Honors Course Reflections

Natalie Gullo: Blog 1

We’re two days in and my brain feels full to bursting. I suppose the first day doesn’t count quite so much in terms of brain-busting. Day one primarily involved arriving at the airport at an ungodly hour, one of our classmates only barely making the flight on time, navigating the metro to Ballston, and then heading back to the city to get set up at the Library and then take our tour at the capitol.

After all of the logistical hoopla was taken care of regarding arrival, I was excited to get to see where we would be working and for the Capitol tour. In the weeks leading up to this trip, people have asked me left and right what I was excited to see in DC and have always acted a little confused when I tried to explain that I wasn’t going be seeing all that much of the city itself. The point is that I was pleased to get to look around a bit.

As Dr. Kobylka mentioned, the outside of the Madison building is a bit deceiving. From the outside, I couldn’t believe that the building was as drab as we’d been told. However, it does in fact look like a seventies office building. The Jefferson building, on the other hand, is gorgeous. We didn’t get to spend as much time as I might have otherwise liked exploring that, but the building itself is a work of art. Plus, I got to make my history-nerd heart happy when we looked at Thomas Jefferson’s book collections, organized in the way he would have had them. Sadly, we were only able to look at Jefferson’s inimitable collection of literature for about five minutes or so before we hustled off to the next thing on our schedule: the tour of the capitol.

Exterior of Capitol Building

Capitol Building

Like the Jefferson building, the Capitol is grandiose inside and out. I was familiar with the appearance of the outside of the building, but our tour through various rooms accessible to the public was fascinating. We saw both of the different rooms in which the early Supreme Court met, the crypt that was originally intended to hold Washington’s remains, and we passed part of the pathway that incoming Presidents take on their walk to inauguration. I enjoyed learning about the statues and how each state chose two notable figures to represent them in the capitol, especially given how Rosa Parks, situated in one of the expansive halls, very much seems to be boldly staring down racist, segregationist statues along the way. After the tour, despite protesting feet, I was pleased to keep walking along to see the outside of the Supreme Court and then along the Mall. Architecture in the center of the capitol is really quite beautiful and fascinating, and it gives off the ambience of stepping into something rather important.

When the group could take no more, we headed back from the Mall to the much anticipated first dinner spot of We, the Pizza. Boy, it did not disappoint. It’s a cramped little spot, but being all together on the first night was fun, and the pizza was delicious.

We got started bright and early this morning. Our first stop at the Madison building was a short orientation by Jeff Flannery, the head of the Reading Room, which included a number of fascinating documents and artifacts, including a lock of Thomas Jefferson’s hair, a letter in defense of some accused of witchcraft in 1695 Salem, and a palm-print of Amelia Earheart’s. After more logistics and more paperwork, we were set loose to begin our research.

My tentative plan was to work chronologically through cases on my subject, Court treatment of executive power in crisis, so I began by pulling files from Justices Robert Jackson on the World War Two cases. I opened the first file and, well, I froze. I knew this research was going to be an immense task, but getting into the folders, which don’t always have best organization given the amount of use they get, was absolutely overwhelming. The first things in front of me were mixed up pages of differing draft opinions, Jackson’s handwriting was not immediately easy to read, and I did not really know (or rather I blanked) on what the heck I even needed to be looking for to draw some analysis from the mess of papers before me. Thankfully, it seems this feeling occurred to a number of others in our group, and with some guidance and strict instructions to “collectively chill out” from Dr. Kobylka, we managed to find our feet and get to work.

Despite the encouragement, however, the first day was difficult. Justice Jackson had strong opinions on the first case I began with, a habeas corpus case regarding German spies, and I spent most of the day working through that one case in his papers and the papers of then Chief Justic Harlan Stone. There was a moment that definitely brightened my day, though. Flipping through draft opinions, I found a memo that had been sent to the conference by Justice Felix Frankfurter. He was addressing the intellectual conflict between Justice Jackson and Chief Justice Stone, in which the two men strongly disagreed on the legal basis from which to decide the case of the German spies. So, Frankfurter takes it upon himself to write this lengthy memo in which he creates a farcical dialogue between himself and the petitioners (the spies) to illustrate how Jackson and Stone essentially wanted the same thing and that they should chill out and work together. Frankfurter sent this memo to all eight other justices. I really wasn’t sure what to make of that. I sat at my desk and giggled until I got a sharp look from one of the stricter librarians. It was a great way to buoy myself to the end of the day and make me look forward to whatever I will discover next.

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