Everyone Should Be Able To Read The Constitution at the National Archives

In honor of President’s Day, I recently visited the National Archives. With the utmost awe and reverence, I walked up to the enclosed cases containing the original copy of our United States Constitution. My eyes slowly panned across my favorite provisions—Article I limiting the powers of Congress, Article III creating the Supreme Court, and Article VI stating that the Constitution is the “Supreme Law of the Land.” But, my immersion in our Charter of Liberty was abruptly interrupted. A guard told me to keep walking: “Please do not read the entire Constitution. If you want to read the entire document, please visit the gift shop.”

I could not believe my ears. Could he possibly be serious? Did he actually just say what I think he said? Now, I recognize the guard was attempting to move the crowd along (a small line had formed), and that he likely had said this many times before. But the thought that a guard would have the gall to tell visitors to our Nation’s capital to not read our Constitution is appalling. By the way, all federal employees draw a salary by virtue of the Constitution’s “Appropriations Clause,” found in Article I, Section 9, in case he allowed anyone to read that far.

No one, myself included, was going to read the entire document. At best, maybe interested guests would look at a few provisions and try to make out the faded letters on the parchment (it is not easy to read). This exercise would take several seconds, at the most. But instead of allowing people—who may only witness the majesty of our Constitution once in their lives—the opportunity to savor the moment, it is apparently the official policy of the National Archives to move people along. Nothing to see here, apparently.

I cannot imagine that any other museum in Washington, or anywhere in the world, would rush people past an exhibit—let alone the Constitution, a document that every American should discuss and learn more about. Any policy that favors rushing more visitors past our founding documents, at the expense of denying them the opportunity to even read a few letters, strikes the wrong balance.

As a surreal post-script to this troubling episode, after I departed from the rotunda containing the Constitution, as the guard suggested, I went to the gift shop. I was drawn to a sign that advertised “The Declaration of Independence in a Bottle” for $2.95. I looked closely at the bottle and saw the phrase, “We the People.” Huh?! This wasn’t the Declaration of Independence. This was the Constitution of the United States. I brought this error to the attention of a manager. She promptly switched the signs around, so that the “Constitution in a Bottle” sign now appeared in front of the Constitutions. No problem, right? That the National Archives made such a mistake is stunning. I have no idea how long the exhibit was mislabeled, and I hope visitors did not buy the wrong document.

These charters of freedom belong to We the People. We should expect better from the museum charged with protecting our national treasures.

Cross-Posted at JoshBlackman.com.

Josh Blackman is an Assistant Professor of Law at the South Texas College of Law who specializes in constitutional law, the United States Supreme Court, and the intersection of law and technology. He is the author of Unprecedented: The Constitutional Challenge to Obamacare and also blogs at JoshBlackman.com.

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Comments

  1. Kevin R. Hardwick says

    Josh–

    Many moons ago, when the world (and I) was young, I had the privilege of working as an archivist at the National Archives. I can not speak on behalf of the institution, but I can venture the guess that the gift shop is not actually run by NARA. I would guess that the shop is run by a sub-contractor, and is not actually under the direct supervision of NARA. At least when I worked there, the institution was starved for funding–”farming” the shop and other guest services is a means of subsidizing the core functions of the institution. Take this all with an appropriate grain of salt, as I may be wrong about this–but I am pretty certain this is the way it now works. Anyway, it does not surprise me over much that the people working at the shop made the error you describe above. Those folks are likely minimum wage or close to it, and the direct supervisor of the shop is more likely to have a background in marketing than in history. When I was last in the shop, no one there could offer an informed opinion about the books they stocked. Sad, but not surprising.

    As to the guard’s attempt to move you along, I do think there is a balance (as you acknowledge above) between making the documents as accessible as possible to as many as possible, and providing space for people to linger over documents that are, after all, the core of our civic tradition.

    That said, there is a kind of trap into which we are all vulnerable to fall. A story may illuminate the issue. My first year as an archivist, I went through internal training–the “Modern Archives Institute.” Instructors included people from all over the institution—including the staff of the various Presidential Libraries, which are all administered by NARA. Since the Libraries are better funded than is NARA, and thus have better preservation equipment, it turns out that many of the more critical cases are sent out to the libraries. After one session of the MAI, taught by a Curator from the Roosevelt Library, I had the privilege of carrying a package down to the preservation lab, which the curator had hand carried (by airplane, as it happens). The head of preservation was waiting for me when I arrived at the lab, package in hand, and he reverently unwrapped it and handed the document (encased in mylar) to me. It was the Emancipation Proclamation. I felt absolutely awestruck–I walked around for the rest of the day like I was ten feet off the ground.

    But later I came to question that reaction. What, after all, is the Emancipation Proclamation? Is it really the parchment, the ink, Lincoln’s signature? Or is it something larger and more profound? Paper, come the end of the day, is just paper. The Proclamation is just a big piece of parchment, and its significance surely transcends the pure physicality of it all.

    The same of course is true of the Constitution. The actual document–the paper, ink, and so on–is really not what the document is all about. When we reduce it to that, we reifiy the thing that matters. That can, in moderation, be a good thing–our constitution matters ultimately only because we choose to adhere to it. So making it into a kind of civic religion–and making the crappy, cramped space in the NARA building into a kind of civic shrine–serves a purpose. But it is not an end in itself–it is a means to an end.

    Anyway, I think ultimately if you wish to have more time to contemplate the paper, we need a better space to house it. That of course costs money. And in this day and age, worthy as it would be to create an appropriate space for such a musuem, I just don’t see that happening. But I do take heart in the massive crowds I see lining up to view it, every time I have passed it by. Of course, those massive crowds–the throngs of Americans rightly and properly taking time to stand on line to walk through the shrine–are precisely why the guard sought to hurry you on.

    All best wishes,
    Kevin

  2. nobody.really says

    I cannot imagine that any other museum in Washington, or anywhere in the world, would rush people past an exhibit—let alone the Constitution, a document that every American should discuss and learn more about. Any policy that favors rushing more visitors past our founding documents, at the expense of denying them the opportunity to even read a few letters, strikes the wrong balance.

    What a delightful thing to find on a libertarian-ish blog: A post that places in tension a romanticism about founding documents vs. the cold laws of supply and demand.

    What do we surmise was the motivation for the guard to hurry people along? Was he part of a sinister statist plot to deprive people of the opportunity to spot aspects of the original document that have been withheld from the public?

    Or was he motivated, perhaps, by the idea that the demand of people to gaze upon the document exceeds the capacity, and rationing is the allocation procedure adopted by the state?

    For a romantic, it is self-evident that everyone should have an infinite supply of time to gaze upon these documents. But this is pretty much an impossible thing to achieve. A libertarian would presumably take this issue head-on and propose to allocate access to the document based on a price mechanism: The National Archive should auction off opportunities to gaze upon the document, perhaps at 5-minute increments. Too poor to see the document? Too bad.

    Romantic? No — but perhaps efficient.

    • Kevin R. Hardwick says

      There is a civic good in making access to the document as open as possible. The price mechanism described above works just so long as we have markets, and the infrastructure necessary to sustain them. But markets are never really “free.” They require governments to make them work.

      And, as Dr. Codevilla and Dr. Masugi have emphased in essays elsewhere on this site– governments require legitimacy. They are sustained by loyalty, adherance to the rule of law, and so on–civic dispositions that are requisite if we are to be, as much as possible, a self-governing people.

      These public dispositions that are requisite to sustain a liberal society can not be produced purely by markets. For this reason, a pure capitalist/libertarian society is not possible (although, as in so many other things, the perfect is the enemy of the good–while pure may be impossible, good enough certainly is).

      We make the actual documents–the original drafts of the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, North-west Ordinance, Bill of Rights, EmancipationPproclamation, and so on–as accessible as possible because by doing so we contribute to cultivating the dispositions in the citizens necessary for free society to endure. To put a price on them would defeat the entire purpose of displaying them.

      Indeed, I would argue that we should go further than NARA currently does. I’d like to see an honor guard–US Marines, perhaps, in full formal dress–on post, in much the same fashion as our armed services honor the tomb of the unknown soldier. I’d like to see us ratchet up, not down, the civic dignity with which we enshrine these documents. If you put a market price on access to these documents, you diminish their civic value.

      All best wishes,
      Kevin

  3. nobody.really says

    Thougthful.

    There is a civic good in making access to the document as open as possible.

    Ok – but, unless you subscribe to the statist conspiracy theory, I suspect there is a lot of sympathy for this proposition. The dispute involves how to make access as open as possible. That is:

    • Should guards prod people along, depriving each individual of the opportunity to sit before the document long enough to read it?
    • Should every individual have absolute discretion to sit in front of the document for as long as his bladder allows, depriving a similar opportunity to those standing in line behind him?
    • Should we have a price mechanism, letting those with the greatest demand (including the ability to pay) have the greatest access?
    • Should we have a lottery system, allocating time slots at random?

    Etc.

    [G]overnments require legitimacy. They are sustained by loyalty, adherence to the rule of law, and so on–civic dispositions that are requisite if we are to be, as much as possible, a self-governing people.

    These public dispositions that are requisite to sustain a liberal society cannot be produced purely by markets.

    Two fascinating propositions: First, social cohesion requires more than a society united in the pursuit of self-interest. It requires some kind of group rituals.

    Consider the libertarian anthem, John Lennon’s “Imagine.” It waxes rhapsodic about a world without group loyalties – nations, religions, etc. It’s a nice thought, but arguably self-destructive, because such a world would implode for lack of cohesion. Thus, the game for libertarianism is not to dispense with group loyalties, but to support 1) the least harmful loyalties and 2) perhaps the broadest array of loyalties, so as to create countervailing forces.

    Which are the least harmful loyalties? The ones that involve uniting against a common enemy you pretty much never encounter. Tribalism was fine when you never encountered the other tribe. As cosmopolitan cities arose, this proved problematic. Racism was a kind of generalized tribalism. Nationalism still seems relatively benign, because it encourages solidarity with the person who lives in proximity to you, and antagonism toward those who are remote from you. Nationalism is the commonly prescribed antidote to racism/tribalism: How can you hate your neighbor? Don’t you see that we’re all fellow Americans?/South Africans?/Slovaks?/etc.

    Of course, we don’t have to choose among these loyalty claims; we can embrace multiple, competing claims precisely because they’re multiple and competing claims. We can embrace nationalism, and we can embrace a religious creed. And while demands on our loyalty may impede our autonomy, countervailing demands may actually grant us greater discretion. The strongest opponents to government’s Obamacare are not atomized individuals, but organized churches.

    The second fascinating proposition: Markets are antithetical to, or at least insufficient for, building these cohesion-maintaining rituals.

    Together, these two thoughts undermine the libertarian ideal of atomistic autonomy. Or, as Kevin R. Hardwick concludes, “[A] pure capitalist/libertarian society is not possible (although, as in so many other things, the perfect is the enemy of the good–while pure may be impossible, good enough certainly is).”

    • Kevin R. Hardwick says

      Just a quick note to acknowledge a thoughtful and thought-provoking exchange. I regret I am much pressed for time, and this entry is about to vanish into the archives in any case. But the issues we are discussing are not going to go away any time soon, so hopefully we will find another moment in the future to grapple with them.

      My own thinking here is influenced by the Greek concept of thumos–and especially the sense of public-spiritedness–a certain kind of patriotism. You recast my argument in the language of cultural anthropology–which I find plausible and worthy of greater thought.

      Much to chew on. Thank you!

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