New Online Exhibits: “Presidential Visits to the National Archives Building”

On December 13, 2023, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland designated the National Archives Building as a National Historic Landmark. To celebrate this major achievement, the National Archives History Office has published a two-part online exhibit, “Presidential Visits to the National Archive Building.” Today’s post comes from Alyssa Moore.

The new, two-part online exhibit, “Presidential Visits to the National Archives Building: 20th Century” and “Presidential Visits to the National Archives Building: 21st Century” explore nearly 100 years of Presidential trips down Pennsylvania Avenue to the National Archives Building. The exhibit begins in the 20th Century with the first Presidential visitor, President Herbert Hoover in 1933, when he laid the ceremonial cornerstone for the archives building at the corner of 7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, in Washington, DC.

A mere two weeks later, Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed the Office of the President. While the construction of the building was well underway, there was no agency yet to steward these records. On June 19, 1934, Congress passed and FDR signed the legislation creating such an agency. FDR took a keen interest in preserving the nation’s history and visited the National Archives twice, once in 1937 for a tour of the nearly-completed building and again in 1943 to view the documents on display in Exhibition Hall, now called the Rotunda.

One of the most momentous visits occurred on December 15, 1952, when President Harry Truman spoke in Exhibition Hall at the unveiling ceremony of the newly encased Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which were previously held by the Library of Congress. With the addition of the Bill of Rights, it was the first time in history that the nation’s three founding documents were on display together at the National Archives.

The nation’s Bicentennial era of the 1970s saw a couple more visits from Presidents. On July 3, 1971, President Richard Nixon came to the National Archives Building to mark the beginning of the Bicentennial celebrations. He spoke to the American people in a live radio and television broadcast from the Rotunda. 

Five years later, on July 2, 1976, with the Bicentennial celebration now in full swing, President Gerald Ford visited the National Archives Building. Following the tumultuous years of the Vietnam War, the assassination of JFK, and the Watergate crisis, Ford hoped that the Bicentennial era might symbolize a new chapter in the nation’s history. 

Ronald Reagan is the only President to attend the swearing-in ceremony of an Archivist of the United States when, on December 4, 1987, Don W. Wilson took his oath in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building. Congressman, and future Vice President, Dick Cheney administered the ceremonial swearing-in.

As President, Bill Clinton visited the National Archives on three occasions. His first, in 1995, was to speak about federal affirmative action programs, and second visit was in 1997 to launch his White House Millennium Program. 

But his third is perhaps the most important for National Archives history. On July 1, 1999, as part of his “Save America’s Treasures” initiative, President Clinton came to the National Archives to announce the “Charters of Freedom Project.” The project planned to completely overhaul the encasements that held the founding documents after National Archives staff detected a deterioration in the glass.

Part II of the exhibit picks up four years later at the beginning of the 21st Century. On September 17, 2003, President George W. Bush saw the Charters of Freedom project come to completion when he visited the National Archives Building for the rededication ceremony. During the visit, President Bush saw the unveiling of the newly re-encased Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights in the renovated National Archives Rotunda.

President Barack Obama’s first visit to the National Archives Building was in 2009 but his second, on December 15, 2015, was to deliver the keynote address for one of our most favorite activities: a naturalization ceremony for new U.S. citizens in the National Archives Rotunda. 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.

Before the structure was even complete, Presidents visited the National Archives Building. Their visits often commemorate consequential moments in our nation’s—and in National Archives history. As the steward of the country’s records, the National Archives Building offers a symbolic site for Presidents to link the nation’s historical legacy with their administration’s vision.

Learn more about these and more Presidential visits to the National Archives Building by viewing the online exhibits:

And read more about the National Archives Building’s recent National Historic Landmark designation.

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