Setting the Records Straight

Records and Seals Act, as introduced in the Senate on August 31, 1789. It was signed into law on September 15, 1789. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Records and Seals Act, as introduced in the Senate on August 31, 1789. It was signed into law on September 15, 1789. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Today’s post comes from Dan Ruprecht, intern in the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives in Washington, DC. 

From its earliest days, the Federal Government has been concerned with preserving its records.

During its very first session, the First Congress under the new Constitution in 1789 passed the Records and Seals Act, setting the expectation that government records were to be preserved for future generations.

The Records and Seals Act holds a special place in the heart of the National Archives and Records Administration.

During the formative years of the Republic, the act established the importance of recordkeeping and provided that copies of government records would be made available to the public via newspapers.

With the act’s passage, the Founding Fathers attempted to archive the nation’s documents and set a precedent to record, preserve, and report national history—a reflection of their belief that the American public ought to be a well-informed citizenry. Many of the nation’s founders shared the belief that it was imperative for the people of the young nation to be educated and informed in order for the government to properly function.

The act changed the name of the Department of Foreign Affairs to the Department of State to reflect several new domestic responsibilities. The newly established Secretary of State, aside from duties as a foreign affairs adviser, would also be the nation’s record keeper.

The State Department would oversee the safekeeping of the new government’s records and send copies of legislative records to state governments. It also provided that every new law, order, resolution, and vote would be printed in at least three public newspapers in the United States.

Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out as the founders would have hoped.

It turned out that recordkeeping was a more monumental task than Congress could have imagined. No government-wide security existed to ensure that the records were preserved properly.

Attic of the House wing of the U.S. Capitol where the papers of the first 23 Congresses were stored, May 13, 1937. (Records of the National Archives, National Archives)

Attic of the House wing of the U.S. Capitol where the papers of the first 23 Congresses were stored, May 13, 1937. (Records of the National Archives, National Archives)

 

Documents were stored wherever space was found. This meant some records were stored in basements, attics, or garages, some hidden away in file cabinets, and some simply lost or stolen. Fires and insects also threatened to destroy or damage the documents.

When a fire in the Commerce Department destroyed the census records of 1890, the editor of the American Historical Review, Professor J. Franklin Jameson of Brown University, called on Congress to create a Hall of Records.

First page of the National Archives Act, June 19, 1934 (National Archives Identifier 299840)

First page of the National Archives Act, June 19, 1934. (National Archives Identifier 299840)

Jameson’s appeal was echoed by many others, and in 1934, with the intent of the Records Act of 1789 in mind, Congress established the National Archives.

The First Congress set the expectation that the nation’s records were to be preserved and protected, and their content disseminated to the American public. Since its establishment, the National Archives has been committed to performing those important duties.

That means using state-of-the-art document preservation and restoration techniques, as well as a commitment to making the records available to the public in person and online.

The work today is a far cry from what the founders could have imagined—for instance, maintaining the Constitution’s sophisticated argon-filled aluminum and titanium climate-controlled encasement, or the National Archives’ growing online presence.

These efforts are proof that the National Archives still lives with the spirit of the Records and Seals Act passed 225 years ago.

Because government documents were stored in such poor conditions many records, such as these Veterans Administration records, had to be fumigated in a vacuum chamber by National Archives workers, 6/12/1936. (National Archives Identifier 7822037)

Because government documents were stored in such poor conditions, many records, such as these Veterans Administration records, had to be fumigated in a vacuum chamber by National Archives workers, 6/12/1936. (National Archives Identifier 7822037)

 

The Center for Legislative Archives is marking the 225th anniversary of the First Congress by sharing documents on Tumblr and Twitter; use #Congress225 to see all the postings.

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