Historian’s Notebook: The Bill of Rights at 225

This post is from Jessie Kratz, Historian of the National Archives. It’s from the Winter 2016 issue of Prologue magazine. 

The travels of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution have been chronicled frequently over the years—in fact, they are fascinating stories. However, the third “Charter of Freedom”—the Bill of Rights—has been largely overlooked.

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Bill of Rights, September 25, 1789. (National Archives Identifier 14080)

As we celebrate the 225th anniversary of the document’s ratification, let’s explore its history. A parchment document with 12 proposed constitutional amendments was created in September 1789, and copies were sent to the states for ratification.

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Virginia’s Ratification of the Bill of Rights, December 15, 1971. (National Archives Identifier 5721244)

By December 15, 1791, enough states had ratified amendments 3 through 12 to make them law. These became what we now call the Bill of Rights. By 1992, the original second amendment, limiting congressional pay, garnered enough state ratifications to become the 27th Amendment.

Before the National Archives was established, the Department of State safeguarded the federal government’s official records. Unlike the Declaration, which had been on display, the Bill of Rights remained in storage.

When the State Department moved with the rest of the government from New York to Philadelphia, the Bill of Rights went too. In 1800 it came to the new capital, Washington, D.C., and was removed to Leesburg, Virginia, only briefly in 1814 when the British burned the city.

Throughout the 19th century, the document was stored in various State Department offices and eventually made its way to the Old Executive Office Building. There, it was sewn into a large binder with other ratified amendments.

The Bill of Rights on display on the Freedom Train, October 20, 1948. (Records of the National Archives)

After the National Archives was established in 1934, it worked with the State Department to acquire the historical federal documents, and on March 16, 1938, the Bill of Rights was transferred to the National Archives.

Conservators removed the document from its binder and put it on display in the Rotunda—you can still see the holes from the sewing.

After the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, it was crated with other constitutional amendments and stored in a safe area in case an emergency evacuation was necessary.

As history would have it, an evacuation was not needed, and in 1947—the first time in 133 years—the Bill of Rights left Washington as part of the Freedom Train exhibit that traveled across the country.

On November 22, 1952, the document was sealed in a helium-filled glass case and, on December 15 (Bill of Rights Day), put on permanent display with the Declaration and the Constitution, which had been transferred to the National Archives from the Library of Congress just two days before.

Chemist Engaged in Helium Flushing Operation on the Bill of Rights, 1952. (National Archives Identifier 7873477)

Except for the 2001–2003 renovation of the National Archives Building, the Bill of Rights has been on exhibit in the Rotunda ever since. Now on display in its state-of-the-art case, the Bill of Rights has finally found its home.

Visit our Bill of Rights 225 page to find out what the National Archives is doing to celebrate the anniversary of this historic document.

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Visitors look at the Bill of Rights on display in the National Archives Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom, 2016. (Photo Courtesy of Jeff Reed)

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