Calendar Features

July/August 2004 Feature

"A New World Is at Hand"

"We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand."
     —Thomas Paine, February 14, 1776

proclamation by the king A Proclamation by the King for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition, August 23, 1775. (Record Group 360, Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention)
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The simple truth at the heart of the American Revolution is that people are born with certain natural rights, including "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness," that do not come from presidents, kings, or charters.

These and other rights of the American people are secured by this nation's founding documents: the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. Known collectively as the Charters of Freedom, these three documents are on permanent display in the National Archives Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom in Washington, DC.

Flanking the Charters is a new exhibit, "A New World Is at Hand," an integral part of the National Archives Experience. The exhibition presents a selection of milestone documents presented in seven cases on each side of the Charters. While the first half of the exhibition focuses on the nation's founding period, the second half highlights events and themes in U.S. history that chronicle the impact the Charters have had over the last two and a quarter centuries.

The first document displayed is a 1775 Proclamation by the King for Suppressing Rebellion, in which George III proclaims the rebellious colonists to be traitors against the Crown. A 1775 Secrecy Oath signed by 87 members of the Continental Congress reflects the danger inherent in the move toward independence. Before the end of the Revolutionary War, many of those who served in the Continental Congress suffered direct, personal consequences for their support of American liberty and independence.

The Articles of Confederation, this nation's first constitution, is also on display. Throwing off the British monarchy left the United States with no central government. The Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1781, were in force until March 4, 1789, when the present Constitution went into effect.

At the time of the Revolution, slavery existed in all the colonies, and slaves made up 20 percent of the population. Items documenting this fact of life are shown.

George Washington was unanimously elected President of the Constitutional Convention that met in Philadelphia from May to September 1787 for the purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation. The delegates soon decided to scrap the Articles entirely and began to consider an entirely new plan. Washington's own working copy of the first printed Constitution, bearing his own annotations, is on display.

The Bill of Rights, added to the Constitution in 1791 as the first 10 amendments, explicitly protects freedom of speech, of the press, of religion, and of assembly, among many other rights. A document from the First Federal Congress shows the final wording on what would become the first amendment to the Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

The first item in the second half of the exhibit is a document from the Supreme Court case file for Marbury v. Madison—the landmark case that established the power of judicial review. Next, a volume from the Louisiana Purchase Agreement, which doubled the size of the nation in 1803, is presented. Sixteen years earlier, critics of the Constitution had argued that the original 13 states already covered too vast a territory to be under a single government. But the Louisiana Purchase did not weaken the Union; it strengthened it, adding to the young nation 828,000 square miles and a wealth of natural resources beyond anyone's calculations.

Items from the Civil War period document the high-stakes conflict that would determine whether the United States would survive as a single nation.

Ceremonial documents relating to the transfer of the Statue of Liberty to the United States symbolize the importance of immigration in the nation's history. The Statue of Liberty, which stands in New York Harbor, was a gift from the people of France to the people of the United States, celebrating 100 years of friendship. America's earliest settlers, who came in search of religious freedom, passed on a vision of America as a beacon of hope to the world, and the Statue of Liberty remains one of the most potent symbols of human freedom.

Susan B. Anthony sitting at desk with pen in hand.Susan B. Anthony, not dated.
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A document relating to Susan B. Anthony's struggle for woman suffrage demonstrates how the expansion of rights and liberties has been achieved over time. In asserting their rights set forth in the Declaration of Independence, people once excluded from the protections of the Constitution have fostered movements resulting in laws, Supreme Court decisions, and constitutional amendments that have narrowed the gap between the ideal and the reality of American freedom. Anthony was arrested for voting in the congressional election of 1872. Women gained the vote with the passage of the 19th amendment to the Constitution in 1920, 14 years after Anthony's death.

"A New World Is at Hand" highlights specific aspects of the story of the Charters, emphasizing that the Founders created a nation based on a set of ideas and ideals. They achieved this—not in some ivory tower, but in the real world—in the heat of battle. They had a passion for what they were doing, risking everything, because they believed that if their experiment in self-government was successful, the result would be a better world, not just for themselves and their descendants but for all mankind.

And, finally, they were human. They didn't live in a perfect world or create a perfect plan; slavery was a fact of life in Revolutionary America and was not resolved until the end of the Civil War. But the Founders did create a plan that has endured. Based on principles of freedom and human rights—and amended 27 times—the United States Constitution stands today as the longest-lasting written national constitution on the face of the earth.

Stacey Bredhoff
Curator, "A New World Is at Hand"

Portions of the exhibition may be closed during the last two weeks of August to allow for maintenance and preservation work.

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