By DONNA URSCHEL
The political wrangles of today cannot compare with those engaged in by the Founding Fathers in the process of creating a new nation. In the midst of severe turmoil—out of disparate notions and inspirations—the gentlemen of the 18th century, with no prior experience in nation-building, forged a strong and resilient republic.
How did they do it? Where did they find the foresight? How did they muster the fortitude? And how did they remain civil to each other?
“Creativity, collaboration and compromise were necessary in political life in order to achieve such great things,” said Gerard Gawalt, guest curator of “Creating the United States,” a new exhibition at the Library of Congress. “The entire period is much more complicated and complex than what is explained in the average history book.”
The exhibition, located on the second floor of the Thomas Jefferson Building, tells the story of how the Founding Fathers were able to weave together the words and phrases of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Gawalt said Librarian of Congress James Billington wanted “a major exhibiton based on American creativity.” That led Jim Hutson, chief of the Library’s Manuscript Division, to suggest “a focus on the specific creativity of the Founding Fathers.”
That creativity is revealed in the 135 items on display and in three interactives—touch-activated screens that allow visitors to zoom in and out of the Declaration, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Visitors can look at the changes made during the writing process and the antecedent documents, which are the political and literary sources that inspired that the Founding Fathers when they were composing their thought.
“All items on display are the real thing. They are not copies,” stressed Cheryl Regan, acting chief of the Library’s Interpretive Programs Office. Although the exhibition is ongoing, the items will need to be replaced every six months for preservation reasons. Other items from the Library’s collections will be used to tell the story. “But the structure of the exhibition will remain the same and so will the interactives,” Regan said.
The exhibition, which opened on April 12 as part of the new Library of Congress Experience (see Information Bulletin, May 2008), is arranged chronologically in three parts centering on the nation’s three seminal documents. The first part, “Creating the Declaration of Independence,” illuminates the causes of the American Revolution and the thought process that went into declaring independence in 1776.
According to the exhibition narrative, Americans moved into a revolution mindset after Great Britain’s victory in the French and Indian War. After the colonists were freed from the threat of hostile French and Indian forces, they had more time to focus on issues of political rights, individual freedoms and inequalities of power.
One of the first to imagine a national confederation was Benjamin Franklin. On display is Franklin’s “Albany Plan” from 1754, in which he proposed a union of American provinces to better battle the French and their Indian allies. The Albany Plan called for proportional representation in a national legislature and a president general appointed by the King of Great Britain. The plan served as a model for Franklin’s revolutionary Plan of Confederation in 1775.
This section also addresses the various battles fought, the set of beliefs discussed by the revolutionaries and the peace that arrived after eight years of war. The main attraction on display is Thomas Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, which shows the editing marks by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and other participants in the Continental Congress. A nearby interactive kiosk allows visitors to examine five key phrases in the Declaration to see how they were edited and to trace the origins of the ideas.
For instance, a click on the key phrase “pursuit of happiness” reveals how Franklin deftly, concisely edited Jefferson’s writing. He replaced “sacred and undeniable” with “self-evident.” He crossed out a number of other words and added some of his own. The result: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain [inherent &] inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness.”
Where did Jefferson get this idea? As the exhibition demonstrates, he was influenced by the “Virginia Declaration of Rights,” 1776; “Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms,” 1775; “Essays on the Principles of Morality and Religion,” 1751; and “Two Treatises of Government,” 1690. At the interactive kiosk, a click on each of these titles will reveal the concept that corresponds to Jefferson’s writing.
“The Declaration was a document pieced together from many others,” Gawalt said. “Jefferson synthesizes the material and puts it into an inspiring form of writing.”
The original antecedent documents seen in the interactive are also on physical display in the exhibition. In addition, there are engravings, cartoons, maps, pamphlets and books. There is Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” and George Washington’s diary. There is the map used in the peace negotiations in 1783, titled “Map of British and French Dominions in North America, with Roads, Distances, Limits and Extent of the Settlements.” It was spread out on the table as officials collaborated on the Treaty of Paris, which recognized the independence of the United States and awarded it an enormous territory stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River.
The story of creativity, collaboration and compromise continues into the exhibition’s second part, “Creating the Constitution.” A little more than a year after the Declaration of Independence was signed, the Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation on Nov. 15, 1777. The Articles created a loose confederation of sovereign states and a weak central government, leaving most of the power with the state governments. Once peace arrived in 1783, the weaknesses of the Articles became increasingly apparent.
“Divisions among the states and even local rebellions threatened to destroy the fruits of the Revolution. Nationalists, led by James Madison, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Wilson, almost immediately began working toward strengthening the federal government,” according to the exhibition text.
Among the 18 items on display in the second part of the exhibition are letters from John Jay and James Madison to George Washington, discussing ways to create a stronger government and, eventually, a new government.
“Washington is key to the writing of the Constitution, more so than he is given credit for,” explained Gawalt. “Without Washington, there wouldn’t be a new Constitution. He was the only one with enough political capital to substantiate the need for a new Constitution.”
Gawalt said Madison, Jay and others asked Washington to come to Philadelphia. “Washington told them that he wouldn’t come just to tinker with the Articles of Confederation. They assured him that there wouldn’t be any tinkering. There was more to do than that. And if there were to be a new government, there had to be a president. They held out a lot of carrots to him.”
In 1787 a national Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia. The delegates gathered in the East Room on the first floor of the Pennsylvania State House (known today as Independence Hall). They took an oath of secrecy, and they met behind closed doors and windows with pulled drapes, throughout the hot and humid summer. Surely, sitting in this room was no easy task, given the layers of clothing and powdered wigs fashionable at the time.
The two sections in “Creating the Constitution” illuminate the challenges to the delegates. “Diverging plans, strong egos, regional demands, and states’ rights made the solutions difficult,” the exhibition text explains.
On display is the Virginia Plan, submitted to the Constitutional Convention in May 1787 by the Virginia delegates, led by James Madison and George Washington. They prepared a plan of government that provided for proportional representation in a bicameral (two-house) legislature and a strong national government with veto power over state laws. The plan was designed to protect the interests of the large states in a strong, national republic.
As an alternative, New Jersey delegates submitted in June 1787 the New Jersey Plan, which was designed to protect the security and power of small states by limiting each state to one vote in Congress. The New Jersey plan also is on display.
As delegates became more frustrated and angry, Franklin, the eldest delegate, urged “great Coolness and Temper.” A draft of his speech is on display. On several occasions Franklin acted to restore harmony and good humor to the proceedings.
Then, in mid-July of 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention, many on the brink of leaving, reached a compromise that created a bicameral legislature with the states having equal representation in the upper house (the Senate) and the people having proportional representation in the lower house. On display are James Madison’s notes from July 16, 1787, on the “Great Compromise.”
The main item on display for this part of the exhibition is George Washington’s annotated copy of the draft Constitution from the convention’s Committee of Style. Washington had jotted personal notes on his copy of the draft. Ultimately, there were few critical alterations made to the draft submitted by the Committee of Style before it was signed by the delegates on Sept. 17, 1787.
A nearby interactive kiosk allows visitors to explore five sections of the draft Constitution, including the preamble (“We the people…”), executive power, war powers, representation and taxation. The interactive also delineates the antecedent documents for these critical principles. Concerning executive power, for instance, the exhibition cites the influence of Franklin’s Albany Plan of 1754, the Articles of Confederation, the Virginia Plan, the New Jersey Plan and the Report of the Committee of Detail (a committee of the Constitutional Convention). Visitors can zoom into the precise phrases that inspired the Founding Fathers.
The third part of the exhibition is “Creating the Bill of Rights.” It is divided into four sections: forging a federal government; demand for a bill of rights; formation of political parties; and peaceful transition.
“In this part I tried to get across that most people in 1789 didn’t think a list of rights was necessary in the Federal Constitution,” Gawalt explained, “because every state had a bill of rights and common law protected individual rights, starting with the Magna Carta.”
“But anti-Federalists (those who advocated states’ rights instead of centralized power) wanted to make major changes to the Constitution,” Gawalt said. “Madison said he devised a plan for writing amendments to avert changes to the Constitution. He looked on it as a diversionary tactic.”
According to the exhibition text, “Even though there was universal agreement in Congress that people have certain natural rights, there was fierce debate over the need for specific rights to be clearly articulated and whether to incorporate those rights into the body of the Constitution or attach them as appendages.”
From hundreds of proposed amendments to the Constitution, Congress gave final approval to 12. Under the direction of John James Beckley, clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives and the first Librarian of Congress, the 12 possible amendments were sent to the states for their ratification. By Dec. 1791, 10 of the amendments were ratified and have since been known as the Bill of Rights.
The highlight of this part of the exhibition is Beckley’s handwritten copy of the proposed 12 amendments. A nearby kiosk allows visitors to explore the concepts of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, due process and trial by jury. Here, too, visitors can view the antecedent documents for each concept.
Among the items on display in the third part of the exhibition are reports from various congressional committees concerning the amendments, the antecedent document of the 1689 English Declaration of Rights; Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address; woodcuts; and an etching depicting the heated partisan debates in Congress between Jeffersonian Republican representative Matthew Lyon and Federalist representative Matthew Griswold, who attacked each other with a cane and fireplace tongs on the floor of the House of Representatives.
What if television had existed at the time? Would the partisan pundits, the talking heads, have torpedoed the fragile formation of this self-governing republic?
Not necessarily, said Gawalt, because the political rhetoric was just as intense in those days.
“There were hundreds and thousands of essays written, and they appeared in newspapers as Letters to the Editor. The opinions expressed were more sophisticated then. They wrote with great substantiation,” Gawalt explained.
The exhibition has an epilogue, or three “impact” displays that examine how the key documents—the Declaration, Constitution and Bill of Rights—have been used and sometimes abused in the centuries since their adoption. Film and audiovisual segments explore the impact of those documents on civil rights, women’s suffrage and rights to privacy.
“One of my goals with this exhibition was to take a very complex subject and share it with the public in a presentable way,” said Gawalt.
The exhibition has attracted a lot of visitors. In the month of May alone, according to Regan, approximately 40,000 people viewed “Creating the United States.” “The interactives are extremely popular in this exhibition, but visitors are still drawn to the power of the artifacts on display,” said Regan.
If a trip to the Library of Congress is not possible, viewers can experience the exhibition, including the interactives, at www.myLOC.gov.
Creating the Exhibition
“Creating the United States” was made possible through the generous support of Roger and Susan Hertog and the Xerox Foundation.
Gerard Gawalt, the exhibition’s guest curator, is a consultant to the Library in early American history. Prior to his retirement, he served the Library for many years as a historian and curator of presidential papers. Gawalt is the author of “My Dear President: Letters Between Presidents and Their Wives” (2005); “First Daughters: Letters Between U.S. Presidents and Their Daughters” (2004); “Thomas Jefferson: Genius of Liberty” (2000); and “the Declaration of Independence: The Evolution of the Text” (1999).
The exhibition narrative created by Gawalt was translated into a visual display by the Library’s Interpretive Programs Office (IPO). From the earliest planning stages of the exhibition, IPO helped shape the selection of objects and the narrative in a way that would have broad public appeal. Working with the contract designers, IPO determined how visitors would view the objects on display, produced media presentations that underscore the legacy of the founding documents and edited interpretive text throughout the exhibition. The office also collaborated with contract software developers to create the content and layout of the interactive stations.
Cheryl Regan led the IPO team, which included Cynthia Wayne and Martha Hopkins, as exhibition directors, and Deborah Durbeck, the production officer. James Hutson, chief of the Manuscript Division, played a key role in the conceptualization of the exhibition and members of the Web Services and the Information Technology Services office were critical in planning and implementing interactivity throughout the exhibition.
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Library’s Public Affairs Office.