The National Archives houses some of the most important documents in the history of the United States and it should be one of the first places that most visitors should see.
Some of the documents on display are the Magna Carta, the Constitution of the United States, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence.
I've seen reproduction of four paintings in the Rotunda for the Charters. Vermont artist Norman Rockwell influenced by president's Roosvelt "Four Freedom" speech that he created a series of paintings on the "Four Freedoms" theme. About 4 millions of these images were reproduced on posters during the WWII.
United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt enumerated four points as fundamental freedoms humans "everywhere in the world" ought to enjoy in the address he delivered to the US Congress on January 6, 1941:
1. Freedom of speech and expression
2. Freedom of every person to worship God in his own way
3. Freedom from want - individual economic security
4. Freedom from fear - world disarmament to the point that wars of aggression are impossible.
In the the Rotunda for the Charters I've seen the original document "Deed of Gift, Statue of Liberty" dated July 4, 1884. I certainly knew that the Statue of Liberty was given to the United States by France in the late 19th century and stands at Liberty Island in the mouth of the Hudson River in New York Harbor as a welcome to all returning Americans, visitors, and immigrants. But I didn't know that the statue was origannly named in French "Liberty Enlightening the World."
The statue was completed in France in 1884 and transported to New Yoork City on a ship in 350 individual pieces. Officially it was uneveiled in 1886. The statue has become one of the most potent symbols of human freedom.
In the Rotunda for the Charters I've seen a few handwritten documents which refers to so-called the American Civil War (1861 - 1865) including Ordinance of Secession of the state of Lousiana and President Abraham Lincoln’s Message to Congress on the State of the Union dated December 1, 1862.
I've seen a picture depicting slaves awaiting the moment when the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) takes effect. This proclamation by Abraham Lincoln announced that "all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious areas "are and henceforward shall be free." The comments say that it transformed the Civil War from a war for union into a crusade for freedom. Well, for some Americans and historicians it's a controvercial comment.
I was told in the South that slavery was a factor in the War Between the States, but it was a secondary factor. Slavery was getting to be cost prohibitive. The advent of the cotton gin made picking cotton more efficient without having to pay for the upkeep of the slaves. Even if the slaves didn't earn money, plantation owners had to pay to keep them in working order. Even if the South won the war, slavery would have probably disappeared before 1900.
The real reason of the secession was really the cotton trade. Because of soil and climate, cotton would only grow in the South. Because many of the congressmen were from the North, they made U.S. trade policy with other countries (as it relates to cotton exports) that put the cotton farmers at a distinct disadvantage. The South took that for a number of years and decided in 1861 they were not going to take it anymore so, one by one, the Southern states began to secede from the Union. Slavery was used as the rallying cry up North because most Americans, both up North and down South, were illiterate in the 1860s. Whereas most couldn't get their arms around the finer points of the cotton trade, they could understand slavery. It's just an opinion, but one that makes sense when you set aside the emotion of the debate.
I've seen the French copy of the Louisiana Purchase agreement in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom in the National Archive. Well, in fact, I've seen the front cover with the initials “P.F.” (French People) embroidered.
I've got to know that the Louisiana Purchase was the acquisition by the United States of the Louisiana Territoty from France in 1803, at relatively low cost. Keep in mind that the French territory of Louisiana extending west of the Mississippi River included far more land than just the current U.S. state of Louisiana, over 800,000 square miles (over 2,100,000 square kilometers) and contained parts or all of present-day Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Texas, New Mexico, and Minnesota (open my next picture). With one bold move, the size of the United States doubled in 1803.
The handwritten United States Bill of Rights displayed in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom in the National Archives isn't unfortunatelly well preserved. It was difficult for me to read. First of all I've got to know that the term US Bill of Rights means the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution.
The document enumerates rights guaranteed to citizens based on explicit limitations on the powers of the Federal government. The Bill of Rights prevents Congress from abridging freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religious worship, and the right to bear arms. It also protects personal and property rights by preventing unreasonable seizure and search, cruel and unusual punishment, and guarantees due process of law with a speedy public trial and an impartial jury.
The original handwritten text of the Constitution of the United States displayed in Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom in the National Archives is surprisingly well preserved, so I could even read the text. To my surprise it consists of the preamble and only seven articles (quite long though) which gives only 4 pages in total.
It's the oldest written national constitution in use. The Constitution of the United States has served as a model for the constitutions of numerous other nations, including Europe's first modern codified national constitution and the second oldest codified constitution, the May Constitution of Poland, which was written in 1791.
The best seen are 40 signatures of 39 delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and a signature of a secretary by the name of William Jackson who signed the document, not as a delegate, but in attestation of the document's signing. Surprisingly no delegate from Rhode Island signed the document, since the state declined to send a representative. Additionally several notable politicians of the time did not attend the convention, including Thomas Jefferson and John Adams (they were overseas working as diplomats), as well as Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Paine (they considered the previous system of government acceptable).
The men who signed the Declaration of Independence, United States Constitution or otherwise participated in the American Revolution as leaders of the Patriots are commonly called Founding Fathers of the United States, also known to some Americans as the Fathers of Our Country, the Forefathers, Framers or the Founders.
The original handwritten Declaration of Independance (look at my picture), exhibited in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom of the National Archives unfortunately has faded badly. Poor preservatio techniques were used during the 19th century. To my dissapointment the document was almost unreadable. Well, that's why isually another image of the Declaration (from 1823) is the most frequently reproduced version of the document.
The Declaration of Independence is the document in which the Thirteen Colonies declared themselves independent of the Kingdom of Great Britain and explained their justifications for doing so. The date on the ducement is July 4, 1776. And this is celebrated as Independence Day in the United States. But, in fact, the declaration was not signed on that date, it was signed August 2 by most of the delegates. Well, shouldn't USA change their national holiday? Haha, as I noticed, it's often difficult to fix exact date for great historical changes as they were long-lasting processes not a single date.
I've got to know in the National Archives that the first US Constitution immediatelly needed amendments. To my surprise the first US Constitution didn't guarantee most treasured personal freedoms, I mean freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, the right to a fair and speedy trial. Why?
There were two reasons. First, lack of time caused that the delegates concentrated on creating new federal power and government. Second, for those who favored the Constitution (the Federalists), a bill of rights was not necessary because the Federal Government couldn't interfere with the rights of the people or the states and most states had bills of rights. But strong opponents of the Constitution couldn't think about any consitution withouut list of rights guaranteed to the people. Although most of them finally agreed to sign the Constitution which itself didn't guarantee basic freedoms they as well as state ratification conventions called for the adoption of a bill of rights.
And, indeed, after the Constitution was ratified in 1789, the First Federal Congress took up the question of a bill of rights almost immediately. Congress proposed twelve amendments to the states. Ten of these were added to the Constitution on December 15, 1791. I've seen the note handwritten by the senator showing the final wording on what would become the first and the sixth amendment to the Constitution.
Surely I was interested about the two amendment which were refused. The first article, concerning the ratio of constituents to each congressional representative, was never ratified by the states but the second article listed, concerning congressional pay, was ratified in 1992 as the Twenty-seventh Amendment. I see, some Americans were over 200 years ahead in the end of 19th century.
Together with the first printed draft of the Constitution displayed in Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom I've seen a picture titled "In the Reading Room of an 18th Century New York Coffee House" showing the discussion on future US constitution. The Philadelphia Convention (later known as the Constitutional Convention or the Federal Convention) took place from May 25 to September 17, 1787. Creating constitution which resulted in creating a whole new republican and nationalist government for 13 different states took only less than 4 months.
The delegates proposed a strong central government made up of three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. As for slavery they left its final resolution to future generations. As for ratification, they devised a procedure that maximized the odds: the Constitution would be enacted when it was ratified by nine, not thirteen, states.
A lot of compromises had to be reached to draft the constitution. One group of delegates favored representation based on population, while the other wanted each state being equal. Roger Sherman from Connecticut proposed having the House of Representatives be based on population and in the Senate each state would get an equal amount of Senators. This plan called later the Great Compromise was accepted by most.
Certainly not all the delegates were pleased with the results; some left before the ceremony, and three of those remaining refused to sign. Of the 39 who did sign, probably no one was completely satisfied, but such is the nature of compromise. But history proves that it was great compromise. The US Constitution has been amended twenty-seven times and stands today as the longest-lasting written constitution in the world.
The National Archives is always on of the places on the list to visit, but I usually don't take the time to stop in! Dusty documents is low on my list when traveling .... and I usually prioritize for other places (shhh, don't tell anyone okay?).
In the display area one can view the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, and other life altering historical documents. I usually just visit the exterior ... I love the statues out front ... especially the one whose quotation is the title for this tip ...... the past is an important aspect of the present - and the present will be the past soon ........ and I can contemplate this as I wait for the bus out front. See, I don't have a GOOD excuse for not entering ;)
The next document displayed in Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom is "First printed draft of the Constitution" dated August 6, 1787. This is George Washington's own working copy and shows his annotations. Unfortunatelly t coudn't read those annotations and only one page was displayed. I had to move... I got to know that the first version of the text started with words: "We, the people of the United States,..." but in the version displayed it was already changed to "We, the people of..." and names of all 13 states given. Well, it had to be discussed whether to create 13 seperated states or just one federation of 13 states under one central government.
During the Revolutionary War, the thirteen states first formed a very weak central government - with the Congress being its only component - under the Articles of Confederation. Unfortunatelly the Articles required unanimous consent from all the states before they could be amended and states took the central government so lightly that their representatives were often absent. And I assume it had to last a week or so to ride a horse from, say, Georgia to Philadelphia. For lack of a quorum, Congress was frequently blocked from making even moderate changes. The War for Independence had been won but was followed by economic depression, social unrest, interstate rivalries, and foreign intrigue. The survival of the young country seemed in doubt.
Thus adjustments to the Articles of Confederation had been necessary. The commissioners from 5 states (New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and North Carolina) present at the Annapolis Convention in 1786 invited state representatives to convene in Philadelphia to discuss improvements to the federal government. Twelve states (Rhode Island being the only exception) accepted this invitation and sent delegates to convene in May 1787.
In Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom there is the picture of place where the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and the U.S. Constitution were signed, taken in 2001. The fames Assembly Room room was located at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia called the Independece Hall now. No doubt, I have to visit it sooner or later :-).
I had to think over how could it happen that the American Revolution eventually succeded. The fifty-four men who composed the First Continental Congress had to have quite different interests, were of different religions and traditions, and from various regions. They hat to hold conflicting opinions as to how best restore their rights, I guess. Most did not know each other; some did not like each other, I am sure. With no history of successful cooperation, they struggled to overcome their differences and, without any way of knowing if the future held success or nooses for them all, they started down a long and perilous road toward independence.
Haha, it reminds me a bit not so old history of my own country, Poland, which regained independance from the Soviet Union in 1989 as the first ever country who managed to do it after so called the Polish Round Table Talks.
The next document displayed in Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom is "Quaker petition to Congress" dated October 4, 1783 and signed by over 500 Quakers asking that Congress end the slave trade. Well, I didn't know who were/are those secret Quakers, silly me :-). We didn't have them in Poland, I guess.
Let me explain that the Religious Society of Friends (commonly known as Quakers or Friends) was founded in England in the 17th century and is counted among the historic peace churches: Christian churches, groups or communities advocating pacifism.
There is a picture (reproduction) of Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman by Susan Anne Livingston Ridley Sedgwick from 1811. Elisabeth Freeman (nicknamed "Mumbet") was freed after petitioning the State of Massachusetts in 1781: "Anytime while I was a slave," she said, "if one minute's freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it-just to stand one minute.... on God's airth a free woman. I would."
Let me explain that slaves represented about 20% of population at the end of 18th century. Through the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (also known as the Freedom Ordinance) under the Continental Congress, slavery was prohibited in the Midwest. In the East, though, slavery was not abolished until later. But slaves sometimes achieved freedom in the courts.
The next document displayed in Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom is "The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union", commonly known as the Articles of Confederation, formed the first governing document of the United States of America. These Articles were adobpte by the second Continental Congressin in 1787. They combined the colonies of the American Revolutionary War into a new sovereign federal state and nation, called a confederation.
During the tumultuous events of the American Revolution between 1774 and 1789 the only governing authority was a body called the Continental Congress, the group representing the thirteen colonies with no power to lay taxes, regulate commerce and even worse: with little ability to enforce any of its decisions. They conducted a war that defeated one of the greatest military powers of its day, declared independence and invented a new political entity that became a sovereign independent nation. Asserting their rights, they found themselves labeled as traitors.
In the beginning none of the members of the Continental Congress was actually tried for treason. Howver 15 who signed the Declaration of Independence had their homes destroyed, 4 were taken captive, and 1 spent the winter of 1776 in the woods, pursued by British soldiers who had burned his home. Later many of those who served in the Continental Congress suffered direct, personal consequences for their support of American liberty and independence. Lucky America to go through it over 200 years ago. I was a witness of persecutions of those who fought for independence of my homeland, Poland from 1970' to 1989. And I will see similar events in the next countries I am sure.