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The State of the Constitution: What Americans Really Know

Remarks made by Archivist

Who is the Archivist?

David S. Ferriero

David S. Ferriero The Archivist of the United States is the head of our agency, appointed by the President of the United States.

The AOTUS Blog
What's an Archivist?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013 at 7:30 p.m. McGowan Theater, National Archives Building

Good evening. I'm David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States. Welcome to all of you here in the William G. McGowan Theater at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. And welcome to those of you joining us online through Ustream.

Tonight's program on "The State of the Constitution: What Americans Really Know" will test our knowledge of this foundational American document. Usually, at the end of our programs, we invite questions from the audience. Tonight, you'll be participating throughout the evening. The voting devices you were given as you entered will allow you to respond to questions about the Constitution, and we'll see the results as they happen.

Our partner for tonight's annual Claude Moore lecture is the Center for the Constitution at James Madison's Montpelier.

We would like to thank Kat Imhoff, President of the Montpelier Foundation; Sean O'Brien, its Chief Operating Officer; Kimberly Skelly, the Executive Vice President for Advancement; and Doug Smith, Montpelier Vice President for the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution.

Before we begin, I'd like to tell you about two other programs that will be coming up here in the McGowan Theater.

On Thursday, September 26, at 7 p.m., the 7th Annual Charles Guggenheim Tribute Program will feature Charles Guggenheim's final film, Berga: Soldiers of Another War. The documentary, which premiered 10 years ago, tells the story of American soldiers who were taken prisoner at the Battle of the Bulge and were caught up in the tragedy of the Holocaust. New York Times writer Roger Cohen will introduce the screening.

Next month, on Thursday, October 17, at 7 p.m., we'll learn about the dramatic story behind our new exhibit, "Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage." Our panelists will describe the efforts of the National Archives Preservation staff in recovering and preserving the damaged records and discuss their historical significance.

To learn more about these and all of our public programs and exhibits, consult our monthly Calendar of Events. There are copies in the lobby—along with a sign-up sheet so you can receive the Calendar by regular mail or email. You'll also find brochures about other National Archives programs and activities.

Another way to get more involved in the National Archives is to become a member of the Foundation for the National Archives. The Foundation supports the work of the agency, especially its education and outreach programs. Pick up your application for membership in the lobby.  For our Ustream participants check out the Foundation pages on archives.gov.

You know, every day when I wander through the Rotunda upstairs, I marvel at the fact that those pieces of parchment have survived—both physically and philosophically.  A journey which began in 1789, when the first Congress gave the Constitution and the Declaration to the State Department, which took them – along with the rest of the federal government – from New York to Philadelphia to Washington.

When the British were burning Washington during the War of 1812, Stephen Pleasonton, a clerk in the State Department, was directed by then Secretary of State James Monroe, to get the important documents out of town.  Clerks wrapped the Constitution and other precious documents in bags of linen, commandeered wagons, and in the dead of night headed for Virginia with the records of the country.  First, they hid the Constitution in an unused gristmill near Chain Bridge in Virginia, then in a private home in Leesburg until the war was over.
For the rest of the 19th century, the Constitution went back to the State Department  vaults. The safes weren't fireproof or burglarproof.
In 1921, President Harding decreed that the Constitution and Declaration would go to the Library of Congress to be preserved and displayed to the "patriotic public."
Just before Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entrance into World War II, the Library sent the Declaration and the Constitution to Fort Knox for safekeeping, where they remained until September 1944, and came back to the Library of Congress.

Finally, in 1952, the documents came to their rightful home here at the National Archives. The transfer occurred on December 13, 1952, with great pomp and circumstance.

Tonight's panelists—a law professor, a U.S. Senator, and a former Attorney General— will take us beyond "We the People" and into the following pages. They'll help us sort through what the Constitution says and what is often understood (or misunderstood). 

To get us started on that journey, I'll turn you over now to Doug Smith, Montpelier Vice President for the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution. Doug also serves as chairman of the board of Heifer International and has received such awards as the "Top 40 under 40" in Central Virginia, the Richmond History Makers Award, and was named a "World Changer" by his alma mater, James Madison University.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Doug Smith.