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September 2003 Feature

Our Documents: A National Vote
Thomas Edison's patent drawing for an improvement in electric lamps Thomas Edison's patent drawing for an improvement in electric lamps, patented January 27, 1880; Records of the Patent and Trademark Office, Record Group 241.

What do the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, Brown v. Board of Education, and Thomas Edison's patent application for the light bulb all have in common? They are all documents that shaped and changed the history of the United States.

Since last September, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has been working with National History Day, the USA Freedom Corps, and other partners on a project titled Our Documents: A National Initiative on American History, Civics, and Service. The purpose of Our Documents is to encourage all Americans to participate in a series of events and programs to get us thinking, talking, and teaching about the rights and responsibilities of citizens in our democracy.

Our Documents revolves around 100 milestone documents drawn primarily from the public laws, Supreme Court decisions, inaugural speeches, treaties, constitutional amendments, and millions of other records that have influenced the course of U.S. history that are held by NARA.

The list begins with the Lee Resolution of June 7, 1776, a simple document resolving that the United Colonies "are, and of right, ought to be free and independent states . . ." Richard Henry Lee introduced this resolution in the Second Continental Congress, and it was approved on July 2nd, setting in motion the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4. While virtually all Americans are familiar with the Declaration of Independence, far fewer know of the role the Lee Resolution played in the history of our country. Our Documents gives insight into well-known historical records like the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, as well as lesser known documents such as the Lee Resolution and President Thomas Jefferson's secret message to Congress asking for funds for what became the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The time span of the documents runs from 1776 to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

All of the milestone documents have helped shape our national character, and they reflect our diversity, our unity, and our commitment as a nation to continue our work toward forming "a more perfect union."

The complete list of milestone documents with brief explanations, a discussion of key themes in the records, a timeline putting the documents in chronological perspective, along with lesson plans and classroom exercises for teachers are available at the project's web site at

Starting September 17, the public can participate in a "National Vote" to decide which 10 of the 100 documents have most changed or shaped the course of American history. Look for the September 22 issue of U.S. News and World Report for details and a "National Vote" ballot. Voters can also cast their ballots electronically at

A book, titled Our Documents, which features descriptions, transcriptions, and images of the 100 milestone documents, will be available in the National Archives Experience museum shop when the National Archives Building reopens to the public on September 18, as well as at the National Archives at College Park, MD, regional archives, and at Presidential libraries.

The 10 documents deemed by the public to be the most influential will be announced on December 15 and will be highlighted in the December 22 issue of U.S. News and World Report. Through this vote, and by giving people more insight into the records that have shaped our country's history, NARA and its partners hope to spark discussion and debate on the values and ideals of our society over the last 227 years. Because the act of voting is fundamental to a democracy, and understanding the documentary foundations upon which America is built is crucial to participating in government, the National Vote will give Americans the opportunity to really connect to their history and their government.


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