Fall 2003, Vol. 35, No. 3
Cast Your Vote! Public to Choose Most Influential Documents in American History
John W. Carlin
The Declaration of Independence . . . the Emancipation Proclamation . . . Brown v. Board of Education . . . Thomas Edison's patent application for the light bulb . . . these records, and many others, have shaped and changed the history of the United States. Now you will have the chance to help decide which documents have had the greatest influence on our country.
Since last September, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has been working with National History Day, the USA Freedom Corps, and other partners on a project titled Our Documents: A National Initiative on American History, Civics, and Service. The purpose of Our Documents is to encourage all Americans to participate in a series of events and programs to get us thinking, talking, and teaching about the rights and responsibilities of citizens in our democracy.
Our Documents focuses on one hundred milestone documents drawn from the public laws, Supreme Court decisions, inaugural speeches, treaties, constitutional amendments, and millions of other records that have influenced the course of U.S. history that are held primarily by NARA.
The list begins with the Lee Resolution of June 7, 1776, a simple document resolving that the United Colonies "are, and of right, ought to be free and independent states." Richard Henry Lee introduced this resolution in the Second Continental Congress, and it was approved on July 2, setting in motion the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4. While virtually all Americans are familiar with the Declaration of Independence, far fewer know of the role the Lee Resolution played in the history of our country. Our Documents gives insight into well-known historical records like the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, as well as lesser known records such as the Lee Resolution and President Thomas Jefferson's secret message to Congress asking for funds for what became the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The time span of the documents runs from 1776 to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The milestone documents illustrate our evolution as a society. For example, while the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling of 1896 upheld "equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races," the case of Brown v. Board of Education overturned this ruling in 1954, signaling the end of legalized racial separation in U.S. schools.
Likewise, these records show the quest of Americans to have a say in their government. The Constitution as originally written in 1787 mentions little about the right to vote. At the time, it was thought that only a privileged few should be allowed this right. But Americans fought passionately for the right to vote, regardless of race or gender, and this is illustrated in the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which in 1870 enfranchised African American men; the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women the vote in 1920; and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed discriminatory electoral practices adopted in many southern states after the Civil War.
All of the milestone documents have helped shape our national character, and they reflect our diversity, our unity, and our commitment as a nation to continue our work toward forming "a more perfect union."
The complete list of milestone documents with brief explanations, a discussion of key themes in the documents, a timeline putting the documents in chronological perspective, along with lesson plans and classroom exercises for teachers is available at the project's web site at www.ourdocuments.gov.
Also, a new book, titled Our Documents, which features descriptions, transcriptions, and images of the one hundred milestone documents will be available in the National Archives Experience museum shop when the National Archives Building reopens to the public on September 18, as well as at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, and at Presidential libraries.
National History Day, a nonprofit history education program dedicated to improving the way history is taught and learned, is working closely with NARA on continuing Our Documents initiatives. National History Day recently conducted the first Our Documents lesson plan competition for educators. Teachers from across the country were invited to develop and test a classroom lesson focusing on one or several of the milestone documents. A second competition is planned for the current school year.
Comments from both students and teachers show that the primary sources of Our Documents help to bring history alive. For example, Lori Maynard, a seventh-grade teacher from Bakersfield, California, was one of the winners of the competition with her lesson, "Jim Crow Must Go: The Civil Rights Act of 1964." She says, "I have found that many students are unaware of segregation and the effects it had on our nation. Therefore, this competition created the perfect opportunity to do something about it. This document offers an excellent example of an instance in which the federal government overturned state laws that were unfair, immoral, unjust, and unconstitutional."
One of Maynard's students commented, "We all cover segregation in elementary school, but it was made so that it didn't look like things were so bad. This was the 'real deal.'"
To help teachers incorporate these records in their teaching, NARA and National History Day have created a new resource book that includes lesson plans and classroom activities. A commemorative poster has also been designed for use by educators. The sourcebook and poster are available on the Our Documents web site.
While many of the initiatives of Our Documents are geared to students, we encourage everyone to take part in this exciting project. Starting September 17 - Constitution Day - the public can participate in The People's Vote to decide which ten of the one hundred documents have most changed or shaped the course of American history. Look for the September 22 issue of U.S. News and World Report for details and a People's Vote ballot. Voters can also cast their ballots electronically at www.usnews.com/nationalvote and in person at the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, regional archives, and at Presidential libraries.
The ten records deemed by the public to be the most influential will be announced on December 15 - Bill of Rights Day - and will be highlighted in the December 22 issue of U.S. News and World Report.
Through this vote, and by giving people more insight into the documents that have shaped our country's history, NARA and its partners hope to spark discussion and debate on the values and ideals of our society over the last 227 years. Because the act of voting is fundamental to a democracy and understanding the documentary foundations on which America is built is crucial to participating in government, The People's Vote will give Americans the opportunity to really connect to their history and their government.
I am proud that NARA is a partner in this unique national educational initiative, and I invite you to cast your vote for the records you believe have been most influential in our national history.