About the National Archives

Meeting of the National Conference on Citizenship, October 4, 2007

Remarks by Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein, October 4, 2007

Good morning. I am Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States, and I want to welcome you to the National Archives and the William G. McGowan Theater.

We are delighted to host your annual conference this year—specifically because this meeting’s agenda addresses so closely our own goals and the nationwide mission of the National Archives and Records Administration.

We are all especially interested in increasing the level of civic literacy in this country—by stressing the importance of participating actively in our democracy and equipping citizens with the knowledge of how to become more involved.

As you know, the National Archives is the nation’s record keeper. We preserve for the American people the nation’s founding documents—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights—which are on permanent display in the Rotunda of this building.

We also have billions of pages of records, along with millions of photographs, thousands of hours of film, and many terabytes of electronic records. They all tell the nation’s story.

Most importantly, we provide access to these records. Many of the most frequently requested records in our holdings are available on the Internet now. And we are forging partnerships with private firms to bring even more of these documents, photographs, and films to the Internet through digitizing, even as we move ahead on our efforts to archive and make accessible the many electronic records being created by Federal Government agencies today and tomorrow.

This is where the National Archives’ civic literacy programs—and your work—come in. Improving citizenship is one of our strategic goals, and we do that with education, museum, communications, and public outreach programs aimed at making history, government, and social studies more interesting and relevant to Americans, young and old, as I hope you will discover during your time here today.

Our new Boeing Learning Center is the hub of our efforts nationwide to help teachers learn more about the records that tell America’s story—and how to more successfully engage students in the study of the nation’s history and heritage.

I understand you have several panels planned—one on voter participation, a topic that I have personally been involved with from a global perspective by monitoring elections in other nations and assisting new democracies with a range of programs. In another panel, young people will reveal what motivates them to participate in the business of government.

These are important topics, and it is vital that we keep young people interested in their nation’s history and how government works to exercise the will of its citizens.

I want to remind you that members of my staff will be offering special tours this afternoon, and I invite you to take us up on this offer to view the Charters of Freedom, a special exhibit on the Presidents as schoolboys, and the Public Vaults exhibit, which, with more than a thousand documents, will take you on a fascinating, multimedia trip through American history.

Travel with me for a moment to Philadelphia as the Constitutional Convention did its work in the hot summer of 1787. Benjamin Franklin, then the nation’s elder statesman, stepped out for a breath of fresh air, only to be approached by a group of people wanting to know what kind of government the delegates inside were creating. Franklin replied: "A republic, if you can keep it."

We have a special obligation today to pay homage to the skill and tenacity with which Washington and the other delegates subordinated their many differences to produce the document whose durability we have enjoyed for well over two centuries.

We bear witness today to these same constitutional guarantees, which balance the rights of citizenship and its obligations in the American republic: "If men were angels," James Madison reminded us in Federalist 51, "no government would be necessary . . . in framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this; you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."

The constraints of which Madison wrote, some upon government and others on individuals, assure our fundamental liberties.

Benjamin Franklin and his colleagues in Philadelphia knew that the Constitution did not herald the establishment of a perfect society but rather the pursuit of a "more perfect union." Thus, it was fitting for the Founders then and for us today to speak not only of the depth of our national pride but, when relevant, of our doubts. The quotation "my country right or wrong" was qualified by Carl Schurz’s sensible phrase—when she is right, support her; when she is wrong, correct her.

Where, then, does it end? Where does the "great experiment" in self-government we began in Philadelphia in 1776 and carried forward at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 finally come to rest? Not in our time, certainly, when genuine democracies have never been more numerous or expanding in number more rapidly.

Nor need we in the United States be overly concerned about the future relevance of the U.S. Constitution if, in addition to keeping our powder dry, we continue the unabashed pursuit of America’s untapped promise.

What remains of concern today, as it has since the bitter debates in Philadelphia in 1787, is the need to strike a proper balance between conflicting "rights." At that time, it was the rights of small versus large states, of North versus South, of dealing with slavery or avoiding the issue in the document, of inserting or delaying inclusion of a Bill of Rights. In our own time, at issue are the civil rights of individuals in a time of war versus legitimate national security concerns, the extent of congressional and executive authority versus judicial constraints, to classify or to declassify government records, and "blue state" versus "red state" interpretations of our founding document. James Madison, where are you when we need you?

The country has entered a new and probably lengthy period of heightened security and greater national vigilance—which will, in turn, pose threats to civil liberties, as wartime situations always do. Of course, we cannot predict a future devoid of deep anguish and tragedy, whether due to fresh terrorist onslaughts or to our own inadequacies. "History," Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., has written, "is not a redeemer promising to solve all problems in time." Today, Americans have entered a new testing time, one that bears close resemblance to other crucial moments in our past. How we confront these tests in the years ahead remains to be seen and will determine whether the present generation of Americans—mine and yours—can rise to confront the current challenge with sufficient courage and effectiveness.

Thank you.