Many people have read the words of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, but not many have had the opportunity to see the rare, original copies of those documents in person. Washington, D.C. is one place where you can see them, and countless other historical documents, at the National Archives, located just a block off the National Mall, at 700 Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
This guide focuses on the National Archives, covering the following topics:
• Background on the National Archives
• The Rotunda of the Charters of Freedom
• The Records of Rights exhibit
• Visiting the National Archives
Background of the National Archives
The National Archives is the repository for the documents and materials created by the United States federal government during the course of its business. This can include anything from the full text of bills and laws to letters or emails written by a sitting president. The collections now include approximately 10 billion pages of text, 12 million maps and charts, 24 million photographs, and more than 400 terabytes of electronic data.
The National Archives’ first duty is to preserve the information, and its second duty is to make it available to anyone who needs it. If you need to look up historical court records, family genealogies, or war service records, you can access these kinds of records at the National Archives. You can also access many of them online. The National Archives Electronic Records Archive has been in development since 2008 and is working backward to get its entire archive online.
For most visitors to Washington, D.C., the real reason to come to the National Archives is its exhibitions. The Public Vaults, as the permanent exhibition is called, display original records from the White House, Congress, and more. You can see objects like Abraham Lincoln’s telegrams to his generals at the front lines of battle during the Civil War, or listen to audio recordings made in the Oval Office during momentous events.
The Rotunda of the Charters of Freedom
Even if you only have an hour to spare on your trip to D.C., the one place you should visit is the Rotunda of the Charters of Freedom. This is the permanent home for the National Archives’ copies of America’s founding documents. These include the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
The Rotunda of the Charters of Freedom—along with the rest of the building—was designed by architect John Russell Pope in the 1930s. The rotunda was purpose-built to hold this collection and allow its safe, permanent display. The documents are displayed in climate-controlled, light-filtered, bombproof, bulletproof, titanium-framed cases designed to preserve and protect these national treasures. The murals above, by artist Barry Faulkner, depict fictionalized scenes from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention.
The Records of Rights Exhibit
Downstairs from the rotunda, on the main floor of the National Archives, you will find the Records of Rights exhibit in the David M. Rubenstein Gallery. This gallery displays other documents chronicling the history of civil rights in America. The oldest document on display is a 1297 copy of the Magna Carta.
The documents were produced in America and span 200 years of its history, from the 1780s to the 1980s. Not all of them reflect progress toward greater rights; some reflect setbacks. Take, for example, Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford decision. This decision not only denied Dred Scott his freedom from slavery, but it also asserted that no person of African ancestry could be considered an American citizen. Outrage over this decision was one of the major milestones on the path to the American Civil War.
The exhibit also contains copies of the Thirteenth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution—abolishing slavery and acknowledging the citizenship of African Americans and anyone else born in the United States. Those amendments, of course, did not end the struggle for rights—nor were African Americans the only Americans struggling for equal recognition.
You will also find documents relating to the rights of Asian Americans, the rights of immigrants, the rights of the accused to a fair trial, and so on. There is no better place in D.C. to witness the entire spectrum of the debate about rights and freedom in America.
Visiting the National Archives
If you want to visit the National Archives, you can find it quite easily. It is just across Constitution Avenue from the National Mall and the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. To reach it by Metro, take the Green or Yellow Line to the Archives–Navy Memorial station.
The archives exhibitions, including the Rotunda of the Charters of Freedom, are open every day of the year except for Thanksgiving and Christmas. You can check the National Archives’ website for details about access to the research collections.
Use this link to help plan your trip.