In the two years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a period marked by arguably the largest resurgence of outward feelings and displays of American patriotism since the early days of World War II, the Charters of Freedom — which include the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights — have not been available for public viewing.
The three documents, which form the basis of American government and a model for democracy worldwide, have been stored away in the vaults of the National Archives and Records Administration building since July 5, 2001. Since that time, the building has been undergoing a $110 million-plus facelift.
But tonight, in celebration of Thursday’s 216th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution and the spirit of America, the Charters of Freedom will return to public display as the first part of a phased reopening of the National Archives which will run into the spring of 2005.
The Archivist of the United States, John Carlin, “made a promise to Congress and the American people to have the charters of freedom available again as soon as possible,” said Susan Cooper, National Archives director of communications. “That’s why this is the first priority.”
Tonight’s ceremony will be followed by two weeks of events celebrating the reopening of the Archives rotunda, including (Hurricane Isabel permitting) a patriotic sound and light show and visitor hours until midnight, both running through Saturday. Tomorrow, the first 216 guests in line at the National Archives will be invited to join Carlin in a special ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring a group of “time-traveling Founding Fathers.”
Guests who visit the Archives this week might notice a number of changes to the rotunda chamber. For the first time, all four pages of the Constitution will be on display and all three of the Charters of Freedom will be exhibited in new temperature-controlled display cases that seal the documents in an argon gas environment to ensure their preservation through the 21st century.
Also, the new lower, angled display cases will be more accessible to handicapped visitors and small children. Additionally, the documents will be more spread out in the Rotunda vault, with the Declaration of Independence placed to the left of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to the right. The Charters will be surrounded by a new exhibition of other influential documents that are milestones in American history, including King George III’s 1775 proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and the Louisiana Purchase Treaty of 1803.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who has long been a supporter of the Archives project, said Tuesday in a statement that he was proud to have played a part in this conservation effort. The Archives fall under the jurisdiction of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Transportation, Treasury, Postal Service and general government, of which Hoyer is ranking member.
“The words contained in the Charters of Freedom were written by men who risked their lives to bring a nation equality and freedom,” Hoyer said. “That we are able to view the most treasured documents in our history is all the more important during times like now when American citizens feel a greater need to connect to the foundations and symbols of our democracy.”