Magna Carta is the benchmark by which the principles of democracy are tested. Written more than 800 years ago, the document codified the fundamental truths that all people are subject to the rule of law. It guaranteed individual rights, including the right to property and the right to a fair trial.
Magna Carta is considered one of the first steps in England toward establishing a parliamentary democracy and a key influence in the creation of our own Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.
It was also the document that inspired the creation of the David M. Rubenstein Gallery. Mr. Rubenstein, a Washington, DC-area billionaire, became aware that the 1297 Magna Carta was going to be auctioned off by its previous owner, former Presidential candidate Ross Perot.
“I saw it in a Sotheby’s exhibition. I was told it was going to be sold the next day and probably leave the country, so I thought it was important that this document, which had really been influential in the Declaration of Independence and our Bill of Rights, should stay in our country,” Mr. Rubenstein, a co-founder of the Carlyle group, explained.
So in December 2007, Mr. Rubenstein traveled to New York City to bid on the only copy of Magna Carta in the United States. At the auction, the philanthropist was ushered into a small room off to the side, where he used a telephone to bid on the document so that his identity would be kept secret (at the request of the auction house). Mr. Rubenstein’s final bid of $19 million secured him Magna Carta. The full amount, including fees and commissions, came to a total of $21.3 million.
Mr. Rubenstein subsequently donated $13.5 million and loaned Magna Carta to the National Archives—this was a principal factor in the creation of the gallery that bears his name. But his generosity didn’t end there—he also covered the cost of the state-of-the-art case constructed by the National Institute for Standards and Technology. “It’s the most elaborate case you could possibly get and it will last at least another 800 years,” Mr. Rubenstein remarked.
Using Magna Carta as the centerpiece, staff at the National Archives developed the concept of the “Record of Rights,” the name of the gallery’s permanent exhibition. According to curator Michael Hussey, “The Rotunda takes you through the early timeline of our nation’s history in establishing our basic rights, and the Rubenstein Gallery picks up where that leaves off.”
The gallery highlights groups of Americans: women, African Americans, and immigrants. Visitors are introduced to them through three separate but related themes: “Bending Towards Justice” (freedom transposed against slavery and racism), “Remembering the Ladies” (women’s struggle to gain full access to rights and freedoms), and “Yearning to Breathe Free” (immigrants and their rights as newcomers to this nation).
Construction required significant effort and time. The collaboration of National Archives staff was critical in the conceptualization, design, and manufacturing of exhibit displays and incorporated curators, archivists, and historians. Their exhaustive efforts resulted in a wonderfully conceived journey through our nation’s history as citizens and the pursuit of our basic rights.
Upon the gallery’s opening in December 2013, Archivist of the United States, David S. Ferriero remarked, “Behind each record in the David M. Rubenstein Gallery—whether the 15th Amendment, which granted African American men the right to vote, or the Lilly Ledbetter Equal Pay Act, which ensures equal pay for women—are countless stories of courage, resilience, and the belief in a better future.”
For five years now, the David M. Rubenstein Gallery has acted as a faithful compass, helping each of us navigate through our national struggle to realize the promises outlined in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident. That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Watch David Rubenstein discuss the 1297 Magna Carta at a press briefing held at the National Archives:
Visit the Rubenstein Gallery and the Record of Rights exhibit everyday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m except Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. Admission is free.