Everyone Should Be Able To Read The Constitution at the National Archives

March 6th, 2014

In honor of President’s Day, I recently visited the National Archives. With the utmost awe and reverence, I walked up to the enclosed cases containing the original copy of our United States Constitution. My eyes slowly panned across my favorite provisions—Article I limiting the powers of Congress, Article III creating the Supreme Court, and Article VI stating that the Constitution is the “Supreme Law of the Land.” But, my immersion in our Charter of Liberty was abruptly interrupted. A guard told me to keep walking: “Please do not read the entire Constitution. If you want to read the entire document, please visit the gift shop.”

I could not believe my ears. Could he possibly be serious? Did he actually just say what I think he said? Now, I recognize the guard was attempting to move the crowd along (a small line had formed), and that he likely had said this many times before. But the thought that a guard would have the gall to tell visitors to our Nation’s capital to not read our Constitution is appalling. By the way, all federal employees draw a salary by virtue of the Constitution’s “Appropriations Clause,” found in Article I, Section 9, in case he allowed anyone to read that far.

No one, myself included, was going to read the entire document. At best, maybe interested guests would look at a few provisions and try to make out the faded letters on the parchment (it is not easy to read). This exercise would take several seconds, at the most. But instead of allowing people—who may only witness the majesty of our Constitution once in their lives—the opportunity to savor the moment, it is apparently the official policy of the National Archives to move people along. Nothing to see here, apparently.

I cannot imagine that any other museum in Washington, or anywhere in the world, would rush people past an exhibit—let alone the Constitution, a document that every American should discuss and learn more about. Any policy that favors rushing more visitors past our founding documents, at the expense of denying them the opportunity to even read a few letters, strikes the wrong balance.

As a surreal post-script to this troubling episode, after I departed from the rotunda containing the Constitution, as the guard suggested, I went to the gift shop. I was drawn to a sign that advertised “The Declaration of Independence in a Bottle” for $2.95. I looked closely at the bottle and saw the phrase, “We the People.” Huh?! This wasn’t the Declaration of Independence. This was the Constitution of the United States. I brought this error to the attention of a manager. She promptly switched the signs around, so that the “Constitution in a Bottle” sign now appeared in front of the Constitutions. No problem, right? That the National Archives made such a mistake is stunning. I have no idea how long the exhibit was mislabeled, and I hope visitors did not buy the wrong document.

These charters of freedom belong to We the People. We should expect better from the museum charged with protecting our national treasures.

Cross-Posted at Law & Liberty.