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The Shrine at the Library of Congress, 1924-1952

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This is a guest post by Cheryl Fox, Library of Congress Archives and Library History Collections Specialist in the Manuscript Division.

Students leaning over glass examining U.S. Constitution in Jefferson Building shrine
Students examining the U.S. Constitution at the Library of Congress, with the Declaration of Independence above. Photograph by Marjory Collins, 1942. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

From 1924 to 1952, a marble case on the second floor of the Great Hall in the Thomas Jefferson Building held the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.  President Warren G. Harding transferred the documents to the Library from the State Department by executive order in 1921, in order to “satisfy the laudable wish of patriotic Americans to see the original fundamental documents upon which rest their independence and their government.”[1] The Library of Congress celebrated the dedication of the display case, known as the Shrine, with a solemn ceremony on February 28, 1924.  It was the first time the Declaration had been displayed in public since 1876; and it was the first time the Declaration and the Constitution were ever displayed together. The Shrine, however, closed in 1952 when the documents were carried by military parade to the new National Archives building to be displayed in its Rotunda Gallery.

This blog describes the Library’s Shrine display from the opening in 1924 to the closing ceremony in 1952, and the reasons for each transfer.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­In 1903, Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam negotiated the transfer of the State Department’s collection of historical records, called the Revolutionary Archive, in order to improve preservation and researcher access.  The Revolutionary Archive consisted of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, records of the Continental Congress, and the personal papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin. The State Department published transcriptions of these and other early records, but it did not allow researchers to examine the original collections.

President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1903 executive order established the Library of Congress as the official government repository for historical materials in the Executive branch. The order required any historical records no longer in use to be transferred to the Library’s Manuscript Division. The actual transfer of many of those records took years. The specific order to transfer the engrossed, or presentation copy, of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution finally came on September 29, 1921, for better preservation, but also for the possibility of public display.

Librarian Putnam held a solemn and dignified ceremony to open the new, custom-built marble case known as the Shrine. President Calvin Coolidge and First Lady Grace Coolidge attended as did most of the members of the Congressional Joint Committee on the Library and the secretary of state. Library staff lined the Great Hall staircase to welcome the guests, and a staff choir sang “America.” Shortly after the president stepped forward to examine the documents more closely, the ceremony ended. The Washington Post described the event as a “a ceremony strikingly impressive in its simplicity attended to [the] permanent placing of the instruments.”[2]

Americans had desired access to the nation’s founding documents out of a sense of national pride, bolstered by military success in the Spanish-American War and World War I.  In the early twentieth century, a visit to the Library of Congress Shrine became a standard part of a state visit to greet the president.

Before her ascension to the British throne, then-Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh visited the Shrine, November 1951. Library of Congress Archives, Manuscript Division.

As Manuscript Division chief David C. Mearns wrote in 1952, “[the documents] have been visited by chancellors and ministers, and heads of state. The green-gloved hand of her majesty of England has rested on them, and the Cardinal’s finger which would one day wear Peter’s ring. There have been the children, millions of them: whose eyes have drawn from them the meaning of their land. There have been the exiles: the “huddled masses, yearning to be free,” to whom they have imparted their strength, and for whom they have revived resolution.”[3]

The Library’s Shrine was famous enough to be featured in a September 1938 Sunday color “L’il Abner” series, then syndicated in nine hundred American newspapers.

In 1939, Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish powerfully argued for the necessity of American involvement in World War II to defeat fascism in Europe. He portrayed the Library of Congress as the “Fortress of Freedom,” protector of the nation’s founding documents and of democracy.

Following Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, MacLeish declared that “wartime precautions” made it necessary to protect the Library’s irreplaceable collections. A small number of the Library’s top treasures were stored at the nation’s reserve storage location at Fort Knox, Kentucky. The Declaration of Independence and Constitution were among them.

The Library held special ceremonies to celebrate the return of its collections and the reopening of the Shrine on October 1, 1944. The return was celebrated in pop culture as well. The New Yorker featured a striking image by Christine Malman called “The Shrine” on its June 30, 1945, cover. Cartoonist Karl Kae Knecht, writing for the Evansville, Indiana, Courier, seemed to chide the Library for hiding the Declaration during the war.

President Franklin Roosevelt formally established the National Archives in 1934, though Herbert Hoover had laid the building’s cornerstone a year earlier. A grand Rotunda Gallery was included in plans for the building, which was completed in 1937. Both Hoover and Roosevelt wanted the Declaration and the Constitution to be displayed in the new building, but Librarian Putnam considered it impossible for the Library to relinquish custody of items that had been acquired in perpetuity. The situation was finally resolved in 1952 when Librarian of Congress Luther Evans requested an order from the Congressional Joint Committee on the Library to transfer the documents to the National Archives.

At 11:00 a.m., December 13, 1952, Commanding General Hoyt Vandenberg of the Air Force Headquarters Command formally received the Declaration and Constitution at the Library of Congress. News footage shows the twelve members of the Armed Forces Special Police carrying the six sealed cases containing the Declaration of Independence and five sheets of the Constitution down the steps of the Jefferson Building through a cordon of eighty-eight servicewomen to an armored Marine Corps personnel carrier.

Four service members armed with submachine guns and a motorcycle brigade guarded the vehicle as it traveled from the Library of Congress to the National Archives building.  Military bands and ceremonial troops formed a procession behind the truck. Military personnel and the general public lined the streets along the route.

At 11:35 am, General Vandenberg and the twelve military police officers carried the documents into the National Archives building, formally delivering them into the custody of the Archivist of the United States. The documents were then placed in their cases, protected by the 50-ton steel and concrete, bomb and fireproof safe that was installed to protect them.

Uniformed soldiers line the front steps of the Jefferson Building as formal transfer ceremony begins
Transferring the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence to the National Archives, December 13, 1952. Still image captured from film footage of the full ceremony, which can be viewed at the National Archives website.

More transfers followed. The Library transferred the Papers of the Continental Congress and the Records of the Federal Convention to the National Archives on June 6, 1952. The Manuscript Division retained its presidential collections, however, and those of Hamilton and Franklin.

Mearns concluded his recollection of the time the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were displayed at the Library of Congress with “Forever is 28 years.”  He thanked the National Archives for the short time the Library had the privilege to host the nation’s “imperishable records.”[4]

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[1] John C. L. Andreassen, “Archives in the Library of Congress.” The American Archivist 12, no. 1 (January 1949), 22-23.

[2] David C. Mearns, “Forever is 28 Years: Concerning the Transfer of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States to the National Archives,” August 14, 1952, 3. Box 100, David C. Mearns Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[3] Mearns, “Forever is 28 Years,” 3.

[4] Mearns, “Forever is 28 Years,” 3.

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