In Washington, everyone talks about the Constitution, but the National Archives is actually doing something about it.
For nearly a half-century, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights -- the nation's "Charters of Freedom" -- have been in the care of the National Archives and Records Administration. They've been guarded with the care and diligence, the pomp and circumstance, they deserve as the nation's founding documents.
For almost 50 years now, the documents have reposed in green-filtered, airtight, helium-filled This line is longer than measure/can't be broken bronze encasements. They're displayed daily in an august marble-columned shrine under the high, soaring elegance of the half-dome Rotunda of the National Archives Building. Each night the documents descend 22 feet into a 55-ton bomb-proof vault.
More than a million Americans pass before the charters each year; most pause with a kind of hushed reverence before the parchments that bear the signatures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Ben Franklin, George Mason, James Madison, John Hancock and all the rest.
Now the National Archives and Records Administration is embarked on a five-year campaign to re-encase and re-install the charters. The Archives has just unveiled a manufacturer's model of the proposed encasements that they hope will assure the documents "will survive as long as the United States does."
There's no clear and present danger to the charters. The documents, in fact, have barely changed since they were soldered into their present encasements in 1952. But the Thermopane glass protecting the charters is showing its age. And new preservation techniques have come about that conservators want to incorporate into the new display.
The plan is for the charters to go into new encasements of titanium, aluminum and tempered glass that amount to the world's most highly engineered picture frames. But not until 2003. A host of tests and trials of the new enclosures remain to be done. The National Archives doesn't take many chances, though they still have to balance protection and exhibition.
"If you're not willing to take any risks," says John W. Carlin, Archivist of the United States, "then probably when the documents were stored at Fort Knox for a short period of time, that is the place where the documents should be.
"We don't buy into that theory because we think one of the values of saving these documents is for the public to have access to them."
These are the charters that undergird our democracy, Carlin says.
"Records that, yes, are old," he says, "but very much alive. Just witness the huge debate in recent weeks, constant talk about the Constitution."
No question that during the yearlong Clinton impeachment This line is longer than measure/can't be broken process, practically every utterance began with a reference to the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. The Archives' determined preservation of the authentic originals ensures at least the possibility that the "references to the primary documentation are truly accurate."
The early years
Little deterioration has occurred in the 50 years the charters have been in the care of the Archives. "The problem," he says, "was the early years."
The Constitution and Bill of Rights remain quite readable, in case you ever want to check the Constitutional mutterings of your elected representatives. But the Declaration of Independence is badly faded.
"It's been displayed more and longer under uncontrolled conditions," explains Kitty Nicholson, a senior conservator.
For the first century of its existence, the Declaration banged uncertainly around the country and then around Washington. It spent about four months in Baltimore in 1776 and 1777, when Philadelphia, then the nation's capital, was threatened by the British. While it was there, Mary Katherine Goddard, the publisher of the Maryland Journal, made the the first authentic copy with all the signatures. After the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War in 1783, the Declaration spent almost a year in Annapolis.
The Declaration was folded and rolled, unrolled and rerolled, copied in dubious ways and exhibited for years flooded with light, which is very bad indeed. A very popular symbol of American freedom, the Declaration was displayed throughout the 19th century with little regard for temperature, humidity or light. People simply didn't know. Somebody's even left a handprint on it, which you'll probably be able to see in the new encasements.
"Its legibility is " Nicholson sighs, searching for the words, " not good. You can read it a little bit. You can read the top large lines."
Fading of the signatures, which were written in a variety of inks, was noticed as early as 1817. At the Centennial Celebration in 1877 in Philadelphia, reporters wrote the Declaration was "faded and time-worn."