Featured Document: A Right to a Fair Trial

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), is the landmark the Supreme Court decision that requires states to provide defense attorneys for criminal defendants who can’t afford them.

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Petition for a writ of certiorari from Clarence Gideon to the Supreme Court of the United States, 1/5/1962. (National Archives Identifier 597554)

The case centers on Clarence Earl Gideon, a poor drifter with an eighth-grade education.

Gideon was arrested in 1961 for allegedly breaking into pool hall and stealing money and alcohol. He was charged with a noncapital felony.

Gideon could not afford a lawyer and asked the judge for an attorney to represent him. The judge said that Florida law only allowed the courts to provide attorneys to indigent defendants charged with capital crimes and denied Gideon’s request.

Gideon was left to represent himself.

Not surprisingly, Gideon was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. While in jail, he filed a writ of habeas corpus (petition for release from unjust imprisonment) with the Florida Supreme Court. He claimed his conviction was unconstitutional because he had lacked a defense attorney at the trial.

After the Florida Supreme Court denied his request, Gideon submitted a writ of certiorari (a petition asking to review the lower court’s decision) to the United States Supreme Court.

In his petition—in pencil, on lined prison paper—Gideon claimed he was a “pauper” who had been unconstitutionally denied the right to a lawyer and therefore did not have a fair trial.


Abe Fortas, June 9, 1968. (LBJ Library, photo by Frank Wolfe)

The Supreme Court agreed to hear his case and assigned Gideon a prominent Washington, DC, lawyer and future Supreme Court justice: Abe Fortas.

After hearing arguments from both sides, the justices agreed with Gideon—that the Constitution required the court to provide counsel for defendants in all serious criminal cases who were too poor to hire one.

The court’s opinion stated, “lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries,” and ruled that, just like the federal government, states too are bound by the Sixth Amendment. This is because the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause mandates that states abide by the Bill of Rights.

In the second trial, Gideon was found not guilty.

The consequences were far-reaching. Not only were defendants now guaranteed their constitutional rights to counsel, the case had a profound impact on the courts. Following the case, many states and counties needed to establish a system of public defenders. The case is considered one of the most significant Supreme Court decisions in American history.

Gideon’s petition to the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari is currently on display in the Rubenstein Gallery at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

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Bill of Rights Day

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Bill of Rights, September 25, 1789. (National Archives Identifier 14080)

December 15 is Bill of Rights Day which commemorates the ratification of the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. 

As we celebrate the 225th anniversary of the Bill of Rights on December 15—Bill of Rights Day—let’s take a look back at the origins and history of that day.

On December 15, 1791, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, later known as the Bill of Rights, were ratified.

These amendments protect our most fundamental rights—freedom of speech, protest, and conscience, and guarantees our equal protection under the law. Continue reading

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Human Rights for all

December 10 is Human Rights Day, commemorating the date the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.


Eleanor Roosevelt and United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Lake Success, New York, November 1949. (National Archives Identifier 6120927)

The United Nations was formed in 1945 to prevent the atrocities that occurred during World War II from ever happening again.

One of their primary goals was, “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”

One of their first orders of business was to create a document that guaranteed these individual rights around the world.

Eleanor Roosevelt was part of the first American delegation to the United Nations.

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The Day of Infamy Speech: Well-Remembered but Still Missing

Today’s post comes from Jim Worsham, editor of Prologue, the quarterly magazine of the National Archives.

As news emerged of the Japanese sneak attacks on Pearl Harbor and other U.S. installations in the Pacific 75 years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt began writing the speech he would give to Congress the next day.

The news was bad, and a shocked nation now looked to FDR. The speech became one of the greatest of the 20th century. It was direct, powerful, short, and to-the-point.

And it would be well-remembered—even though FDR’s final “reading copy” hasn’t been seen since shortly after he delivered it.

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President Roosevelt delivers the “Day of Infamy” speech to a joint session of Congress on December 8, 1941. Behind him are Vice President Henry Wallace (left) and Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn. To the right, in uniform in front of Rayburn, is Roosevelt’s son James, who escorted his father to the Capitol.

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy,” he began, “the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

In 1941, Presidents did not read from teleprompters as they do today. Roosevelt had only the printed text, a “reading copy,” to rely on, so it needed to be typed up to make it easy for him to read.

(It’s likely, some historians have noted, that he did not need to refer to it much because he had drafted the address himself, since his two principal speechwriters were out of town that day.)

Roosevelt ended his six-minute address by asking Congress for a declaration of war against Japan.

The “reading copy” of the speech has its own complicated history.

After speaking, Roosevelt left the Capitol, accompanied by his oldest son, James Roosevelt, who asserted that he brought the reading copy back to the White House. James Roosevelt said he placed the “reading copy” atop a coat rack where he hung his own coat.  That was the last that was seen of it.  

A massive search for the document was undertaken at the White House, and the President and his staff, keenly aware of its historic significance, were all genuinely distressed about its loss.


Page one of the copy held by  the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library

In the 1980s, archivists at the National Archives discovered a three-page, doubled-spaced typewritten copy of the speech within the files of the U.S. Senate and mistakenly concluded that this was the President’s reading copy. They believed that Roosevelt must have left his speech behind on the podium, and a Senate clerk filed it away. A near-identical copy was found in the House files. Both copies are now housed at the Center for Legislative Archives in the National Archives Building in Washington.

However, neither the House copy nor the Senate copy was the “reading copy” that the President used on December 8.

In 2014, experts at the Center and the Roosevelt Library, both units of the National Archives, reinvestigated the claim that the Senate copy was the misplaced reading copy. They confirmed that neither copy at the Center was the missing “reading copy.”

They affirmed and acknowledged that the “reading copy” of the Day of Infamy speech remains missing. According to the joint statement, the assertions that FDR either left the “reading copy” on the podium or handed it to a clerk appear to be purely speculative. These statements, they said, contradict the first-hand accounts of James Roosevelt and others at the White House on the afternoon of December 8, 1941, and the days that followed, as well as the findings of a Secret Service investigation prompted by the President’s personal secretary.

In addition to James Roosevelt’s claim that he brought the reading copy back with him to the White House, further indication that the President was reading from a different copy than what is held at the Center can be seen by watching the film of him deliver the speech.

As Roosevelt speaks, you can see him turn pages, but where he turns the pages is not where the text breaks on these two three-page “typewritten” copies. He turns pages sooner——an indication that what he was reading from was typed differently to make it easier for him to read it. Watching him turn the pages, it appears the “reading copy” was on four pages, not three, as the House and Senate copies are.

Grace Tully, the President’s secretary, always prepared the “reading copy” of a speech a special way on heavy stock paper with rounded corners, typed triple-spaced, with holes down the left side so the pages could be in a three-ring binder. The doubled-spaced copies at the Center were not prepared like this.  

The National Archives continues to hope that someone has or will find the “reading copy” of this historic speech so it can be returned to the National Archives and to the Roosevelt Library, “where Franklin Roosevelt hoped it would go.”  

If you have any information about the missing “reading copy,” contact the Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York, or the Center for Legislative Archives in the National Archives Building in Washington.


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The Last Living Doolittle Raider: Lt. Col. Richard “Dick” Cole

Today’s post comes from Kimberlee Ried, public programs specialist at the National Archives at Kansas City. Research was provided by Michael Tarabulski, archivist at the National Archives at St. Louis.

The 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, is today. For those who fought in World War II, they likely had no idea that they would not only be heralded for an Allied victory that would take several years to achieve, but that they would continue to be honored as American heroes decades later. The records in the National Archives provide a glimpse of some of these individuals.

Lieutenant Colonel Richard “Dick” Cole was part of a group known as the “Doolittle Toyko Raiders” named for James “Jimmy” Doolittle who had been assigned to plan the mission and lead the raid on April 18, 1942, to bomb the Japanese city of Tokyo as retaliation for the attack on Pearl Harbor, and begin the process of defeating Imperial Japan. Cole served as Doolittle’s co-pilot. Like many men, Cole had registered with his local draft board in Dayton, Ohio.


Richard Cole’s draft registration card (front) from the National Archives in St. Louis

Cole’s World War II draft registration card, filed with the local board in Montgomery County, Ohio, is now part of the holdings of the National Archives at St. Louis, which is co-located with the National Personnel Records Center. Cole was twenty-five years old when he registered on October 16, 1940, well over a year before the attack. He listed his father as the person “who will always know his address.”

Cole was employed prior to his military service at the Lear Avi (Avia) Corporation in Vandalia, Ohio, which manufactured radio and airplane instruments including navigational equipment. It is likely no coincidence that Cole wound up being trained as a pilot given his knowledge of the mechanical aspects of flying.

Although draft registration cards are brief in terms of the data provided, they can often give more insight into an individual. During World War II, the Selective Service System conducted six draft registrations. The majority of registrations were men born between 1897 and 1927 and cover most of those who served in World War II.


Richard Cole’s draft registration card (back) from the National Archives in St. Louis

Another group of men also registered for WWII under the “Old Man’s Registration” or the “Old Man’s Draft.” This is known as the 4th Registration and covers men born between 1877 to 1897, many of whom may had also served in World War I. These cards are open to the public for research and can be viewed at the National Archives in St. Louis.   

Relatively few of those who served in World War II are still living; Cole is now 101 years old and resides in Texas.

Tonight, Cole will be the guest speaker at a National Archives at Kansas City event where he will reflect upon his time as a part of the Doolittle Raiders. He will be interviewed by Park University Professor Dennis Okerstrom, who wrote about Cole in his book Dick Cole’s War: Doolittle Raider, Hump Pilot, Air Commando.

Tune in to watch the livestream at 5:30 ET/6:30 CT on December 7.: https://www.youtube.com/user/NationalWWIMuseum/live 

The event, which is sold out, is presented in partnership with Park University and the National World War I Museum and Memorial, and in collaboration with the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum and the Truman Center at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Do you have a relative who served in the Second World War? You can request their service record from the National Archives. Learn more: https://www.archives.gov/research/military/veterans

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The National Archives Response to Pearl Harbor


News article on the National Archives efforts in response to the Pearl Harbor attack, November 29, 1942. (Records of the National Archives)

The December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor not only plunged the United States into world war, but it also had far-reaching ramifications for every single government agency, including the National Archives.

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, the National Archives made extensive plans to protect the nation’s records against the threats of war. The National Archives Building, which was considered the most bomb-resistant building in Washington, was divided into four areas classified according to their levels of security.

The Bill of Rights, which was on display in the exhibition hall, was replaced with a facsimile. It was moved with other constitutional amendments, treaties, and public laws into the safest areas of the building. The Archives built boxes for these valuable documents and prepared for their removal should they need to be evacuated from the building.

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New Online Exhibit: “Carting the Charters”


Empty cases inside the National Archives Rotunda, 1/5/1936. (National Archives Identifier 7820619)

Today’s post comes from Sanjana Barr of the National Archives History Office.

Even though the National Archives Rotunda was completed in the mid-1930s as a shrine for the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, the documents were not transferred to the National Archives until 1952.

The National Archives History Office has produced a new online exhibit that explores the transfer of these historic documents from the Library of Congress to the National Archives. The “Carting the Charters” online exhibit is now available in Google Cultural Institute.

But what happened before the documents came to the Library of Congress? Continue reading

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Remembering “a date which will live in infamy”

Today’s post comes from Sonia Kahn in the National Archives History Office.


The USS Shaw explodes during the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, 12/7/1941. (National Archives Identifier 520590)

From its food to its anime to its cars to its video games, Japanese culture is part of everyday American life today. In 1941, however, the idea of so much Japanese influence in our daily lives would have been inconceivable, especially after the events at Pearl Harbor on that Sunday morning in December.

At 7:55 a.m., local time, the Japanese military began its fateful surprise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

The two-wave attack brought an hour and 15 minutes of chaos. These events were forever captured by the words of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as “a date which will live in infamy.”

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Historian’s Notebook: The Bill of Rights at 225

This post is from Jessie Kratz, Historian of the National Archives. It’s from the Winter 2016 issue of Prologue Magazine. 

The travels of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution have been chronicled frequently over the years—in fact, they are fascinating stories. However, the third “Charter of Freedom”—the Bill of Rights—has been largely overlooked.

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Bill of Rights, September 25, 1789. (National Archives Identifier 14080)

As we celebrate the 225th anniversary of the document’s ratification, let’s explore its history. A parchment document with 12 proposed constitutional amendments was created in September 1789, and copies were sent to the states for ratification.

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Ratifying the Bill of Rights . . . in 1939

This post comes from Mary Ryan, managing editor of Prologue magazine.

On December 15 we observe the 225th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights. One-by-one, from 1789 to 1791, the states ratified 10 amendments to the nation’s new Constitution. The process had begun when the First Federal Congress sent the states 12 proposed amendments, via a joint resolution passed on September 25, 1789, for their consideration. When Virginia became the 11th state to ratify the amendments on December 15, 1791, amendments 3 through 12 became part of the Constitution, and these first 10 amendments were thereafter known as our Bill of Rights.

One might think that 1791 was the end of the story of the ratification of the Bill of Rights, but there is a footnote: three states ratified the 10 first amendments a century and a half later, in 1939.

Once the Bill of Rights was ratified by three-fourths of the states in 1791, it became part of the law of the land, and there was no legal need for any further ratifications. At the time Virginia ratified, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Georgia had not sent their approvals to Congress.

In 1939, the 150th anniversary of Congressional approval of the amendments, all three states symbolically ratified the Bill of Rights.


Connecticut’s ratification of the Bill of Rights, April 24, 1939, page 1 (National Archives Identifier 25466386, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, RG 233)


Connecticut’s ratification of the Bill of Rights, April 24, 1939, page 2 (National Archives Identifier 25466386, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, RG 233)

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