Bill of Rights Day: The People’s Vote

December 15 is Bill of Rights Day, which commemorates the ratification of the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Today’s post comes from Bailey Martin from the National Archives History Office.

Visitors in the National Archives Rotunda, 1973. (National Archives Identifier 35810210)

December 15, Bill of Rights Day, is an important day for the National Archives because it is the one day of the year specifically set aside to acknowledge one of our nation’s most important documents—the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Though not a holiday in the traditional sense, its importance lies in the fact that it reminds the people of the United States of the magnitude and significance of a document that protects our most fundamental rights.

In 1999, nearly 50 years after first going on display in the Rotunda, the National Archives announced a renovation for the home of the Charters of Freedom (the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights).

The Archives made this decision after routine inspections of the documents indicated the beginning signs of deterioration in both the display cases and on the Charters themselves. 

The new encasements for the Charters of Freedom required not only an upgrade in encasing materials to better preserve the centuries-old documents, but also a new vault to store them. The new Rotunda also became more handicap-accessible.

Renovations officially began on July 5, 2001, and the Rotunda reopened to the public on September 18, 2003just in time for Constitution Day. On September 17, 2003, the Archives held a special ceremony for invited guests, with President George W. Bush as guest speaker.

Rededication Ceremony with President Bush
The Rotunda after its remodel during the special reopening ceremony on September 17, 2003. (National Archives Identifier 66781740)

In conjunction with the reopening of the Rotunda, the National Archives, in partnership with U.S. News & World Report and National History Day, also announced The People’s Vote, which invited citizens to vote from a list of 100 pre-selected documents for the  most influential documents in United States history. Participants could vote online or in person from September 17 to December 1, 2003, with results announced on Bill of Rights Day.

The documents ranged from lesser-known to quite well-known, and most were at the National Archives. Besides the Charters of Freedom, there were such documents as the Monroe Doctrine, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the cotton gin patent, and President George Washington’s first inaugural address.

Participants could also write in documents not on the original list.

At a ceremony held the morning of December 15, then-Archivist of the United States John Carlin shared some statistics gathered from the vote. These included a tally of 40,000 people who cast 300,000 votes for their top 10 documents, with 27,000 votes coming from the online website and 12,000 people voting at the Archives in person.

Carlin remarked, “Our goal in holding the People’s Vote was not only to make Americans more aware of some of the milestone documents that have influenced our nation and defined our people, but also to increase their interest in all the records held here at the National Archives.”

The Top 10 documents were then announced off in ascending order, with an excerpt from each winner read as well.

The Bill of Rights came in third with 26,545 votes, or 67.9 percent of the total. (The second and first documents chosen were the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, respectively.)

peoples vote
A group of students looks at one of the many documents in the running for the People’s Vote on Bill of Rights, 2003. (Records of the National Archives)

While not deemed the most important document in American history, it is insightful to note that the Bill of Rights was not far behind the top two documents and garnered twice the amount of votes compared to the fourth most popular document (the Louisiana Purchase).

To have these documents at the forefront of the people’s minds speaks to the excellent job the National Archives has done in preserving these Charters of Freedom for the American people. Furthermore, unveiling the results of this competition on Bill of Rights Day cements the importance of this historic document.

Happy Bill of Rights Day!

The Bill of Rights, as well as the other two Charters of Freedom, are on display at the National Archives in Washington, DC, seven days a week every day of the year (except Thanksgiving and Christmas). 

You can find out more information about the history of the Bill of Rights on our website.

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