Carting the Charters

U.S. National Archives

In 1952, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution moved from the Library of Congress to the National Archives. This transfer was the culmination of decades of work and was celebrated with a parade and a speech by President Harry S. Truman. It reunited the Charters of Freedom and allowed the public view to all three documents at once. Today the documents are protected by special cases in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom, where they receive a million visitors a year.

At the Library of Congress
While the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution had traveled widely since their creation, by early 1924 both documents were on display at the Library of Congress. After the National Archives was created in 1934, a debate ensued over whether the country's founding documents should rest together at the National Archives or remain in the guardianship of the Library of Congress.

The Declaration of Independence, 1951

While on display at the Library of Congress, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were popular with tourists. The Library was reluctant to give up this attraction.

Memo on the Negotiations for the Transfer of the Charters, 1952

In 1952, Librarian of Congress Luther Evans and Archivist of the United States Wayne Grover took charge of coordinating the transfer of the documents to the National Archives.

Both men strongly believed that the Constitution and Declaration belonged in the care of the National Archives. The two men's legendary cooperation ended decades of debate over the proper home of the documents.

Construction of the National Archives
The National Archives exhibition hall, which opened in 1936, was designed to be a shrine for the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. 

President Hoover with the Inscribed Cornerstone of the National Archives, 1933

At the National Archives cornerstone laying ceremony, on February 20, 1933, President Herbert Hoover announced, "There will be aggregated here the most sacred documents of our history--the originals of the Declaration of Independence and of the Constitution of the United States."

Rotunda with Gates Open, 1936

Mural of the Constitution

Mural of the Declaration of Independence

Today the Charters of Freedom are flanked by Barry Faulkner's fictional depiction of the presentations of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. They were installed in 1936, well before the documents they depicted arrived.

Construction of the Mosler Vault, 1952

In April 1952, Congress ordered the Library to turn the documents over to the National Archives. As part of the preparations for the arrival of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, the National Archives commissioned a vault from the Mosler Safe Company.

Construction of the Mosler Vault, 1952

At that time, roughly 70 percent of U.S. banks had Mosler safes and vaults. This vault had to be built to protect the Charters of Freedom from fire, earthquakes, and bombs.

Made of steel and reinforced concrete, the 50-ton vault held the documents at night (including the two middle pages of the Constitution that were not on display at the time).

Scale Model of the Mosler Vault, 1954

This scale model of the vault bore an inscription that read:

Scale model of vault mechanism that safeguards the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

When this red light is on, the mechanism to drive this Model is functioning and will operate automatically at half-hour intervals beginning at 9 A.M.

The original documents are on display in the Exhibition Hall.
--Gift of Mosler Safe Company

Model of the Mosler Safe on Display, 1954

In this photograph shows (from left to right) Vice President Richard Nixon, Senator John Bricker, and Edwin Mosler Jr. viewing the model of the Mosler Safe.

Transfer Day and the Enshrining Ceremony
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were moved from the Library of Congress to the National Archives on December 13, 1952. They were unveiled two days later, on Bill of Rights Day, in a ceremony held in the Rotunda.

Removing the Declaration of Independence from the Library of Congress,1952

While the National Archives prepared the exhibition space, the Library of Congress was getting ready to transport the documents to the National Archives. They had to exercise utmost care to both preserve the documents and protect them from those who would do them harm.

Packing the Documents for Transfer, 1952

The pages of the Constitution were removed from their case in the Library of Congress and enclosed in wooden cases for transportation to the National Archives

General Ross Receives the Charters, 1952

Theodore J. Green, Senator from Rhode Island and Chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library, handed over the documents to Brigadier General Stoyte Ross of the United States Air Force.

The Charters Protected by Armed Services Special Police, 1952

The documents traveled in a padded armored carrier protected by servicemen.

Parade to the National Archives, 1952

On the journey down Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues to the National Archives, the charter documents were accompanied by a color guard, ceremonial troops, Army Band, Air Force drum and bugle corps, two light tanks, four servicewomen carrying submachine guns, and a motorcycle escort.

Parade Arrives at the National Archives, 1952

Charters of Freedom on the Steps of the National Archives, 1952

Armed Forces Police carried the encased documents up the National Archives Constitution Avenue steps.

Armed Services Special Police and General Ross at the Door to the National Archives, 1952

Archivist Wayne Grover Greets the Procession, 1952

Brigadier General Stoyte Ross delivered the documents into the care of the Third Archivist of the United States, Wayne C. Grover. National Archives staff used the next 48 hours to install the documents before the unveiling ceremony.

Entering the Rotunda, 1952

The contingent moved through the large bronze doors and into the Exhibition Hall. Following renovations in 2003, the doors are now only used for special occasions. At the time, however, the doors perfectly captured the grandeur of the moment: the Charters of Freedom were to be together once more.

The Declaration of Independence in the National Archives, 1952

The Declaration of Independence was installed in its new vertical frame.

The Declaration of Independence in the National Archives, 1952

The Mosler Vault in Action, 1952

This is an aerial view of the inside of the Mosler Safe Mechanism, showing how the documents would be protected.

Helium Flushing, 1952

Though the Bill of Rights had been at the National Archives since 1938, it wasn't until the arrival of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence that it got a new case. All three documents were sealed in humidity-controlled, helium-filled cases.

Flag Bearers,1952

During the unveiling ceremony, Governor Carvel called states in order of their ratification, and flag bearers from each state marched in and stood at attention. Pictured here are the flag bearers from the first 13 states.

Truman Addresses the Crowd, 1952

At the unveiling ceremony, several speakers addressed the audience on the momentous occasion.

"...on this Bill of Rights Day to do honor to the three great documents which together constitute the charter of our form of government. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are now assembled in one place for display and safety. Here, so far as is humanly possible, they will be protected from the ravages of time."
--President Truman

President Truman's speech

Unveiling the Charters of Freedom, 1952

Letter from Luther H. Evans to Wayne C. Grover, 1952

Evans and Grover recognized the historical significance of what they were accomplishing and hoped it would be their legacy.

Letter from Wayne C. Grover to Luther H. Evans, 1952

The Rotunda Shrine, 1953

The Charters of Freedom as they appeared in the Rotunda. For the first time, visitors could see all three documents in one location.

National Archives Rotunda today

A lot has changed in the last 50 years. The Mosler Safe no longer protects the Charters. The Declaration of Independence does not sit in a vertical case above the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Even the lighting has been changed to further preserve the documents. What has not changed, however, is the National Archives’ commitment to safeguarding the Charters of Freedoms so visitors from around the world can see our government’s founding documents.

Credits: Story

Curator: Sanjana Barr, National Archives, Washington, DC

Curator: Sarah Basilion, National Archives, Washington, DC

Curator: Kaitlin Errickson, National Archives, Washington, DC

Project Manager: Jessie Kratz, National Archives, Washington, DC

Editor: Mary Ryan, National Archives, Washington, DC

Special thanks to:

Meredith Doviak, National Archives, College Park, MD

Jeff Reed, National Archives, Washington, DC

Bill Wade, National Archives, College Park, MD

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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