Throughout its 155-year history, the Smithsonian has performed an invaluable service for America. Stewardship of the objects and stories of our struggle for democracy is a responsibility every person at the Institution accepts with seriousness, even awe. The icons of our history remind us of our willingness to fight for the values we hold dear, our ability to withstand adversity and our capacity to rebuild, no matter the damage we have sustained.
In any national crisis, our country’s flag becomes ubiquitous, symbolizing who we are and what we stand for. We are privileged to display the Star-Spangled Banner. During the War of 1812, this famous flag survived bombardment and inspired the words that became our national anthem. Now, in full view of the public, the Star-Spangled Banner is undergoing major conservation to extend its life by as much as 500 years.
Another object from the War of 1812 reminds us that the nation’s capital has been attacked before, survived and been built anew. We have a charred timber believed to have endured the burning of the White House, on August 24, 1814. That day, unflappable First Lady Dolley Madison refused to leave the mansion until she had saved a wagonload of treasures.
Today, thousands of such treasures are in our collections, allowing us to mount exhibitions such as "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden." In it are the wooden laptop desk on which Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, the hat Lincoln wore the night he was assassinated, and the microphones FDR used for his fireside chats, reminding us that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself. These items recall our challenges and demonstrate that the American people prevail over adversity.
For stories of ordinary families who rose to these challenges, visit our exhibition "Within These Walls," in which a 200-year-old Massachusetts house tells the tales of five families who lived in it over the decades. Abraham Dodge, its third owner, fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill. More than 150 years later, Mary Scott and her family lived in the house during World War II. Mary’s sons served in the Armed Forces; her daughter made fuses for antiaircraft projectiles.
Exhibits at the Smithsonian also show the threat troubled times pose for a society designed to provide "liberty and justice for all." "A More Perfect Union" examines the experiences of Japanese Americans during World War II. It documents the ways constitutional freedoms were ignored for almost 120,000 Japanese Americans—two-thirds of them United States citizens—forced to relocate to detention camps.
Nonetheless, some 33,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry served in the U.S. military. The 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team, composed almost entirely of Japanese Americans from Hawaii and the detention camps, was the most decorated American unit of its size. On display are several of its awards, including a Medal of Honor, calling to mind Walt Whitman’s view that America is a "nation of nations."
The principles enumerated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution have united us for more than two centuries. Throughout our history, our leaders, and ordinary men, women and children, have stepped up to defend them. They have faced down kings, dictators, assassins and terrorists, proclaiming "You will not prevail . . . we will." The Star-Spangled Banner and countless other treasures bear witness to America’s indomitable spirit and underscore the resilience of our national character.
By Lawrence M. Small, Secretary