About the National Archives

Dinner for Ford's Theater Board of Trustees and the Advisory Council of Ford's Theater Society, January 15, 2008

Remarks by Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States
National Archives Building, Washington, D.C.
January 15, 2008

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the National Archives. We are looking forward to showing you some of the nation's treasures this evening — in the Rotunda and in the Public Vaults exhibit.

Winston Churchill, asked by his dinner party hostess, Lady Astor, what he thought of the dessert trifle, responded with Churchillian sternness: "Madam, your pudding lacks a theme!"

And so it came about that in my pursuit of a unifying theme for this evening's festivities, I called upon Sir Winston Churchill's words to welcome this admirable cohort of friends of Ford's Theatre to the home of the American Charters of Freedom, whose merits and importance to the world I leave to Churchill to describe, as in this statement:

"We must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, habeas corpus, trial by jury, and the English common law find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence."

Allow me to remind you in this connection that we are dining this evening in the only building in the world which hosts the originals of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, our Bill of Rights, and yes, a Magna Carta.

Nor is this building itself without a unique historical "back story." It was built under the auspices of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, himself an amateur architect and an amateur archivist who was personally involved in the creation of this building—making decisions on design, on the amount of storage space, and even who would serve on the staff. Years later, FDR also gave the National Archives the first Presidential library —his own— in Hyde Park, New York.

In addition, he developed an impressively expansive view of which records the National Archives should keep—a role that has evolved into that of the Archives as the nation's record keeper.

These records include, of course, the Charters of Freedom as well as tens of billions of pages of other paper records, along with millions of still photographs, hundreds of thousands of moving images, countless e-mails and web pages, and a fast-growing archive of electronic records — all housed in dozens of archival facilities in 20 states, including 12 Presidential libraries, soon to be 13.

These records tell the story of the American experience and of the experiences of the Americans who came before us, and they remind us that another primary mission of the National Archives is to help educate our citizens about the importance of not simply preserving these records but using them and learning from them. Civic literacy, ladies and gentlemen, above all, civic literacy.

Just as Ford's Theatre has a goal of sharing historical information with the public, so do we. In order to share more effectively the treasures and issues of our national past, we have expanded our outreach, education, and museum programs not only here in Washington but across the country.

Abraham Lincoln himself would no doubt have supported our efforts, as would all American Presidents and Congressional leaders. In a similar spirit, FDR said at the dedication of his Presidential library that a nation must "believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they can gain judgment in creating their own future."

Let me conclude by again welcoming you to the National Archives with the hope that you will return many times to continue your exploration of our treasures. We look forward to working with Ford's Theatre in our efforts to assist the American public in learning from its past, appreciating its present, and forging an even more exciting future.