Prologue Magazine

Renewing the Spirit of Independence

Fall 2003, Vol. 35, No. 3


"We the People" detail at top of Constitution

Over the years, when visitors came to the National Archives Building in Washington to see the nation's founding documents, they were in awe. Here are the documents, cherished by Americans, upon which the United States of America is built—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

These parchments—known collectively as the Charters of Freedom - have served as the bedrock of democracy for more than two centuries, through civil strife, tragedy, depression, and war.

Now, these documents—which have been off display since July 5, 2001, receiving important conservation treatment and being placed in new encasements—are back home, easier to view and easier to read.

Now, these documents can be seen in a new way—more enriching, more contextual, more meaningful—as part of the new National Archives Experience, a permanent exhibition for which the reopening of the Rotunda, with these Charters of Freedom in place, is the first phase.

Now, when visitors leave the National Archives, they will be able to say they've not only seen the Charters of Freedom, they understand what they mean to the nation and to them as individuals in a democratic society. Now, those visitors will better understand why the Charters of Freedom have been called "America's crown jewels."

The Declaration of Independence Provides Words for the Deed

The Declaration of Independence was drafted by Thomas Jefferson of Virginia during the hot days of June 1776 in Philadelphia while the Second Continental Congress debated a resolution to declare the thirteen colonies free and independent of Great Britain. The resolution was approved July 2, and the delegates immediately began consideration of Jefferson's draft of a declaration.

Jefferson watched anxiously as the delegates debated, and John Adams of Massachusetts fought valiantly against deleting any of Jefferson's prose. In the end, however, about one-quarter was deleted, including references to slavery, a sensitive issue with some of the delegates. Finally, on July 4, 1776, the Declaration, setting forth the reasons for the break with Britain, was adopted.

After its adoption, the Declaration was engrossed on a single parchment and signed by members of the Continental Congress on August 2, 1776. It then moved with the Congress from city to city. In 1789 it came into the custody of the State Department, and it was evacuated from Washington during the War of 1812.

The text of the Declaration, however, began to fade, and in 1823, the State Department contracted with William J. Stone to engrave a facsimile. It is Stone's engraving, also in the holdings of the Archives, that today shows what the Declaration actually looked like. (See "The Stone Engraving") The Declaration itself, however, was on permanent exhibit for decades, continuing to fade and deteriorate. In 1921 it was transferred to the Library of Congress and remained there until 1952, when it was turned over to the National Archives.

A Second Attempt at a Constitution Sparks Debates over Power, Rights

The Constitution represented the young nation's second attempt at a document that would spell out how the country would be governed. Many of the leaders of the day argued that the original constitution, the Articles of Confederation, did not give enough authority to the central government, so a convention was called in 1787 to write a new Constitution.

The new Constitution, however, did not come easily. Debate ensued over how strong the central government ought to be and how members of each house of the Congress ought to be elected; in the end, the House of Representatives was based on population, and the Senate would have equal representation from all states.

Although it has been amended twenty-seven times, the Constitution, spelling out the powers granted to the federal government and those reserved for the state, remains in effect—216 years after its adoption.

The Constitution was sent to the State Department along with the Declaration, but it was never exhibited until, like the Declaration, it was transferred to the Library of Congress in 1921. There, the Declaration and pages of the Constitution were put on display. In 1952, along with the Declaration, the Constitution was transferred to the Archives.

Specific Rights of Individuals Spelled Out in First Amendments

Although the delegates to the Constitutional Convention approved the Constitution in 1787, many of them were concerned that it failed to state clearly and specifically the rights of individuals. Proponents of the new Constitution, chiefly James Madison of Virginia, sometimes known as the "father of the Constitution," promised to rectify this with amendments.

When the first Congress under the new Constitution convened in 1789, Madison, a member of the House, proposed twelve amendments, which Congress approved and sent to the states for ratification. Of the twelve, only ten were ratified then by the required three-quarters of states. They went into effect in 1791 and are now known as the Bill of Rights. One of the other two, dealing with the pay of members of Congress, was finally ratified in 1992 and is now the twenty-seventh amendment. Little is known of the whereabouts of the Bill of Rights between 1789 and 1938. It was kept with other signed original laws and resolutions and probably moved with the government during the nation's early years. In 1938 the State Department turned it over to the National Archives.

The Charters of Freedom Come Together at Last

On December 13, 1952, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were brought from the Library of Congress to the National Archives under armed guard and with much ceremony. The long-awaited event was the result of a quiet agreement between Librarian of Congress Luther Evans and Archivist of the United States Wayne Grover.

Two days later, December 15, the Declaration, the Bill of Rights, and pages 1 and 4 of the Constitution were formally enshrined in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building. From time to time over the years, pages 2 and 3 of the Constitution were also displayed. The documents remained in the Rotunda until July 5, 2001, when it was closed for building-wide renovation.

While the Charters were away for conservation work and re-encasement (see "A New Era Begins for the Charters of Freedom"), the Rotunda was remodeled and new display platforms were constructed so that these treasured documents are displayed at a height and angle so that children and individuals in wheelchairs can easily read them.

With the reopening of the Rotunda, the four pages of the Constitution occupy the center cases, with the Declaration of Independence to their left and the Bill of Rights to their right. In seven cases to the left of the Declaration is a rotating group of original milestone documents that chronicle the creation of the Charters of Freedom in the 1770s and 1780s. To the right of the Bill of Rights are seven cases that show the evolving interpretation and development of the Charters of Freedom at home and abroad since they were adopted.

Above the Charters, the famous murals by Barry Faulkner have also been removed, cleaned, and restored. Although they don't depict actual historical events, they help convey the importance of the Charters of Freedom by showing a presentation of the draft of the Declaration to John Hancock by Jefferson in 1776 and a presentation of the Constitution to George Washington by Madison in 1787.

Return of the Charters Begins the National Archives Experience

The reopening of the Rotunda and the return of the Charters in September 2003 serves as the first phase of the new National Archives Experience. Over the next year, the other phases will be complete, as part of a comprehensive renovation of the National Archives Building (see "A Top-to-Bottom Renovation"). The other phases of the National Archives Experience are:

  • The Public Vaults, exhibition spaces around the Rotunda that give visitors the feeling of going "inside the stacks" of the National Archives.
  • A Special Exhibition Gallery that will be devoted to changing document-based exhibits.
  • A new 294-seat theater that will show documentary films from contemporary directors and highlights of the National Archives' 300,000 reels of archival footage and serve as a forum for public debates.
  • A Learning Center that will use primary sources as tools for education for students and their parents and teachers.
  • A new museum shop that will allow visitors to take home a piece of the National Archives Experience.
  • An improved web site to recreate the excitement of visiting the National Archives Experience and to connect to the records in the holdings of the National Archives.

In addition to the elements of the National Archives Experience, the renovation involves upgrading or replacing many of the building's systems, from top to bottom. It also is creating a new Research Center on the first floor that consolidates many of the agency's research services and adds some new features. (See "NARA's New Research Center").

Each of the Charters of Freedom has its own history, but they all represent the revolutionary spirit of freedom and independence that was present when the Founding Fathers sought to establish an independent, democratic nation strong enough to resist foreign control while maintaining a free and open society.

And the words of the Charters are as alive as they were when Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Franklin, Madison, and the others lifted them into legend, giving them a sacred meaning for all Americans and a beacon hope for the world.

Now, those words can be read, repeated, and remembered as part of a special time spent with history—the National Archives Experience.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.