The National Archives

I do not ever remember being to the National Archives, so I was happy to take in the whole experience over the weekend.  March 3rd was the 100th anniversary of the women’s suffrage march in DC, and to commemorate this event, the Archives was displaying the copy of the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote.  It was on display for just a week, so I had excellent motivation to go visit the Archives.

The main attractions of the National Archives are housed in the Rotunda, and they are the three core documents to the United States Government, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.  About ten years ago, the documents each were very carefully conserved, put in air-tight cases, and mounted so that the surfaces do not touch glass.  I was still struck by how fragile they all are.

The Declaration of Independence seemed particularly faded and faint, although the gorgeous calligraphy of the hand-lettered document still looked like it was done on a printing press.  There was a guide hovering near that particular case, and I smiled that he received the predictable question, “Was this the paper that Nicholas Cage stole in ‘National Treasure?’”  The guide smiled and said yes it was, but we were assured that there was no secret map on the back.  There was however, a strange handprint in the lower left corner of the paper, which was observed sometime in the early 20th century, although no one knows to whom it belongs.

The Constitution, all four pages of it, occupies the central place of honor of the display.  I checked out the Preamble, which I can sing thanks to Schoolhouse Rock, and it only takes up a few lines of the very wide paper.  The “We the People” script matches what was shown on the Schoolhouse Rock cartoon, so I figure it must be genuine.  The signatures on the Constitution are identified and grouped by state, and the guard was challenging two young ladies in front of me to figure out which state was not represented.  Rhode Island was the missing state that had no signers.

I think intellectually, I have a habit of just lumping the Bill of Rights in with the Constitution, since they are obviously related.  The display in the Archives, however, has the Bill of Rights in a case off to the right of the Constitution, and it helps to emphasize that the Bill of Rights was added on sometime significantly after the original Constitution was adopted.  Rhode Island’s refusal to sign the Constitution reflected a widespread concern that the Constitution did nothing to protect individual rights, so the Bill of Rights was added to fix that problem.  I was grateful for my time at the Newseum in the fall, since I am much better able to rattle off some of the details of those initial amendments than I had been before I came to DC.

Overall, I particularly noted the huge size of the papers that were used, even though they were handwritten documents and not done on a printing press.  The fragility of the documents was also apparent, even if the government that they shaped has been more robust.

The Archives is more than just those three documents, and I enjoyed breezing through and sampling some of the other items that had been selected for display.  I was charmed by the original Minnesota homestead agreement signed by Charles Ingalls, the father of Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose books I read over and over when I was young.  Telegrams were represented by a handwritten message sent by President Lincoln to his wife, and original census records were illustrated by a large registry book opened to a page indicating Nathanial Hawthorne lived in Massachusetts and listed his profession as “author.”

There is also at least one document that was not American, but that helped lay some of the foundations for the American form of government.  A fellow Fellow and I had arranged to meet at the Archives, and since I got there first, we had to determine a convenient rendezvous.  I texted her, “Meet me at the Magna Carta.”  How often do you get to do that?

My fellow Fellow and I also enjoyed trying to puzzle out the handwriting of a letter from General George Washington to Congress in 1776.  I suggested that I probably had an advantage since I’m from a generation that still writes in script rather than by printing.  For the nerds in the crowd, I’ll mention that Washington’s signature was G. Washington, but the period after the G was a small circle and was relatively high on the line.  I remarked, “I really like his supernaught.”  I’m sure my fellow Fellow rolled her eyes.

As a review of the week’s celebration, the 19th Amendment was passed by the House followed by the Senate, and then it was sent out to be ratified by the states.  So the document that was on display was the Amendment as signed by the Speaker of the House and by the Vice President, as leader of the Senate.

The detail that struck me most on the 19th Amendment was something that I never would have understood before this year.  On the top left corner of the paper was the code that identified the specific piece of legislation.  It read, “H. J. Res. 1.”  The first part translates to “House Joint Resolution,” and the joint part indicates that it was introduced at the same time in the same form in both the House and the Senate.  As for the number, I have learned that the lowest ten bill numbers are reserved for the most significant pieces of legislation in a two year session of Congress, and these numbers are not used in numerical order.  The 19th Amendment was introduced just five months into a new session of Congress in May 1919, and that it was given the number 1 indicated that it was expected to be the most important piece of legislation for the next year and a half.  I heartily agreed with that analysis.

The 19th Amendment.  From the National Archives' archives

The 19th Amendment. From the National Archives’ archives


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