The Bill of Rights at the National Archives Building

As we celebrate the 232nd anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights, we’re looking back on the document’s 175th anniversary—and a major exhibit at the National Archives Building.

The original joint resolution of Congress proposing what we call the Bill of Rights has been on permanent display at the National Archives Building since 1952. In 1966, the National Archives celebrated the 175th anniversary of its ratification with its first major exhibit on the history of the Bill of Rights. The exhibit was on display in the National Archives Building from December 15, 1966—Bill of Rights Day—through March 15, 1967.

In the 1966 exhibit, the story of the Bill of Rights began with the need for such amendments and the demands for a federal bill of rights that arose during the Constitution’s ratification period. Documents from Benjamin Franklin, George Mason, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and others were shown to illustrate various contemporary viewpoints on the need for a Bill of Rights.

It also included calls from states for a Bill of Rights that emerged during the Constitution’s ratification process. Both Virginia and New York’s proposals for amendments were included in the exhibit as well as James Madison’s pledge to support amendments if elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

The exhibit moved on to the First Federal Congress (1789–1791), where James Madison, who won the election to be a Representative from Virginia, first introduced a series of amendments to be interwoven into the text of the Constitution.

In addition to showing Madison’s original suggested amendments, the exhibit featured Representative from Connecticut Roger Sherman, who had the idea to make the amendments a separate document, moving them to the end of the Constitution rather than inserted directly into the text.

Congress’s subsequent actions were illustrated by copies of amendments that the House proposed, the Senate’s changes to those proposals, and the conference committee report proposing 12 amendments to the Constitution.

Another section provided an overview of the ratification process. Documents in this section included letters to President George Washington from the Governors of Virginia, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. 

That section also included a unique document in the National Archives’ holdings—Delaware’s ratification of the Bill of Rights. Unlike other states, who sent separate certificates of ratification, Delaware officials signed and sent back the original parchment that George Washington had transmitted to them

The document is dated January 28, 1790, and includes the ratification signatures of Jehu Davis and George Mitchell as well as a ratification message from the Delaware General Assembly. Because it was sent back as proof of ratification, it is a federal record and is in the permanent holdings of the National Archives. 

The exhibit concluded with 20th-century commemorations, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 proclamation for the 150th anniversary paired with copies of Norman Rockwell’s paintings Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Worship, which the Office of War Information distributed as World War II propaganda posters. 

The highlight of the December 15, 1996, opening night ceremony was when Lawson B. Knott, Administrator of General Services, announced the discovery that William Lambert, an engrossing clerk for the U.S. House of Representatives, was the penman who inscribed the text of the proposed amendments on parchment. 

This discovery was the result of an intensive search by National Archives staff, who combed through original records for information on the penmen, and with expert handwriting help from the FBI. 

After the ceremony, visitors were allowed into the exhibit to see the original Bill of Rights. Back then, the document was exhibited next to the first and last pages of the Constitution and below the Declaration of Independence in what was called the “Exhibition Hall.”

Today, after a major renovation of the Rotunda and the installation of state-of-art encasements, visitors to the National Archives Building can see the original joint resolution proposing the Bill of Rights on permanent display in its very own case. 

Learn more about the Bill of Rights and its special day on the National Archives News website.

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