 feet above, its array of windows cascading light on the history represented below.
Massive paintings adorn the circular walls of the rotunda space, depicting the early years of our country, including four created by the “painter of the Revolution,” John Trumbull. Probably his most famous is “Declaration of Independence,” first hung in the rotunda in 1817 — decades before construction in this part of the Capitol building would be completed.
Trumbull traveled to Independence Hall in Philadelphia to capture the room where the Continental Congress met ahead of the American Revolution. He met many of the Founding Fathers who put their freedoms — and lives — on the line by affixing their name to a document King George III considered nothing short of treason.
It’s a work of art that is still instantly recognized by just about any American, even two centuries later. But while it’s intended to depict a historical event, the truth is, Trumbull’s painting is not exactly historically accurate.
For one thing, he included just 42 of the signers. There were 56. And while seeing everyone in the same room at once to declare independence is riveting, that’s not actually how it happened. Signers came and went over a period of days, shrouded in secrecy, to sign the document. There were likely never more than a few people in the room with the Declaration of Independence before its delivery to England.
But we’re splitting hairs. What truly matters is something Trumbull could never capture with his paintbrush: true Americanism.
England was the most powerful country — the most powerful empire — on the face of the planet when the wording of the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. Yet these 56 men, representing the 13 Colonies, believed freedom could defeat that power, and that these lands on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean could indeed be free.
We refer to America as “the great experiment” — can people truly rule themselves? And while it’s no longer the only democracy, it remains one of the oldest. But longevity is not without its pitfalls. For one, the very spirit that brought these brave people together in the first place can fade.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said that “freedom has its life in the hearts, the actions, the spirit of men, and so it must be daily earned and refreshed — else like a flower cut from its life-giving roots, it will wither and die.”
The Fourth of July isn’t just about fireworks and waving the American flag, but about refreshing what freedom truly means, so that we can continue earning it every day. No one born, raised and living in America has known anything but freedom, and because of that, we can take that freedom for granted. When true threats to our democracy materialize, we may brush them off as inconsequential.
But they are not inconsequential. And we have a duty as Americans not only to remember what freedom and democracy are, but also to live them, and to lead by example. That means allowing for diversity in thoughts and opinions. That means checking oppression at the door. That means treating everyone the same way you would want to be treated.
The strength of America is not a piece of parchment carried on a ship across the Atlantic, but rather the people to which it granted freedom and independence, now nearly 250 years later.
Something John Trumbull certainly understood by not depicting what actually happened in Philadelphia in 1776, but instead capturing what that moment truly represented: governing together, and governing one another, always putting ourselves in the place of those we lead.
James Bryce, a former British ambassador to the United States, said it best in a 1909 speech he delivered to a conference at Mohonk Lake in Ulster County:
“Our country is not the only thing to which we owe our allegiance. It is also owed to justice and to humanity. Patriotism consists not in waving the flag, but in striving that our country shall be righteous, as well as strong.”