July 2014 Bar Bulletin
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July 2014 Bar Bulletin

The National Constitution Center – A Rich Resource

By Rick Stroup
Assistant Director


The physical address of the National Constitution Center - 525 Arch Street, Philadelphia - is symbolic. These same digits also represent in part the date - May 5, 1787 - on which the Constitutional Convention, formerly known as the Philadelphia Convention, began.

It's also literal. 525 Arch is at the north end of Independence Mall and just a couple of long city blocks from Independence Hall, formerly known as the Philadelphia State House, where after five months of heated debate the document we now consider to be the framework of our country's government was signed and sent away on its nine-month journey for ratification.

The idea that there should be a permanent, government-sponsored memorial to the history and spirit of the U.S. Constitution originally surfaced around the time of the Constitution's centennial. Time and other circumstances intervened, however, and it would take another 101 years, during which another 11 amendments were made to the 1887 version and the country itself changed radically, before H.R. 1939 - the Constitution Heritage Act of 1988 - would be signed into law as Public Law 100-433 by President Ronald Reagan.

It would take an additional 15 years - including debates about the Center's scope, its location, its design and its funding - before it was finally opened to the public at a ceremony attended by President Bill Clinton on July 4, 2003.

Contrary to popular assumptions, the National Constitution Center is not the home of the original document - that lives under lock and key at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. But the Center does own an original copy of the first public printing that appeared in The Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser on September 19, 1787.

The National Constitution Center's charge is straightforward: "[to] disseminate information about the United States Constitution on a non-partisan basis in order to increase the awareness and understanding of the Constitution among the American people." The fact that the architects of the Center's enabling legislation deemed it necessary to include the phrase "non-partisan basis" is a sad reflection on the political climate in which its creation was conceived, but the expression of this lofty goal in the physical and virtual products of the Center is laudable.

Through its mantra of visit, learn, debate, it is museum, school and town hall. Those fortunate enough to be able to make a trek to downtown Philadelphia can tour numerous interactive and multimedia exhibitions in The Museum of We The People. The current featured exhibition is titled "Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello" and uses stories of the lives of six slave families who lived and worked on the Jefferson plantation to explore the contradiction of Jefferson's work for individuality and personal freedom with his position as a life-long slave holder.

Permanent installations include "Freedom Rising" and "The Story of We The People," which together chronicle the drafting and ratification of the original Constitution and milestones in American history related to the application (or misapplication) of its principles. Visitors who prefer a more "town hall" approach to learning can attend lectures and debates about constitutional issues presented by noted scholars, politicians and journalists.

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