About the National Archives


Archivist of the United States

September 17, 2003
Washington, DC

Good morning, and welcome to the National Archives.

I am honored to have you all join us today, for this is a historic day, both for the National Archives, and for our Nation. The Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights—collectively known as the Charters of Freedom—were first enshrined in this Rotunda more than 50 years ago and were on display here until July 5, 2001.

Millions of people came to see the parchment of the Declaration, once held by Thomas Jefferson . . . the signatures penned by our Founding Fathers to ratify the Constitution . . . and the exact words that spell out our rights as Americans.

They came from all walks of life, from across the nation, and around the world. From rural farmlands, industrial towns, and cities large and small. Teenagers on school trips, suddenly solemn . . . parents lifting children up to for a better view while whispering words of freedom from 1776 in their ears . . . military veterans gazing for the first time at the Constitution they had sworn to protect and defend . . . naturalized citizens with tears in their eyes as they read the rights now guaranteed to them as Americans.

People came to see the Charters of Freedom not just because they are historical documents, but because they are a living part of the democracy we live in today. Every day we celebrate the freedom first declared in the Declaration of Independence. Every day our Government is an example to the world of the democratic Government laid out in the Constitution. And every day our people exercise the liberties set down in the Bill of Rights.

To ensure that future generations of Americans will be able to see the Charters of Freedom, when we removed them from public display, we did conservation work while this building was undergoing renovation. With the greatest care and reverence, National Archives conservators removed each page of the Charters of Freedom from the encasements that they had been sealed in 50 years ago. They painstakingly examined each letter under a microscope, looking for the tiniest flakes of loose ink, and reattaching them. Old tears were cleaned and mended, and surface dirt was removed. Finally, our country's greatest documents were placed in new encasements that are the most technologically advanced that could be devised. And now, most importantly, they will again be on display for anyone who wishes to come see them.

The Charters of Freedom are unquestionably the most famous documents we care for at the National Archives, but all the records we hold play a vital role in our democracy. Not only do they document the actions of Government, making accountability possible, they document individual rights and entitlements, and also tell the story of who we are as a people.

Stories that are found in census records, which enumerate each individual of our population . . . veterans records, which detail the service of the courageous men and women who have fought for our rights . . . and immigration records, which give us a glimpse of the people whose dreams have helped to shape our country.

These records and millions of others give shape to the ideals outlined in the Declaration of Independence, the foundations of democracy laid down in the Constitution, and the freedoms guaranteed to American citizens by the Bill of Rights. Just as the Charters of Freedom remind us of the land of liberty envisioned by our Founding Fathers, the records of our people reveal the courage, determination, and spirit that have shaped our democracy throughout its history.

Thank you.