The Travels of the Bill of Rights, Emancipation Proclamation, and other National Archives Holdings on the Freedom Train, 1947-1949

Today’s post is by Dr. Greg Bradsher.

Some sixty-five years ago, in September 1947 the Freedom Train, carrying key documents of American history, including the Bill of Rights, began its journey across the United States.  At each stop visitors had an opportunity to see the documents, many of them from the National Archives.

The idea for such a traveling exhibit originated in the Department of Justice in 1946 and in early 1947 the American Heritage Foundation was established to oversee what became the Freedom Train.  To kick off the activities of the foundation and to make the nation aware of the forthcoming Freedom Train tour and program, a White House Conference was held on May 22. Among the participants was Archivist of the United States Solon J. Buck, Librarian of Congress Luther Evans, Irving Berlin, Henry Ford II, William Randolph Hearst, Jr., Oscar winning film producer David O. Selznick, and NAACP executive secretary Walter White.

The foundation established a Documents Advisory Committee, which included among others Buck and Evans, which selected the documents for exhibit and the Documents Committee, consisting of John Foster Dulles and three others, which approved the selection.

The National Archives was of great assistance to the project, as it was responsible for physically assembling the exhibit materials and for their preparation for exhibition.  Elizabeth Hamer, Chief of the Division of Exhibits and Publications, and Arthur E. Kimberly, Chief of the Division of Cleaning and Rehabilitation, played key roles in these activities.  Staff members also recommended documents to be included in the exhibit.  Altogether the National Archives provided about one-fourth of the exhibit’s 126 documents, including the Bill of Rights, the Treaty of Paris, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Northwest Ordinance, and Washington’s copy of the Constitution.  The other documents on the Freedom Train came from historical societies, universities, government agencies, private collectors, and the Library of Congress.  Among these were Jefferson‘s draft of the Declaration of Independence, the Mayflower Compact, the original manuscript of the “Star-Spangled Banner, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

While the documents were priceless the American Heritage Foundation insisted on insurance policies for them.  Insurance values were then established.  Among the documents that the National Archives lent, the Bill of Rights was insured for $225,000, the Emancipation Proclamation $60,000, Washington’s own copy of the Constitution $10,000, and a petition of the National Women’s Suffrage Association to Congress $500.  Among the other documents lent was a thirteenth century manuscript of Magna Carta insured for $7,500, the Mayflower Compact $3,500, the 1640 Bay Psalm Book $100,000, the 1644 Areopagitica by John Milton $350, and the 1776 Common Sense by Thomas Paine $300.  I suppose one could endlessly debate the value and relative value of these items.

The train was assembled in Cameron Station, Virginia, with the help of the U.S. Army and the National Archives.  It was powered by a streamlined diesel-electric locomotive named “The Spirit of 1776” and consisted of three Pullman cars, one baggage car, and three exhibit cars.  The train, once assembled, was painted white with a red and blue-strip along both sides of its entire length, making a red, white, and blue streamer extending some eight hundred feet.  The words FREEDOM TRAIN in gold letters were placed on alternate cars, with the others having a gold eagle.  The train staff included of a public relations officer, seven maintenance men and engineers, three porters, one document specialist from the National Archives, a Navy chief pharmacist’s mate, and twenty-seven Marines. Ms. Hamer from the National Archives was responsible for overseeing the installation of the documents in the train’s exhibit cars (see image below). To ensure that these priceless treasures were protected and safely displayed, the National Archives throughout the spring and summer of 1947 worked with the National Bureau of Standards and other agencies, as well various experts, to develop standards and procedures.  Once the train tour began a National Archives staff member on a daily basis carefully monitored the temperature and humidity in the exhibit cars, and inspected the exhibit cases.

The train tour began at Philadelphia on September 17, 1947, the 160th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution.  During its tour the Reader’s Digest reprinted 3.5 million copies of an article on the Bill of Rights that was given to visitors to the Freedom Train and Look magazine prepared over 775,000 copies of an illustrated thirty-two page booklet Our American Heritage, which provided information on the major Freedom Train documents.  The American Heritage Foundation produced a 160-page booklet entitled Heritage of Freedom, which reproduced and discussed the Freedom Train documents.

The tour officially ended on January 22, 1949.  In all, the Freedom Train during its 413-day tour was visited by 3.5 million people in 322 cities in all forty-eight states. The Freedom Train tour had been a great success.  Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote the foundation in February 1949, “in instilling into the American people an increased consciousness of our manifold heritage has been one of the outstanding and most satisfying phenomena of the postwar period.” Although the foundation desired to continue the tour, lack of funds prohibited them from doing so.  Lack of funds also prevented the National Archives, which had been authorized by Congress to acquire and operate the Freedom Train, from continuing the tour.  The National Archives did, however, put the Freedom Train documents on exhibit in their institution from September 1949 to January 1950.

National Archives personnel prepare items for exhibit
Left to Right: Elizabeth Hamer, Margaret (Peggy) Mangum, and Elizabeth Bukowsky encase bound volumes in Lucite containers aboard the Freedom Train. (NAID 12167218).

3 thoughts on “The Travels of the Bill of Rights, Emancipation Proclamation, and other National Archives Holdings on the Freedom Train, 1947-1949

  1. This one was before I was born, but there was another Freedom Train which toured the nation during the Bicentennial in 1776. I saw that one in Tulsa, Oklahoma that year.

  2. I did not know about the Freedom Train exhibit of 1947. . . . nor did I know about the involvment of the National Archives Exhibits staff in that historic “traveling exhibit.” It is a nice surprise to know that the National Archives exibits staff was involved in such an ambitious “traveling exhibit” so long ago. It had to have been a very challenging undertaking for the people and institutions that organized the Freedom Train exhibit. Exhibits are so much more expensive and complex to orgainize today (especially when there are multiple institutions involved!), it is hard to imagine this kind of “Freedom Train” exhibit with priceless documents like the Bill of Rights, Emancipation Proclamation, and Gettysburg Address (to name a few) all in the same exhibit, ever happening again. The Freedom Train exhibit was before my time, but it is an exhibit that I would’ve wanted to see, and I would’ve been proud to be part of the team that organized that exibit. Thanks for sharing your knowledge of this very interesting and unique exhibit.

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