Charters of Freedom

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The Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom in the National Archives building.

The term Charters of Freedom is used to describe the three documents in early American history which are considered instrumental to its founding and philosophy. These documents are the United States Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. While the term has not entered particularly common usage, the room at the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. that houses the three documents is called the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom.

The National Archives preserves and displays the texts in massive, bronze-framed, bulletproof, moisture-controlled sealed display cases in a rotunda style room by day and in multi-ton bomb-proof vaults by night.[1] The ‘Charters of Freedom’ are flanked by Barry Faulkner’s two grand murals, one featuring Jefferson amidst the Continental Congress, the other centering on Madison at the Constitutional Convention. Alongside the Charters of Freedom is a dual display of the "Formation of the Union", which is documents related to the evolution of the U.S. government from 1774 to 1791. These include Articles of Association (1774), Articles of Confederation (1778), Treaty of Paris (1783) and Washington’s First Inaugural Address (1789).[2]

History of the documents

Declaration of Independence


At first there was little interest in the parchment object itself. James Madison had custody of it as Secretary of State (1801-9) but having left Washington DC, he had lost track of it in the years leading to his death. A publisher had access to it in 1846 for a book on the Constitution. In 1883, historian J. Franklin Jameson found the parchment folded in a small tin box on the floor of a closet at the State, War and Navy Building. In 1894 the State Department sealed the Declaration and Constitution between two glass plates and kept them in a safe.[2]

The two parchment documents were turned over to the Library of Congress by executive order, and in 1924, President Coolidge dedicated the bronze-and-marble shrine for public display of the Constitution at the library's headquarters. The parchments were laid over moisture-absorbing cellulose paper, vacuum-sealed between double panes of insulated plate glass, and protected from light by a gelatin film. Although building construction of the Archives Building was completed in 1935, in December 1941 they were moved from the Library of Congress and stored at the U.S. Bullion Depository, Fort Knox, Kentucky, until September 1944. In 1951, following a study by the National Bureau of Standards to protect from atmosphere, insects, mold and light, the parchments were re-encased with special light filters, inert helium gas and proper humidity. They were transferred to the National Archives in 1952.[2]

Since 1952, the "Charters of Freedom" have been displayed in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building. Visual inspections have been enhanced by electronic imaging. Changes in the cases led to removal from their cases in July 2001, preservation treatment by conservators, and installment in new encasements for public display in September 2003.[3][4][5]

Original errata

During its first century, the parchment "Copy of the Constitution" was not directly viewed for public purposes, and most of the penned copies sent to the states are lost.[6]

But on inspection of one of the remaining copies held at the National Archives, there is an apparent spelling error in the original parchment Constitution, in the so-called Export Clause of Article 1, Section 10 on page 2, where the possessive pronoun its appears to be spelled with an apostrophe, turning it into it's.[7] However, the letters t and s are connected, and the mark interpreted as an apostrophe is somewhat inconspicuous; different U.S. government sources have transcribed this phrase with and without the apostrophe.[8][9]

The spelling Pensylvania is used in the list of signatories at the bottom of page 4 of the original document. Elsewhere, in Article 1, Section 2, the spelling that is usual today, Pennsylvania, is used. However, in the late 18th century, the use of a single n to spell "Pennsylvania" was common usage — the Liberty Bell's inscription, for example, uses a single n.[7]

Bill of Rights

Formation of the Union documents

The "Formation of the Union" display contains documents related to the evolution of the U.S. government from 1774 to 1791.

Articles of Association (1774)

Articles of Confederation (1778)

Treaty of Paris (1783)

Washington’s Inaugural Address


  1. Wood, Gordon S., Dusting off the Declaration, The New York Review of Books, Aug 14, 1997
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 National Park Service, Signers of the Constitution: Text and History Books on line series, viewed September 18, 2011.
  3. Since 1987, inspections were enhanced by an electronic imaging monitoring system developed for NARA by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. In 1995, conservators noticed changes in the glass encasements of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Glass experts from Libby-Owens-Ford (the original manufacturer of the encasement glass) and the Corning Glass Museum identified signs of deterioration. Both the glass experts and the National Archives Advisory Committee on Preservation recommended that the Charters be re-encased by 2002 for document safety. (NARA website)
  4. National Archives publication, Archives building history. Viewed August 19, 2011.
  5. The Archives were set up by Franklin Roosevelt in 1934. It keeps 1-3% of government documents to be kept forever. These are over 9 billion text records, 20 million photographs, 7 million maps, charts, and architectural drawings and over 365,000 reels of film. The monumental Archives Building was inadequate by the 1960s, so new facilities were built in College Park, MD. Work on electronic archives progresses. Fitzpatrick, Laura., A Brief History of The National Archives, Thursday, May 21, 2009. Viewed August 19, 2011.
  6. National Park Service, Signers of the Constitution: Text and History Books on line series, viewed September 18, 2011. Although there is a case of textual examination by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and others in 1823 for reference in a political dispute over punctuation due to the many copies and editions available. The Archives also holds an original parchment of the Bill of Rights, "differing only in such details as handwriting, capitalization, and lineation" with those sent out to the states, few of which survive.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Misspellings in the U.S. Constitution. U.S. Constitution Online.
  8. Transcription using it's with an apostrophe: "The United States Constitution". U.S. House of Representatives.
  9. Transcription using its without an apostrophe: "Constitution of the United States". U.S. Senate.

External links