- National Treasure and American Scripture: Form, History, and the Aesthetic Politics of the Declaration of Independence
Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its membersEmerson, “Self-Reliance,” 1841
The post-election, 2004 thanksgiving weekend offering from Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer, National Treasure, presents a complicated yet familiar storyline cast in decidedly uncomplicated, nationalistic terms. This Da-Vinci-Code-meets-Raiders-of-the-Lost-Ark affair features a high-stakes pursuit of treasure. In this patriotic version of the quest romance, that treasure is a millennia-old accumulation of monetary and cultural wealth, protected from time immemorial by the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, and the revolutionary founding fathers.1 Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicholas Cage) is an historian whose family has sought the treasure for generations. His quest pits him against the diabolical—and notably British—Ian Howe (Sean Beane) as the two race through several eastern U.S. cities, following a seemingly endless set of clues based on historical events and found in some of the United States’ most treasured historical landmarks. The key to locating the treasure is, appropriately, an invisible map inscribed, improbably, on the back of the Declaration of Independence.
In a pivotal scene near the end of the film, Ben and his father Patrick (Jon Voight) discover empty what Ben believes should be the treasure’s depository, a room at the bottom of a cavernous hole located beneath [End Page 151] Trinity Church in Manhattan. Standing in the dank, treasure-less pit far underground, Ben despairs. Patrick, long-time doubter, dismissive of the family tradition, impressed unwillingly into this chase, interprets their situation differently; he posits that the existence of the space and their presence in it are evidence that the legend has substance:
This room is real, Ben. And that means the treasure is real. We’re in the company of some of the most brilliant minds in history because you found what they left behind for us to find and understood the meaning of it. You did it, Ben. For all of us. Your grandfather, and all of us. And I’ve never been so happy to be proven wrong.
Heartened, Ben engages in one final bit of ratiocination, deducing that the first clue found, an intricately carved pipe owned by a long-dead Freemason, is the final key to the puzzle—literally. The pipe fits into a cavity in the wall and unlocks the door to the actual treasure room.
The film’s plot unfolds conventionally, typical action-adventure holiday fare; I refer to it because it happens to embody several extremely timely positions vis-à-vis debates between formalist and historicist interpretation, and issues surrounding aesthetics, freedom, and American citizenship. The film simultaneously explores interconnected themes of good citizenship through correct interpretation, a materialist understanding of the meaning and trajectory of history, universalist notions of freedom, and good old-fashioned American individualism. And if it does so in a shamelessly celebratory fashion almost too ostentatious to be called ideological (that term connoting a certain degree of subtlety), I want to suggest that, whatever one thinks of its message, its understanding of the way interpretation functions at the heart of a proper understanding of history, text, and national identity sheds light on contemporary critical approaches to literature. These same problematic concepts predominated in debates over the Americanist literary canon of the 1840’s and ’50s, the literary period now called the American Renaissance. The film accomplishes this by deploying a text that for antebellum Americans had problematically become both national treasure and American scripture: the Declaration of Independence.
Crucial to this reading of National Treasure is the fact that Ben is not motivated by the allures of fame or fortune, but by patriotic zeal to [End Page 152] defend the treasure—and the Declaration—from the dastardly clutches of Howe. After he finds the treasure, he turns it over to Sadusky (Harvey Keitel), the federal agent who has followed him throughout in an attempt to recover the Declaration—and who is a Freemason. At this moment of Ben’s triumph and sacrifice, a stunning logic becomes explicit; secret societies that conspire to invisibly manipulate political power...