Founding Documents Resonate at Archives; Declaration, Constitution Get Spruced Up

Article excerpt


I have long thought that the best way to make the American people acquainted with the history of their country is to render accessible to them the sources of that history - the raw material as well as the woven narrative.

- James Parton, "the father of American biography," in a letter to historian Henry B. Dawson, Sept. 20, 1858

Bring your eye as close as the glass will allow, and still the signatures are hard to read. When you look at the text, it is more the memory

of the words than the faded script that brings to mind the phrases of the founding documents ...

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ...

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union ...

Congress shall make no law ...

Once witnessed to by men who risked lives, fortunes and sacred honor for their new nation, the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights have become the witnesses - and the guideposts - of American history.

They have been out of sight since July of 2001, squirreled away in what Susan Cooper, Archives spokeswoman, calls a "secure location" after painstaking work at the conservation lab at the National Archives facility in College Park.

Now these charters of freedom return in triumph to the National Archives Wednesday after a thorough renovation of its Rotunda.

Which came first, the need to renovate the Rotunda or the need to conserve the documents? It is almost impossible to separate the two tasks, and central to the new plans for the Rotunda was a way to re-encase and show off the charters.

"The Rotunda has a permanent purpose, providing context for and celebrating the charters," says Director of Museum Programs Marvin Pinkert.

But first the charters themselves had to be taken care of. Periodically, National Archives conservation staff members examine the charters, which were encased in helium-filled cases in 1951. In 1995 Archives conservators discovered crystals congregating on the glass, which over time would make it more and more difficult to view the documents within. Clearly, a newly refurbished Rotunda demanded new encasements for the charters.

Now placed in handsome new frames, with a state-of-the-art fiber optic lighting system and surrounded by the restored 1936 murals of artist Barry Faulkner, the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights take pride of place in a new exhibition that brings together a supporting cast of documents that both paved the way to the charters and followed their course in the years to come.

"We are working hard to make sure that people see that these documents live and breathe today," says John Carlin, Archivist of the United States.

So why bother to troop down to the Archives when all you have to do is look in the back of your child's U.S. history textbook or type a familiar phrase into your favorite search engine to come up with the same text that you'll see downtown?

For one thing, there's the power of the original record.

"You get goose bumps being in the presence of certain things," says Mr. Carlin. "And the charters are on the short list of 'certain things.' "

Few documents have ever depended so mightily on the power of words and ideas to change history. And to no other set of documents have so many - all over the world - looked for challenge, inspiration, and hope.

"We have in our power to begin the world over again," wrote Thomas Paine, the transplanted Englishman whose 1776 work, "Common Sense," helped inspire the American Revolution.

And what a world they made, grounded on principles of liberty described in the Declaration, checks on power and abuse - even abuse of liberty - contained in the Constitution, and protections on individual freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights. …