July 02, 2013

"Foundations of Freedom" on view at the NYPL

In celebration of Independence Day, the New York Public Library is treating its visitors to an unprecedented viewing of two of the most important and rarest documents relating to the founding of the nation.

For the first time ever, and for three days only, the NYPL is placing its copy of both the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights on public view at the Library's main building on Fifth Avenue.  So, in honor of the 237th birthday of the United States of America, I took a bus down to 42nd Street and stood in line with about a hundred other people to have a look.

After a brief wait and a nice chat with the young man who was right behind me, we were ushered into the Wachenheim Trustees Room, an elegantly appointed salon on the second floor, seldom open to the public.  Here, surrounded by walnut paneling hung with 17th Century Flemish tapestries of the five continents, were three plexiglass cases, each holding the hand-written documents that are the foundation of this country's independence from England.

The first and second cases each held one of the two sheets of handmade laid paper that constitute the Declaration of Independence.  Covered on both sides with Thomas Jefferson's neat and very legible handwriting, this example is in remarkably good condition, the ink only slightly faded and with just a few areas of discoloration mainly on the creases. 

This was Jefferson's own copy, and is one of only two that have survived intact.  Most interesting were the author's notations including underlined words and passages that were ultimately edited out of the final text - the most significant omission being Jefferson's condemnation of slavery which was excised to placate the delegates from Georgia and South Carolina.

The third case contained the Library's original copy of the Bill of Rights, sent to the states for ratification in 1789.  This remarkable document was written on a very large sheet of parchment and comprises twelve amendments to the Constitution although only ten were actually adopted.  This example is in a superb state of preservation and is surprisingly easy to read.

The Library's examples of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights were gifts of a trustee, John S. Kennedy, and presented in 1896.  Given their fragility and historical significance, these priceless artifacts are generally kept in a secure environment and seldom put on public display.  It was a pleasure and a privilege to be able to view these treasures and to be reminded again of the great commitment and foresight of our Founding Fathers that allows us to live in freedom to this day.

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