The bronze and marble casing is called The Shrine, and the people who troop past are truly part of a secular faith, moving slowly through the autumnal gloom of the rotunda to pause a few moments before the tabernacle of American democracy.

Of the trinity of documents enshrined in the National Archives -- the Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence -- it is the Declaration that hushes voices and starts something in the blood.

Though it is encased in inert argon gas, watched by pistol-packing guards, and lowered each night into a safe 20 feet underground with the other two documents, there is something about this all-but-illegible page of parchment that still has the power to evoke the possibilities of freedom.

Even if the effects of time, sunlight and poor care had not badly effaced the original Declaration, the words would be difficult to read in the dimly illumined setting archivists have deemed necessary to save what is left of the faded ink. But no matter how inscrutable the original has become, Thomas Jefferson's sinewy, high-flown rhetoric still rings in the marrow of American life, harkening back to the days when statesmen could turn a phrase.

On the Declaration today rests so much American mythology that you half expect the crack of thunder and the flash of lightning inside the 75-foot-high rotunda as you climb the steps to the shrine where the paper that led to revolution has been housed since 1952. But there is only the soft amber glow of lamps screened for ultraviolet rays, the murmur of voices blended in the high dome and the reluctant bark of Gloria Giles at post 106, admonishing 5,000 tourists a day to "Please keep your hands off the glass."

It is not easy to appreciate the meaning of this 30-by-24-inch artifact, especially when you have not lived long enough to know complex abstractions as firsthand experiences. For the 52 children on a day trip with the Academic Enrichment Center, the ice cream being vended out front on Constitution Avenue readily overshadowed their interest in covenants between the governed and their government. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were more fun to demonstrate than to theorize about.

"This place would be perfect if it had a drinking fountain," sighed 7-year-old Faith Tiyease.

So she and her troop gamboled about without any special reverence for their country's seminal text, inspecting instead the photoelectric alarms and the trinkets in the gift shop. The enrichment of some young scholars was handicapped by the fact that they were too short to see inside the cases that are arrayed in a semi-circle on either side of the shrine. Perhaps if there had been a poster of Cheech and Chong in there instead of dumb old letters. . . .

In a wing off the rotunda, 14-year-old David Peyton was cooling off after a car backed into his ice cream truck and knocked off the wheels. He was trying to read a facsimile of the Declaration made from a copper plate in 1820. Though vastly more legible than the original, the copy necessarily picked up the 18th century style of writing "s's" like "f's," a quirk of composition that caused David Peyton fits. We-hold-thefe-truths-to-be-felf-evident" sounded like it had a lisp when he read it out loud. Not to mention the difficulty plowing through the penmanship.

"When in the Course of human Events it becomes . . ." David paused. Nessifery . . . huh?"


"But when a long Train of Abuses and . . . Un-for-passions . . . "

"Do you have it in English?" he asked.

But perhaps the Declaration is something that grows dearer and more accessible as readers grow more aware of how their separate lives are bound up with a nation's course. Some lesson lurks in the fact that it is the oldest people in line who seem most moved by democracy's Book of Genesis, and who see in its ideals a connection with their countrymen.

"It means more to me than I have words to express," says Lavern Hazel, a 58-year-old resident of Duncanville, Tex. "To see the freedom, and the sacrifice and the progression of it all coming together makes me proud to be an American."

Or Jean Wickham, 62, from Concord, Mass., grasping for the intangible: "I don't know how to say it. It just makes you feel goosepimply to see what our forefathers did."

A man from Michigan, after viewing the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and the Bill Rights, said exasperatedly to a guard, "Is this all there is? I thought you had a copy of Richard Nixon's resignation!"

He was directed to the information desk. There, across from the tabernacle of democracy, but mounted with absolutely no pomp under desk-top glass that also covered a memo of no historical interest, a newspaper clipping about ticket reservations and a map of downtown Washington, the document lay. It was, technically, a facsimile.Still it seemed to suffice. d