December 15 is Bill of Rights Day, which commemorates the ratification of the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. For more information on events and resources at the National Archives, visit our Bill of Rights Day website.
While the National Archives has well documented its many celebrations for Constitution Day and July 4th, we haven’t paid quite as much attention to how we’ve celebrated Bill of Rights Day—the day commemorating our third “Charter of Freedom.”
We’ve had the original Bill of Rights 14 years longer than the other two—since 1938, before there was even a Bill of Rights Day (FDR established Bill of Rights Day in 1941).
And the first time the National Archives celebrated Bill of Rights Day, it was a big one: the unveiling of the document with its co-Charters two days after they arrived at the National Archives on December 13, 1952.
In the ceremony, President Truman remarked:
I am glad that the Bill of Rights is at last to be exhibited side by side with the Constitution. These two original documents have been separated far too long. In my opinion the Bill of Rights is the most important part of the Constitution of the United States—the only document in the world that protects the citizen against his Government.
In 1962, for the 10-year anniversary of the unveiling, the National Archives hosted students from local schools and colleges who participated in a half-hour ceremony. A speech by former U.S.Attorney General Francis Biddle, who was then serving as the Chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union national committee, capped off the day. It was part of a week-long celebration for Human Rights Week, marking the adoption of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights just 14 years earlier.
For Bill of Rights Day in 1963, the National Assembly on Teaching the Principles of the Bill of Rights sponsored a program in the National Archives Rotunda to observe the 172nd anniversary of the document. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg spoke at the event.
In 1966, for the 175th anniversary, the Archives had a full-scale exhibit opening on December 15. The exhibit explored the need, call for, creation, ratification, and importance of the Bill of Rights over the years. It also highlighted the creation of a five-cent stamp to honor the Bill of Rights anniversary.
Also on display was Delaware’s ratification of the Bill of Rights. Delaware had approved the amendments to the Constitution on one of the rare enrolled parchments of the amendments sent to the states, and sent it back to Congress. Because of that, it remains a Federal record held by the National Archives.
For the bicentennial of the Bill of Rights in 1991, the National Archives celebrated for an entire year—not just one day. Throughout the year they held exhibitions, educational workshops, lectures, dramatic, performances, film showings, and other special events.
National Archives concluded its year-long celebration with the exhibit “Draw! Political Cartoons from Left to Right” in the National Archives Circular Gallery. The exhibit showed 135 original drawings of political cartoons to “give visual expression to the freedom of speech” outlined in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.
Among the cartoonists featured in the exhibition were Thomas Nast, Bill Mauldin, Peter Arno, David Levine, Jeff MacNelly, Pat Oliphant, Charles Schulz, Edward Sorel, and Garry Trudeau.
On Bill of Rights Day in 2003, Archivist of the United States John Carlin announced the results the People’s Vote, an initiative co-sponsored by the National Archives, National History Day, and U.S. News & World Report. It invited Americans for all over the country to vote for 10 of 100 documents that most defined America. Nearly all the documents are among the holdings of the National Archives.
As Carlin read the list, we learned the Bill of Rights came in third (behind the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence). The full list of results is on ourdocuments.gov.
Another highlight of Bill of Rights Day at the National Archives has been naturalization ceremonies. We typically hold these twice a year—on September 17 (Constitution Day), and Bill of Rights Day.
One of the most prominent naturalization ceremonies was held in 2015 when President Obama attended ceremony.
As new citizens took the oath in front of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, President Obama congratulated them on their hard work but also reminded them of the great demands and rewards that lie ahead:
What a remarkable journey all of you have made. And as of today, your story is forever woven into the larger story of this Nation. In the brief time that we have together, I want to share that story with you. Because even as you’ve put in the work required to become a citizen, you still have a demanding and rewarding task ahead of you, and that is the hard work of active citizenship. You have rights and you have responsibilities. And now you have to help us write the next great chapter in America’s story.
This year we continue that tradition of hosting a naturalization ceremony to welcome new citizens and celebrate a document the protects their—and our—most precious freedoms and liberties.
Come see the original Bill of Rights on display at the National Archives in Washington, DC, seven days a week (except Thanksgiving and Christmas).