About the National Archives

Welcome Remarks for “The Bill of Rights in the 21st Century”

McGowan Theater, National Archives Building, Washington, DC
December 15, 2016

Good evening, and welcome to the William G. McGowan Theater at the National Archives. I’m David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, and I’m pleased you could join us this evening.

To everyone joining us tonight, whether you are here in the theater or watching on YouTube, “Happy Bill of Rights Day.” Since President Franklin Roosevelt first proclaimed it on December 15, 1941, the day has served as a reminder that we should not take for granted the rights protected in this document.

Our partner for tonight’s program on “The Bill of Rights in the 21st Century” is the Constitutional Sources Project, and we thank them for their support.

Before we begin our discussion, let me alert you to two programs coming up here next month.

On Tuesday, January 17, at noon, journalist and author Bret Baier will talk about his new book—Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower's Final Mission—which is about President Eisenhower’s prophetic “farewell address.”

Then at noon on the next two days—January 18th and 19th—we’ll show a selection of films from our motion pictures holdings. The program is called “From the Vaults: Presidential Inaugurations” and will focus on historical inaugural events.

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

Another way to become more involved with the National Archives is to become a member of the National Archives Foundation. The Foundation supports the work of the agency, especially its education and outreach programs. Pick up your application for membership in the lobby or join online at archivesfoundation.org.

The United States Constitution is the oldest written national Constitution still in force. One of the reasons why it has endured is the allowance the framers made for peacefully amending it. And one of the first actions of the First Federal Congress in 1789 was to pass a set of amendments we call the Bill of Rights. It was necessary, stated James Madison, to “expressly declare the great rights of mankind secured under this constitution.”

During this 225th anniversary year, the National Archives put together a nationwide program of events and exhibits to celebrate and examine the Bill of Rights.

We have hosted several discussions—like tonight’s—relating to Constitutional rights; we have put on a series of National Conversations on Rights and Justice around the country; and we have created several exhibits and educational resources.

I hope you have had the opportunity to see the special exhibit, “Amending America,” upstairs in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery. Outside the Washington, DC, area, you may have the opportunity to see the companion traveling exhibit, “Amending America: The Bill of Rights”; it’s currently in Dallas, Texas, and will soon be in Houston.

The centerpiece of all this activity is the 225-year-old parchment document itself—the original Bill of Rights in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom. In fact, it was on a Bill of Rights Day in 1952 that all three charters—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights—were first displayed together in the Rotunda. At the ceremony to unveil the documents, President Harry Truman declared that “In my opinion the Bill of Rights is the most important part of the Constitution of the United States—the only document in the world that protects the citizen against his Government.”

He also warned against letting the documents become “no better than mummies in their glass cases.” Judging from what I have seen, the crowds of people who visit the Rotunda every year do not consider the Charters to be mere curiosities. They—and our distinguished panel of judges here tonight—know that the Bill of Rights has meaning for us every day.

To introduce our panelists, I will turn you over to Julie Silverbrook, the Executive Director of our partner this evening: The Constitutional Sources Project.