Since the National Archives was established more than 80 years ago, millions of people from the United States and abroad have visited our historic building in Washington, DC.
Ten of those visitors were sitting U.S. Presidents.
In 1933, before there was a building, President Herbert Hoover became the first President to visit when he laid the cornerstone on February 20, 1933. (Okay, the building wasn’t open yet, but we’re still counting Hoover.)
Hoover envisioned this as a place where the most important documents in American history would be stored, calling the unfinished building “the temple of our history.”
The building was later completed under the Presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who signed the legislation establishing the National Archives. Roosevelt graced us with his presence twice, although he is the one President for whom we can’t locate any photos of his visits.
Roosevelt first came for a tour of the building on June 16, 1937. Later, in the midst of World War II, he came to view the documents in the Exhibition Hall, what we now call the Rotunda, on October 5, 1943.
In the post–World War II world, President Harry Truman visited the Exhibition Hall as well. At the end of his second term, he came for a very significant moment in National Archives history—when the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were transferred from the Library of Congress in 1952.
During the ceremony, on Bill of Rights Day (December 15), the President focused his remarks on preserving not only the physical documents but also the ideas written upon them.
Truman stated, “As we look toward the future, we must be sure that what we honor and venerate in these documents is not their words alone, but the ideas of liberty which they express.” He also warned of the dangers in denying other people their own opinions and freedoms, saying, “But to deny these rights is worse than dangerous, it is absolutely fatal to liberty.”
A decade passed before another President returned to the National Archives Building.
On June 27, 1962, President John F. Kennedy came for opening of an exhibit of FDR’s naval prints. He remarked “that we will be the first of a great number of Americans who will touch, through this exhibit, not only the life of President Roosevelt but also the old Navy.”
It was fitting that President Kennedy, who had served in the Navy during World War II, commemorated a man who was so interested in the Navy and was such a vital part of World War II.
Nearly another decade later, to celebrate the opening of the American Revolution’s bicentennial era, President Richard Nixon, along with Chief Justice of the United States Warren E. Burger and U.S. Speaker of the House Carl Albert, visited the National Archives on July 3, 1971.
Speaking in the Rotunda, President Nixon called on us to use the bicentennial era to “rededicate ourselves to the principles set forth by the men whose faces can be seen in the magnificent murals in this room—rededicate ourselves to the principles set down in these documents.”
President Gerald Ford completed Nixon’s American bicentennial dream in 1976 when he came to the National Archives in the days leading up to the Fourth of July (he was even accompanied by the same men—Albert and Burger).
He began his remarks by saying, “I am standing here before the great charters of American liberty under law. Millions of Americans, before me and after me, will have looked and lingered over these priceless documents that have guided our 200 years of high adventure as ‘a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’”
Ford’s successor, Jimmy Carter, never came while in office, but the next President, Ronald Reagan, visited us twice.
His first was for the swearing-in ceremony of Don W. Wilson as Seventh Archivist of the United States, making Reagan the only President to attend such a ceremony.
Reagan’s second visit as President came on January 10, 1989, to participate in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library’s 50th Anniversary luncheon. His remarks covered the life and legacy of FDR and how important the former President had been in shaping the history of our nation.
The next President to visit the National Archives has been our most frequent visitor: President Bill Clinton. The Commander in Chief made three trips here during his two terms in office. Perhaps his most important came in 1995, when he discussed affirmative action.
It was no mistake that President Clinton chose to speak about the challenges of restoring the American dream and bringing “our country together amid all of our diversity” in front of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. President Clinton’s remarks demonstrated that even if the American people are diverse, our value of freedom and liberty bring us all together.
Clinton’s subsequent visits were to announce two different projects: the White House Millennium Program in 1997, and then the Charters of Freedom Project in 1999. The White House Millennium Program, which was led by First Lady Hillary Clinton, showcased the achievements of America, yet also sought to discover how to improve life in the 21st century.
The Charters of Freedom Project gave the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights new state-of-the-art cases. Keeping with tradition, President Clinton spoke about the importance of not only preserving the physical documents but also the values and ideals instilled in them.
In 2003 when the renovation of the National Archives Rotunda was complete and the Charters of Freedom were in their new cases, President George W. Bush delivered remarks on Constitution Day (September 17).
President Bush proclaimed that the rededication of the documents displayed a “deep respect for the first principles of our Republic and our lasting gratitude to those first Citizens of the United States of America.”
President Bush’s second visit as President came on January 16, 2006, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
After seeing the Emancipation Proclamation, Bush commented, “It seems fitting on Martin Luther King Day that I come and look at the Emancipation Proclamation in its original form. Abraham Lincoln recognized that all men are created equal. Martin Luther King lived on that admonition to call our country to a higher calling, and today we celebrate the life of an American who called Americans to account when we didn’t live up to our ideals.”
Our most recent past President, Barack Obama, came to the National Archives twice. On May 21, 2009, he addressed Cabinet members and advisers to speak about the progress that had been made in keeping America safe and secure.
During that visit, President Obama said that the country could not be safe “unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values.” The President was calling on the government and the country to come together and not see “national security as a wedge that divides America.”
President Obama’s second visit was on December 15, 2015, when he attended a naturalization ceremony.
As new citizens took the oath in front of the Constitution, President Obama congratulated them on their hard work but also reminded them of the great demands and rewards that lie ahead—“You’ve got obligations as citizens. And I’m absolutely confident you will meet them. You’ll set a good example for all of us, because you know how precious this thing is. It’s not something to take for granted. It’s something to cherish and to fight for.”
There is a long and rich history of Presidential visits to the National Archives. It is the ideal location to speak about the principles enshrined in our founding documents and remind others of their duty to uphold those principles.
Thank you to former intern Kirsten Dillon for helping with the background research for this post.