Amending America: the 14th Amendment


Joint Resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States, proposed June 13, 1866 (National Archives Identifier 1408913)

Join one of the “Amending America” exhibit curators Christine Blackerby for a Facebook Live video on the  Huffington Post Politics page.

On July 9, 1868, the Fourteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution became law. It is arguably the most important of the 27 amendments.

The amendment originated after the Civil War when Congress attempted to pass legislation securing civil rights for the recently freed slaves. President Andrew Johnson repeatedly vetoed these bills because he believed individual states had the right to determine the status of freedmen without interference from the Federal government.

In order to take the issue out of Johnson’s reach, Congress chose to address civil rights with a constitutional amendment, and June 13, 1866, Congress approved a joint resolution proposing a five-part amendment to the Constitution.

Section one includes its most vital components.

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The Last Hands to Touch the Declaration of Independence

Today’s post comes from Victoria Blue, writer-editor in the Office of Internal Communications at the National Archives.

When Chief of Conservation Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler retires in July, the last hands to have touched the Declaration of Independence will leave the National Archives. She has been with the agency since 1985.

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Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, Chief of Conservation, stands by the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives in Washington, DC. Photo by Jeff Reed.

The Declaration of Independence was sealed in a glass and metal case in the early 1950s when it was still in the custody of the Library of Congress. It wasn’t until the Rotunda’s renovation in 2001 that conservators had the opportunity to take the Charters of Freedom (the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights) off of exhibit and think about next steps.

“There was the opportunity to think about whether or not the original encasement was still suitable in terms of long-term preservation needs,” Ritzenthaler recalled. “There was a piece of free-floating glass directly on top of the parchment to help keep it flat, so there was some worry about that.”

Along with now-retired conservator Kitty Nicholson, Ritzenthaler removed the Charters of Freedom from their earlier encasements to perform examinations and treatments.

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Kitty Nicholson removes the lead seal around the 1950s encasement of the Declaration of Independence as Doris Hamburg and Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler look on.

“Over the course of its history, the Declaration of Independence was handled a great deal,” Ritzenthaler said. “From 1776 on, it’s traveled a great deal. It was on exhibit. In many cases, it was stored at the Department of State and brought up for people to see and to handle. And it kind of showed the effects of all of that over the years.”

Understandably, Ritzenthaler and Nicholson were a little nervous to unseal the encasements, given the status of the documents. They decided to examine the Constitution and the Bill of Rights first before taking on the Declaration of Independence.

“We left the Declaration until the very end because we wanted to build our knowledge and experience,” she said. “It was with a great deal of awe and kind of amazement that we were the privileged people to have this task. We were very fortunate. Not that many conservators or archivists in their lifetimes will get to handle such an amazing document.”

The conservators faced a number of challenges. Parchment is made of animal skin, which makes it very different from paper. Given its age and history of extensive travel, exhibition, and handling, the Declaration of Independence was not in good condition. There was also the challenge of opening the encasements.


The Charters were carefully reencased after conservation treatment.

“There were always some uncertainties in opening those older encasements because they didn’t come with an instruction book, so we had to figure out our way,” Ritzenthaler said. “There was a piece of glass sitting directly on top of the parchment, so the worry was that, even though we did not have any problem opening the six previous charters encasements, would the glass stick to the surface of the skin? Or would there be any ink flakes that would have attached to the glass? Neither of those things happened, so we were very fortunate.”

The conservators did not wear gloves when handling the parchment. “That surprises a lot of people because wearing gloves for certain kinds of artwork and photographs is a very good thing to do because you avoid fingerprinting,” Ritzenthaler said. “But with the parchment, we wanted to make sure that we were handling it as carefully as we could, and, sometimes, when you’re wearing gloves, you don’t have the same manual dexterity. So care was our big concern—and our hands were always clean!”

As Ritzenthaler prepares for retirement, she takes with her the experience of being one of very few people on the planet to have physically held the Declaration of Independence.

“It touched me a great deal to have this opportunity to work on this project,” she said. “I’m sure that, in the future, there will be other Archives members who will have the same opportunity, but the encasements will last for a very long time.”

When the encasements were returned to the Rotunda in 2003, the National Institute for Standards and Technology estimated that they will stay sealed for close to 100 years.

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Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler stands in the Rotunda at National Archives in Washington, DC, in front of the Charters of Freedom. Photo by Jeff Reed.

“Working on all of the Charters of Freedom documents—the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence—was exciting, amazing, and awe-inspiring. But the Declaration really trumps them all as one of the most significant items in our history,” Ritzenthaler said. “Being the last person to actually handle the Declaration of Independence is rather awe-inspiring. It was an honor to be able to work on that document and certainly the highlight of my career.”

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On Exhibit: One Hundred Years of the National Park Service

Today’s post comes from Andrew Grafton in the National Archives History Office.


View with Shadowed Ravine, “Grand Canyon from South Rim, 1941,” Arizona (Vertical Orientation), by Ansel Adams. (National Archives Identifier 519885)

Yellowstone. The Grand Canyon. Yosemite. For many Americans, the mere mention of these sites conjures up images of grandeur and magnificence.

As the conservator of the United States’ most storied and important landmarks, the National Park Service is charged with the preservation and operation of each of the nation’s 59 national parks, as well as hundreds of protected shorelines, preserves, and historical landmarks.

This summer, the National Archives will be commemorating the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service by displaying the document that founded the NPS, the Organic Act of 1916.

H.R. 15522, An Act to Establish a National Park Service, as the legislation is officially known, “created in the Department of the Interior a service to be called the National Park Service . . . [NPS] shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations . . . to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects . . . for future generations.” Continue reading

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Ninth Archivist Allen Weinstein

The National History office is wrapping up its month-long series on stories about the former Archivists of the United States.

Archivist Portraits

Ninth Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein’s Portrait which hangs in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. (Records of the National Archives)

Ninth Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein was nominated by President George Bush on January 24, 2005, and confirmed by the U.S. Senate on February 10, 2005.

Born in New York City in 1937, Weinstein earned his bachelor’s degree from the City College of New York and his master’s degree and doctorate from Yale University.

Before coming to the National Archives, he was an author and taught history at Smith College, Georgetown University, and Boston University.

Weinstein had a number of accomplishments during his four-year tenure at the National Archives, including an increase in congressional funding, an overhaul in document classification, and an expansion of the National Archives museum program.

Building on the work of the two previous Archivists, Weinstein launched the Electronic Records Archives to store and make accessible the government’s electronic records.

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John W. Carlin: Bringing the National Archives into the 21st Century

The National Archives was created on June 19, 1934. During the month of June, the National Archives History Office is sharing stories about the former Archivists of the United States. Today’s post comes from Sarah Basilion.

Archivist Portraits

Portrait of Eighth Archivist of the United States John Carlin which hangs in the National Archives Building. (Records of the National Archives)

John W. Carlin was appointed eighth Archivist of the United States by President Bill Clinton in 1995 and served in the position until 2005.

His tenure straddled two centuries, and much of his work as Archivist focused on bringing the National Archives into the current one.

A native of Kansas, Carlin attended Kansas State University. He then held many positions in the Kansas State government, first in the House of Representative and then as Speaker of the House. In 1979 he was elected Governor of Kansas and served two four-year terms.

Immediately upon his appointment as Archivist, Carlin began a comprehensive strategic planning effort that resulted in a 10-year plan to refocus the agency and bring it into the 21st century.

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Don Wilson: Embracing Independence

The National Archives was created on June 19, 1934. During the month of June, the National Archives History Office is sharing stories about the former Archivists of the United States. Today’s post comes from Sarah Basilion.

Archivist Portraits

Portrait of Seventh Archivist of the United States Don Wilson which hangs in the National Archives Building. (Records of the National Archives)

Don W. Wilson was appointed seventh Archivist of the United States by President Ronald Reagan in 1987. He was the first Archivist to lead the newly independent National Archives and the first Archivist to be appointed by a President since Wayne Grover in 1948. Wilson’s appointment came after Acting Archivist Frank Burke served two years as head of the agency.

Originally from Kansas, Wilson earned his bachelor’s degree from Washburn University and his master’s and Ph.D. in history from the University of Cincinnati.

He began his career working in the history departments at the University of Michigan and Washburn University. He also worked as a research professor with the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University.

Wilson’s time at the Center for Presidential Studies served him well as he started at the National Archives at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library. In 1981 he became the first director of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library. Continue reading

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Fighting for Independence: Sixth Archivist Robert M. Warner

The National Archives was created on June 19, 1934. During the month of June, the National Archives History Office is sharing stories about the former Archivists of the United States. Today’s post comes from Sarah Basilion.

Archivist Portraits

Sixth Archivist of the United States Robert Warner’s portrait, which hangs in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. (Records of the National Archives)

Dr. Robert M. Warner served as sixth Archivist of the United States from July 1980 to April 1985.

Originally from Colorado, Warner earned a bachelor’s degree from Muskingum University in 1949 and a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Michigan in 1958.

Before joining the National Archives, he worked as the director of the Michigan Historical Collections and chaired the planning committee of the Gerald R. Ford Library.

From the time of his appointment as Archivist of the United States in July 1980, Warner worked tirelessly to secure the National Archives’ independence from the General Services Administration. The National Archives had been placed within the newly created GSA in 1949 in an effort to make the government more efficient.

Immediately, archivists, historians, researchers, government officials, and many others protested this reorganization, stating that it prevented the National Archives from fully carrying out all of its responsibilities. They also claimed that placing a nonpolitical institution (National Archives) under one that made highly politicized decisions (GSA) created conflict.

The fight for independence continued for decades and reached a head when Warner became Archivist in 1980. Upon taking office, Warner began campaigning for Archives independence. He contacted members of Congress to gain their support and rallied support from other people and institutions in the archival field.

According to his book that recounted the fight for independence, he also “h[eld] secret meetings. A group of six dedicated staff members met regularly beginning in 1982, at first every couple of weeks and then daily near the end of the campaign [for independence]. They met to discuss their strategy in regards to Congress, the press, other allied agencies, and anyone else who might help their cause.”

Warner was dedicated to the cause.


S. 2852, Senator Morgan’s first attempt at securing an independent National Archives, June 19, 1980. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

In 1980 Senator Robert Morgan (D-NC) introduced the first bill to make the Archives independent of the GSA. Although the Senate never acted on it, the Morgan Bill was an important step in the right direction in the fight for independence.

It took four more years, but on October 19, 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation once again making the National Archives an independent agency. Finally, the government recognized what so many in the archival field had been saying for decades: that the National Archives needed to be an independent agency to properly function.

Not only did Warner win the fight for independence, he also helped to transition the agency from its place within GSA back to an independent agency.

Warner led the National Archives through transition, including determining which functions GSA would continue to perform and which would now be completed by the new National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). He also assisted in restructuring NARA and consolidating records management programs into the new Office of Records Administration.

Warner left the National Archives in 1985 and returned to the University of Michigan, where he worked in the history department and the School of Information and Library Studies. He served as dean of the School of Information from 1985 to 2002.

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Archivist of the United States Robert Warner and Deputy Archivist George N. Scaboo at a ceremony in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, celebrating independence, November 8, 1984. (Records of the National Archives)

Throughout his career, Warner also served as the president of the Society of American Archivists (SAA), the Historical Society of Michigan, and the Second European Conference on Archives. He also served on the boards of the American Historical Association, the American Library Association, and the SAA, where he was a distinguished fellow.

Dr. Warner was honored for his service and lasting contribution to the National Archives in 2005—the 20th year of independence from GSA—with the naming of the Robert M. Warner Research Center at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. A plaque commemorating the occasion hangs at the entrance to the Research Center.

Dr. Warner died in 2007 from cancer at the age of 79, but his legacy will impact the National Archives for generations to come.

For further information about NARA’s fight for independence, read this 2016 blog “An Independent National Archives.”

To learn more about Robert M. Warner, read his biography on the National Archives History Office website.


Plaque that hangs outside the National Archives Research Center in Washington, D.C., dedicated May 19, 2005. (Photo Courtesy of the National Archives History Office)

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Bert Rhoads: Recordkeeper in Chief

The National Archives was created on June 19, 1934. During the month of June, the National Archives History Office is sharing stories about the former Archivists of the United States.

Archivist Portraits

Portrait of Fifth Archivist of the United States James “Bert” Rhoads which hangs in the National Archives Building. (Records of the National Archives)

James Berton “Bert” Rhoads joined the National Archives in 1952 as a microfilm operator, but soon headed down the professional track.

In 1966 he was appointed Deputy Archivist under Dr. Robert Bahmer. He replaced Bahmer as Archivist of the United States on May 2, 1968, after having served as Acting Archivist for nearly two months.

Rhoads’s tenure as Archivist saw massive changes within the National Archives, many of which increased the accessibility of the National Archives and its holdings.

He started the quarterly magazine Prologue, which saw its first issue published in spring 1969. He also expanded the regional archives system to solve the two-fold problem of needing more records storage space and increasing the public’s access to records.

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Flag Day, Past and Present

Today’s post is by Rod Ross, a former archivist in the Center for Legislative Archives, who retired in April with 41 years of government service.  His interest in this holiday began at birth–on Flag Day during World War II!  Shortly after the war his family moved to Batavia, Illinois, where the Father of Flag Day, Bernard Cigrand (1866-1932), spent the final decade of his life.

The day of the centennial has come:  the 100th anniversary of President Woodrow Wilson’s proclamation formally recognizing June 14 as Flag Day. The designation is based on the June 14, 1777, resolution of the Second Continental Congress declaring that the flag of the thirteen United States would be thirteen stripes, alternating red and white, with “the union” to be made up of thirteen stars “white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”


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Petition from the Union Fire Company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in Support of the Crittenden Compromise, ca. 1861 (National Archives 306495)

Petition from the Union Fire Company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in Support of the Crittenden Compromise

With the approach of World War I, different groups and organizations came up with various ways to stimulate patriotism, including shows of reverence towards the flag.  Among them was a man generally recognized as the Father of Flag Day: Bernard J. Cigrand, a Wisconsin grade-school teacher turned dentist.

The high point of Cigrand’s campaign came with Wilson’s Flag Day proclamation that began:  “Many circumstances have recently conspired to turn our thoughts to a critical examination of the conditions of our national life, of the influences which have seemed to threaten to divide us in interest and sympathy, of forces within and forces without that seemed likely to draw us away from the happy traditions of united purpose and action of which we have been so proud.”

Accordingly, President Wilson urged that for 1916, and the years to come, the nation observe June 14 as Flag Day, a day for “special patriotic exercises . . .”

Thirty years later in 1949, in another time of international strife, President Harry Truman signed a joint resolution of Congress designating June 14 of each year as Flag Day.


In 1984 a protester outside the Republican National Convention in Dallas burned an American flag.  He was arrested.  In the aftermath, in 1989, by a five to four decision, the Supreme Court in Texas v. Johnson held that flag burning was a form of symbolic speech (“Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable”) and thus was protected by the First Amendment.

This key question, “Does flag burning equal free speech?” is addressed in our Amending America exhibit (at the National Archives through September 4, 2017).

Today the American flag continues to hold public attention.  Presumably it is not by chance that the National Gallery of Art’s current show “Three Centuries of American Prints” features a Jasper Johns flag print for the poster highlighting the exhibition.

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National Archives Celebrates Pride Month

Today’s post comes from Andrew Grafton in the National Archives History Office.


President William J. Clinton Meeting with Gay and Lesbian Leaders, 4/16/1993. (National Archives Identifier 2205830)

This June the National Archives will join Americans across the United States and abroad in celebrating National Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month, which honors the important contributions that LGBTQ+ Americans have made to United States history and culture.

Pride Month traces its roots to the Clinton administration. On June 2, 2000, President Bill Clinton issued a Presidential Proclamation designating the month of June as “Gay and Lesbian Pride Month.”

In his statement, Clinton stressed that “gay and lesbian Americans have made important and lasting contributions to our Nation in every field of endeavor,” yet “too often, however, gays and lesbians face prejudice and discrimination; too many have had to hide or deny their sexual orientation in order to keep their jobs or to live safely in their communities.” Continue reading

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