by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
May 4, 2006
A TACTILE SENSE OF HISTORY
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- On Feb. 20, 1791, U.S. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter asking the state of Vermont, which was about to join the Union, if it would ratify a series of amendments to the Constitution. Those amendments later became the Bill of Rights.
His letter is now in the archives of the State of Vermont, and on Tuesday I had the privilege of holding it in my hands.
True, it was protected by plastic. But it was the original letter, vibrating up at me from the mists of American history, raising the hair on my arms, a note from one of the greatest men of all time, from one of the founders of this rare thing called a democracy. It was written in a graceful and shapely hand, possibly by a secretary who scratched the words with a quill pen in fading brownish-purplish ink and stamped the letter with the raised seal of the Secretary's office.
It was a thrill to be so close to Jefferson, to hold something that at one time sat on his desk, that he dictated and saw and touched and signed with his own hand.
It gave me what the state's archivist, Gregory Sanford, calls "a tactile sense of history."
I was interviewing Sanford for a magazine story, and thanks to his kindness, I was also able to hold in my trembling fingers the precious original title page of the Vermont Constitution. Again it was written in that brownish ink that fades to a tinge of purple. The title was contained in the design of a gravestone and decorated with delicate sketches of leaves and scrolls. It's a remarkable document, our Constitution, because it abolishes slavery and eliminates the requirement that citizens need to be property owners to vote - that's where our Freeman's Oath comes from. Vermont was always well ahead of its time, and it was an honor to hold the original.
I understand Sanford's "tactile sense of history" because a few years ago I was lucky enough to have a similar experience. Once, on a Fall day in the woods, I visited a cellar hole at the now-abandoned homestead of one of Dummerston's founders. Next to it was an apple tree. Eating one of Capt. Leonard Spaulding's apples gave me an electric connection to the past.
We need to have a sense of history, a way to make it vital and real. Sanford talked about archives as sperm banks, about them holding "the DNA of self-government."
From quill pens on vellum to typewriters to hard drives, from hand-painted glass slides to film to video to compact discs, technology changes - in our age, so rapidly that each twist in the road leaves some of us behind - but our need to document, to keep records, to talk to future generations, remains strong.
Each successive generation, like each new government, sees itself as new and unique, Sanford said. But the archives show us that taxation, education, the economy, public health and public safety have all been concerns in Vermont since the 1700s. The death penalty has been an issue in Vermont for centuries. Even the original settlers were concerned with environmental issues.
As Harry S Truman said, "The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know."
We learn to make good decisions by using the past as a guide. That's why the state archive is such a treasure, and why visiting it is a humbling experience.
But say we want to communicate with future generations thousands of years down the road? What then? Some information, it turns out, defies documentation as well as technology.
For example, whatever we decide to do with the spent radioactive fuel from the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, it will remain dangerously radioactive for thousands of years. Say we find a way to bury it safely. How do we warn our descendants where it is?
Oddly enough, in 1981, Professor Thomas A. Sebeok developed the idea of an "atomic priesthood." To "minimize the possibility of future human intrusion" at a nuclear waste burial site, he suggested we create a tribe to pass the information orally through time "over which spoken and written languages are sure to decay to the point of incomprehensibility, making it necessary to utilize a perspective that goes well beyond linguistics."
We may, in the end, have come full circle. For all our CDs and DVDs, we may be going from the oral tradition of Homer and the griots of Africa to the oral tradition of a nuclear priesthood.
As Muriel Rukeyser pointed out, "The universe is made of stories, not of atoms" History is not abstract information. It's who we are.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel. A collection of her columns, called "A Thousand Words or Less," will be out in May. She can be reached at email@example.com.