Historic Documents at the National Archives

The Declaration of Independence helped establish the United States as a new nation. So did the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The National Archives and Records Administration is again showing these historic documents in its building in Washington, DC. I’m Faith Lapidus.

And I’m Steve Ember. We tell about these important documents on THIS IS AMERICA from VOA Special English.

Until two years ago, America’s most important historic documents were moved for their safety. At night, mechanical devices placed the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in an underground container. The next day, the documents were lifted back to the place where the public could see them. Their home was a beautiful area of the National Archives building called the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom.

But many visitors said the glass containers made the documents hard to see. Experts also worried that the condition of the very old documents was worsening. The documents were signed in the seventeen-hundreds.

In July, two-thousand-one, the government began improving the National Archives. The project includes structural changes and the addition of new public areas. The project costs millions of dollars and probably will continue until the end of two-thousand-five.

After the work began, the research area of the Archives building remained open. But the Rotunda area was closed for restoration for more than two years.

Today, however, crowds of people again gather at the Rotunda to walk by the documents, as they did in earlier years. It is much easier to see the documents now than before. Experts have cleaned and partly restored them. They have also improved the cases in which they are contained.

Last month, thousands of people attended celebrations for the newly restored home of the historic papers. These “papers” are really parchments – specially treated animal skins. Officials say the best of modern technology has been used to extend the lives of the documents. For example, devices in the cases measure the temperature, humidity and pressure inside. Argon gas helps protect the parchments.

A special structure makes it possible for people in wheelchairs and small children to easily see the documents.

The central point of the restored Rotunda is the United States Constitution. Officials placed the document in a case in the middle of the room. Before the improvement, visitors could see only two pages of the Constitution. Now they can see all four. On the left of the Constitution is the Declaration of Independence. On the right is the Bill of Rights.

Before the Rotunda was changed, the Declaration of Independence hung on the wall. It was not very close to the other documents. People said it was hard to see. Now experts have placed the cases in positions designed for easier reading.

Thomas Jefferson wrote the first version of the powerful Declaration of Independence in June, seventeen-seventy-six. It announced separation of the thirteen American colonies from Britain. Continental Congress members approved the Declaration on July Fourth of that year.

After the colonists won the Revolutionary War and gained their independence, delegates were chosen to write rules to establish a government for the new nation. Constitutional Convention members worked out the agreement beginning in May, seventeen-eighty-seven. It was signed on September seventeenth of that year. Historians say the Constitution created the new United States from the spirit of the American Revolution.

The Constitution established a strong central government. It called for this government to have three parts, or branches. The president was to lead the executive branch. Congress formed the legislative branch. The courts formed the judicial branch. The Constitution also called for each branch to exercise some control over the others. These checks and balances protect against any one branch becoming too powerful. More than two-hundred years later, the United States still operates under this system.

Early American legislators added the Bill of Rights to the Constitution in seventeen-ninety-one. House of Representatives Speaker Frederick A. Muhlenberg signed the document first. Senate President John Adams signed it soon after.

The Bill of Rights contains the first ten amendments to the Constitution. It guarantees Americans several important freedoms: These include freedom of speech. Freedom of religion. Freedom of the press. Freedom to gather to express opinions. Today, the Supreme Court of the United States hears many cases that are linked to the Bill of Rights.

Visitors to the National Archives also can see other important documents in the Rotunda. For example, there is the agreement permitting the largest land purchase in American history. It is called the Louisiana Purchase Treaty. This let the United States buy more than two-million square kilometers of land from France in eighteen-oh-three. The land extended from west of the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Two historical paintings hang above the documents. The picture on the left shows Thomas Jefferson. He is giving a version of the Declaration of Independence to John Hancock, the first person to sign the document. The picture on the right shows James Madison giving the Constitution to George Washington, America’s first president.

The work on the document area is only part of the major improvement project at the National Archives. For example, exhibit spaces called public vaults will be added. The vaults will let visitors walk through areas where records are kept. Another special area, a gallery, will show temporary exhibits.

The National Archives will open a learning center and a theater for films and other presentations. Officials also plan to improve the Archives Web site, w-w-w dot archives dot g-o-v.(www.archives.gov) This will enable people to visit the Archives by computer. They also will be able to connect to Archive records.

Ceremonies, music and dramatizations were held at the Rotunda opening last month. For example, actors representing historical people welcomed visitors. People could question the actors about American heroes like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. A small boy from the state of Oklahoma asked about President Washington’s height. The actor performing as George Washington answered that Washington stood taller than one-point-eight meters.

At the same time, the actor playing Thomas Jefferson was talking to a young girl from Baltimore, Maryland. He described how Jefferson designed Monticello, his Virginia home. After writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson served as America’s third president. He was also known for his skill as an inventor, designer and farmer.

Another actor took the part of black Revolutionary War soldier Edward Hector. He told what it was like to fight in the American War of Independence. Black people were given freedom for joining the American colonial troops.

Ned Hector was a hero of the Battle of Brandywine in Pennsylvania. The battle took place in September, seventeen-seventy-five. Hector was attacked by many British troops. He reportedly said he would never surrender his horses and wagon. When the battle ended, he had survived. And, he still had his horses and wagon.

One of the first visitors to the newly re-opened document exhibit was a high school teacher from the state of Oklahoma. Before leaving, the teacher stopped to look back at the Rotunda. She said, “This place helped me remember how hard people struggled to create this country.”

This program was written by Jerilyn Watson. It was produced by Caty Weaver. I’m Faith Lapidus.

And I’m Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another report about life in the United States on THIS IS AMERICA from VOA Special English.