Visitors to downtown Washington, DC, on December 13, 1952, were treated to an interesting sight—armored vehicles escorted by a barrage of military and police personnel. It wasn’t a holiday or the Presidential motorcade or a visiting dignitary.
On that chilly December morning, passersby saw the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States going for a ride.
“The Charters of Freedom”—the Declaration, Constitution, and Bill of Rights—all have varied histories of transport and storage through 1952.
The Declaration of Independence, after it was signed on August 2, 1776, moved with Congress from city to city throughout the Revolutionary War. After the establishment of the new nation under the Constitution, the Declaration found itself in Federal buildings, abandoned gristmills, and private homes before it ended up in the Library of Congress in 1921.
The Constitution had a similar history—after the framers signed it, the Constitution passed into the custody of the Department of State in 1789 and moved as the Federal Government moved. Unlike the Declaration, which was displayed for many years, the Constitution spent much of its history in storage.
The Bill of Rights has an even thinner history between its creation in 1789 and 1938. It, too, traveled with the government as it moved about until the Department of State transferred it to the National Archives in 1938.
By 1924, the Declaration and Constitution were on display at the Library of Congress, where thousands of visitors came to see them each year. Two years later, Congress made its first appropriation for the National Archives Building to house the nation’s historical records.
In the building’s cornerstone ceremony on February 20, 1933, outgoing President Herbert Hoover announced that the originals of “the most sacred documents in our history”—the Declaration, Constitution, and Bill of Rights—would be on permanent display at the National Archives.
The idea that the National Archives would include a shrine to these founding documents was always in the plan for the building. In fact, the building’s 75-foot-high rotunda was designed specifically to display the Declaration and the Constitution. There were even custom-made murals in the exhibit hall boasting fictional depictions of the Declaration and the Constitution being presented.
The hall was always meant to hold the documents, but for many years the Librarian of Congress refused to relinquish his hold over them.
By the 1950s, the Archives had lost patience with its empty shrine to the founding documents. President Harry S. Truman’s remarks on the Bill of Rights during a 1951 Constitution Day ceremony at the Library of Congress opened the door for the Archives to makes its move: “I hope that these first 10 amendments will be put on parchment and sealed up and placed alongside the original document. In my opinion they are the most important parts of the Constitution.”
In the weeks following the ceremony, the Archivist of the United States, Wayne Grover, worked with the Librarian of Congress, Luther Evans, on a plan for the Archives to acquire the Declaration, Constitution, and papers of the Continental and Confederation Congresses. To avoid controversy, they decided to convince Congress to approve the transfer, and on April 30, 1952, Congress ordered that the Declaration and the Constitution be moved to the National Archives.
National Archives began making preparation for the move by renovating the exhibition hall and adding a vault to store the charter documents.
Officials chose December 13 as the transfer day because they wanted to unveil the documents on Bill of Rights day, December 15.
The transfer ceremony was a spectacle. It began with the commanding General of the Air Force Headquarters Command formally receiving the Declaration and Constitution at the Library of Congress at 11 a.m.
Twelve members of the Armed Forces Special Police then carried the six sheets of parchment in their sealed cases through a cordon of 88 servicewomen and placed the boxes on a mattress in an armored Marine Corps personnel carrier.
A color guard, ceremonial troops, two Army bands, two light tanks, four servicemen armed with submachine guns, and a motorcycle brigade then escorted the armored vehicle down Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues to the National Archives Building. Along the parade route were Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Marine, and Air Force personnel and the general public who came out to watch the procession.
At 11:35 am, the General and 12 policemen carried the documents up the Constitution Avenue stairs into the Rotunda and formally delivered them into the custody of the Archivist of the United States.
The documents were then placed in their cases and spent the weekend in the 50-ton, steel and concrete, bomb and fire-proof safe that had been installed earlier that month.
Two days later, the formal enshrining ceremony took place, and the three documents were unveiled in their new housing. During the dedication ceremony, President Truman observed: “The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are now assembled in one place for display and safekeeping. Here, so far as is humanly possible, they will be protected from disaster and from the ravages of time.”
Today visitors can see these documents on permanent display in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom at the National Archives in Washington, DC.
To read more about the Declaration and Constitution’s travels, read the 2002 Prologue article, “Travels of the Charters of Freedom,” by Milton Gustafson.
To read more about the Faulkner Murals in the Rotunda of the National Archives, read the 2014 Prologue article, “Depicting the Creation of a Nation” by Lester Gorelic.
Watch the footage of the transfer in our Online Public Access catalog.
Visit our online exhibit, “Carting the Charters.”