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Why They Visit

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Yesterday, more than 7,500 people waited outside my office here in the main building of the Library. Today looks just as busy. They are not waiting for the latest blockbuster movie or even, as is often the case, in smaller numbers, to use our computers. This is something entirely different.

We have on public display, together, for the first time in decades, one of two surviving copies of the Declaration of Independence in Thomas Jefferson's hand and one of the original copies of the Bill of Rights drawn up by George Washington to send to the states for ratification. These are our founding documents, on display to celebrate America's birthday this week. They are among the crown jewels of the Library’s amazing collections and they belong to the public, who are now flocking to the Library to enjoy them and find inspiration in them.

Since these documents are easily viewed online, I asked visitors why they were waiting to see them. My favorite was the simplest answer: "Because we are American." But it seems that many of the people in line are from all over the world. While we celebrate the rights we enjoy as Americans, we also admire what these documents have meant for rights everywhere. Maybe that feels all the more poignant today when so many people in other countries are in the streets fighting for the same rights.

Seeing the documents in the original brings the reality of the historical process of their foundation to life. It gives goose bumps just to see the handwriting and the corrections. In the Library’s copy of the Declaration, we see Jefferson's underlining of the section decrying slavery, which the founders were forced to remove to appease the South. Rights come through struggle and in fits and starts. They don’t arrive full-blown in engraved documents.

The Bill of Rights is even more of a surprise. There are 12 amendments listed. I am no constitutional expert, but I am pretty sure the Bill of Rights has only 10 amendments. It turns out 12 were sent for ratification but only 10 were approved. Two that didn’t belong were eliminated: one setting congressional pay, the other stipulating the ratio of representation, which, if enacted, would now have produced a House of Representatives with 6,000 members. Something tells me that would not have worked out well. But what worked was democracy, at its founding, in making the right collective decisions. Without seeing the document in its original form, I would not have understood that lesson—or not nearly as powerfully.

History is a lived process, of fits and starts. Our collections bring that home. And they remind us that we then too are part of history—maybe not in the founding of a democracy—but in perfecting it, which as Abraham Lincoln reminded us is never-ending.

On this Independence Day, what could be better than to be reminded that history is available to us all and shaped by us all. The Library—that vital public place founded to share that history—can still inspire in this way. And people will line up for the experience.

This exhibit remains on display today from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Come by and stand next to history. Then I hope you will go make some.

And if you miss the exhibit today, don’t worry. We will keep the documents safe and then plan to install them as part of a Treasures exhibition that will be on permanent public display for years to come.

Happy 4th of July!

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