Guiding Document – Records Related to the Constitution in the National Register of Historic Places

Today’s post is by John LeGloahec, Archivist in the Electronic Records Division at the National Archives in College Park, MD.

Mural of the Signing of the Constitution
Constitution Day (National Archives Identifier 231832917)

In the month of September, the nation observes Constitution Day, the day that recognizes the adoption of the United States Constitution, as well as individuals who have become U.S. citizens. Constitution Day is observed on September 17 when the delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the document in Philadelphia, in 1787.  There are several properties in the Records of the National Register of Historic Places that relate to the guiding document of the United States Constitution.

ship (USS Constitution) at dock
USS Constitution (National Archives Identifier 6037256)

First and foremost is the frigate, the USS Constitution, more commonly known as “Old Ironsides” “designed by Joshua Humphreys and built during 1794-97, was longer, broader, and higher out of water than existing ships of her class. She had an over-all length of 204 feet and a length on the load water line of 175 feet. Her beam was 43.6 feet, the depth of her hold was 14.3 feet, and she displaced 2,200 tons. Her best sailing draft was 21 feet forward and 23 feet aft. Her length and stability allowed for a vast spread of canvas (42,710 square feet) and exceptional speed (13+ knots). The live oak, red cedar, white oak, pitch pine, and locust of which the Constitution was built came from states ranging from Maine to South Carolina and Georgia. Her foremast (198 feet), mainmast (220 feet), and mizzenmast (172 feet, 6 inches) were all of solid white pine. Essential metal fittings—composition castings, composition spikes, and copper bolts—were produced at Boston by Paul Revere.”

“The U.S.S. Constitution, now the oldest commissioned warship in the world, is a stirring symbol of American naval skill and courage in the great age of fighting sail. Built at Boston and launched in 1797, Constitution participated in the undeclared naval war with France (1798-1800), saw action against the Barbary (Algerian) pirates (1803-05), and in the War of 1812 earned lasting fame and the title “Old Ironsides” in spectacular ship-to-ship duels with Great Britain’s Royal Navy. Constitution took part in some 40 engagements in all without sustaining a single loss.” “On June 18, 1812, war was declared against England while the Constitution was at the navy yard, Washington, undergoing repairs . . . On August 19, 1812, under Captain Hull, the Constitution completely dismantled and captured the British ship Guerrier in less than half an hour of actual close-range combat. It was in this engagement that Constitution gained the title “Old Ironsides.” According to tradition, Guerrier’s shots rebounded from Constitution’s heavy outer planking and fell into the sea, whereupon one of the American sailors shouted “Huzza! Her sides are made of iron!””

USS Constitution crew with AOTUS David Ferriero
USS Constitution and crew, with CDR Timothy M. Cooper, Commanding Officer. Tour by David Ferriero and Trevor Plante USS Constitution and crew, with CDR Timothy M. Cooper, Commanding Officer. Tour by David S. Ferriero and Trevor Plante

In Florida there is a monument erected to a different Constitution, not the United States Constitution.  In St. Augustine, one can visit the Florida SP Constitution Obelisk (National Archives Identifier 77844084) that is “located in the Plaza de la Constitution in downtown St. Augustine, St. Johns County, Florida [and] is twenty-five feet in height. The obelisk was built from local coquina recycled from other building projects. It was surfaced with a lime mortar for weatherproofing and featured classical detailing consisting of a molded cornice and a perilla, a pear shaped ornament at the top of obelisk. Its tapered features and proportions were the work of a skilled designer and builder, familiar with classical architecture. The original tablet announcing the Constitution was removed in 1815 by order of the restored Spanish king Ferdinand VI, but it was replaced in 1820 when the king swore allegiance to the 1812 Constitution.”

obelisk in park in Florida
Constitution Monument Erected in 1813 By Spaniards (National Archives Identifier 135802617)

“The Constitution Obelisk was erected as a direct result of the Spanish Constitution of 1812 . . . promulgated on March 19,1812, by the Cadiz Cortes, the national legislative assembly of Spain. The Constitution of Cadiz . . . established principles of universal male suffrage, national sovereignty, constitutional monarchy, and freedom of expression and the press . . . For the first time, the peoples of the Spanish dominions became citizens, not subjects, with certain inalienable rights. One provision of the Constitution provided for the creation of a local government or town council (an ayuntamiento) for every settlement of over 1,000 people . . . One of the first acts of the newly formed St. Augustine ayuntamiento was to initiate a building program for the erection of the Constitution Obelisk. On August 14,1812, the Spanish Cortes promulgated a decree requiring the renaming all the main plazas or plazas may ores in major towns to Plazas de la Constitucion (Constitution Squares).”

Constitution Hall, Washington DC
Constitution Hall, Washington, DC (National Archives Identifier 135802140)

There are also a number of “Constitution Halls” around the country that are listed on the National Register, including the Constitution Hall in Washington DC, which was “built and owned by the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, faces Eighteenth Street between C and D Streets, Northwest. It was designed by the eminent architect, John Russell Pope, and is constructed of Alabama limestone. The building houses the largest auditorium in the City of Washington, with a seating capacity of 3,746 plus an additional 150 chairs on the 32′ x 50′ stage. Excavating for Constitution Hall was begun on August 24, 1928, and the first event held in the Hall, a Vesper Service, took place on October 23, 1929.”

The building was designed by John Russell Pope, who designed several buildings around Washington DC, including the National Archives. “Constitution Hall is a “Memorial to that Immortal Document the Constitution of the United States in which are Incorporated those Principles of Freedom, Equality, and Justice for which Our Forefathers Strove. Erected by The National Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Cornerstone Laid October 30, 1928.” These words are carved in the block of stone at the northwest corner of Constitution Hall. Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, then First Lady, assisted in laying the stone, and put her card and that of the President inside it. The gavel that was used to tap the stone into place was the same one that George Washington used in laying the cornerstone of the United States Capitol.”

“The Ionic entrance portico of this Neoclassic building, facing on Eighteenth Street, is surmounted by a 90-foot-wlde pediment above the name, CONSTITUTION HALL, cut in the stone frieze. The huge sculptured American eagle, and the dates “1776” and “1783” of the Declaration of Independence and the Treaty of Paris, respectively, to the right and left of the eagle, were carved in situ by the sculptor, Ulysses A. Ricci. High on the wall under the portico are five-foot-tall allegorical low-relief panels. Below each panel, and between them, are three pairs of bronze doors. Directly above the center doors is a bronze plaque inscribed: “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair. The event is in the hands of God. George Washington to the Constitution Convention, A.D. 1787”.”

Constitution House - Montpelier, VT
Connecticut River Byway – Constitution House (National Archives Identifier 7717727)

In Montpelier, Vermont, the state capital of the Green Mountain State, you can visit the Old Constitution State (National Archives Identifier 84286059), which commemorates another Constitution, in this case the Constitution of the “Free and Independence State of Vermont.  The house is “a Colonial style building built c. 1777. It is white clapboarded with a concrete foundation. It has 2 end interior chimneys and is two stories high with an ell. There is 1 porch in the front of the house and the entrance is in the center of the front. The Old Constitution House was built as a tavern. Over the years there have been slight alterations to interior and exterior and both have been skillfully restored. It was acquired in 1914 by the Old Constitution House Association, and moved to its present site and restored. The building which was originally a tavern continued as such until about 1848, It was then turned into shops for retail merchandising and small manufacturing. In 1870 it was moved back from the main street and converted into a tenement house. From about 1890 to 1914 it was used for the storage of merchandise. For many seasons the House was operated as a tea room during the summer months, then, later became a popular eating place. In June 1961 the property and furnishings were turned over to the State of Vermont. Several smaller rooms in the ell were eliminated to provide larger exhibit areas. The second floor of the ell was rebuilt. The building now houses a small museum.”

“Often called the “Birthplace of Vermont” the Old Constitution House was a tavern in Windsor where on July 8, 1777, representatives of the New Hampshire Grants adopted the first Constitution of the “Free and Independent State of Vermont”.  On June 4, 1777, a group of 72 delegates from “New Connecticut” met at Windsor to commence the framing of the Constitution for the proposed Independent Republic . . . On July 2, the delegates met again, this time in the tavern owned by Elijah West . . . Vermont’s Constitution became the first in the country to prohibit slavery and to establish universal manhood suffrage.”

painting of Mount Constitution
Straits of Rosario – Mt. Constitution – Hautboy Isld. – Strawberry Harbor – Cypress Isld. (National Archives Identifier 102278821)

In Washington State, you can visit Moran State Park (National Archives Identifier 75313113) in Washington State, which “is located on the eastern lobe of Orcas Island, the largest of the San Juan Islands. Moran State Park serves as a public day use and camping park, with the major geographic features being Mount Constitution, Mount Pickett, Cascade Lake, Mountain Lake, Summit Lake, and Twin Lakes. Numerous springs and creeks exist throughout the park, which is largely in a natural state. The park contains one of the largest undisturbed lowland Western Hemlock forests in the state and is one of the most spectacular State Parks due to its geological form, variety of plant communities, open meadows and rocky balds within the forest, and its natural and human-enhanced water features.”

“At the top of Mount Constitution is the summit area, one of the primary destinations within the park due to the commanding views of the San Juans and Puget Sound from the area. The signature building in the park, the Mount Constitution Tower, stands on the summit and is perhaps the most impressive CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] construction in the Washington State Park system. The summit area also features a stone overlook wall, parking defined by rustic guard rails, and the former summer residence for forestry workers manning the fire lookout at the top of the tower . . . The views of and from the Mount Constitution Tower are once again uninterrupted and allow the building to remain the showcase structure in the park.”

VP Nelson Rockefeller, AOTUS Bert Rhoads, Senator John Warner (R-VA), others at National Archives Constitution Day Event
Photograph of Vice President Rockefeller with Fifth Archivist of the United States Bert Rhoads, Senator Warner and Guests at the Reading Is Fundamental Ceremony held on Constitution Day, September 17, 1975, in the Rotunda (National Archives Identifier 3493301)

The National Archives Building in Washington DC (National Archives Identifier 117692357) is home to the guiding documents of the United States, including the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.  “The National Archives, designed in the Neo-Classical manner by John Russell Pope and part of the Federal Triangle, is located on a hexagonal tract bounded by Constitution Avenue, 7th Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, and 9th Street; the main entrance faces south on Constitution. The building was constructed in two stages; ground was broken for the building in 1931, and the exterior was completed by 1935; an interior extension which filled the inner court was begun in 1935 and completed in 1937. The steel-framed structure is of limestone with a base of Milford granite.”

“The Constitution Avenue entrance leads into a foyer on the main floor. Directly behind this is the exhibition hall in the form of half-rotunda which is separated from the foyer by a low flight of steps and a metal screen.  The hall, with its coffered half dome rising 75 feet, contains a shrine which displays the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights in specially designed heat and light resistant and air-conditioned bronze exhibit cases which can be lowered into a bomb proof vault. Flanking the shrine are two large murals depicting the signing of the “Declaration of Independence” and the “Constitution” by muralist Barry Faulkner.  The north portion of the building is occupied by administrative offices including three large conference rooms, a cataloging unit, projection room, main conference room and theater. The storage space is located in 21 tiers protected from natural light, with specially regulated humidity, and an elaborate burglar alarm system.”

The Constitution of the United States has significant bearing on the President of the United States as well, specifically Article II, which states that “the executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same Term, be elected.”

Ronald Reagan in Philadelphia, PA
President Reagan during a trip to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to attend a “We The People” Bicentennial Celebration of the Constitution at Independence Hall passing through a Military Honor Guard

In Philadelphia, one can visit the Independence National Historical Park, as President Reagan did at an event to commemorate the bicentennial of the Constitution, in 1987.  Independence Hall, “where in the Assembly Room the Second Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence (1776), and adopted (1777) and received ratification (1781) for the Articles of Confederation, the nation’ s first comprehensive frame of government; and where, from May 25 to September 17, 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention debated and signed the United States Constitution, a document of such enduring relevance that in nearly 200 years it has been amended only twenty-six times, ten of which constituted the Bill of Rights, (1791). Known as the State House from its construction (1732-53) until the 1850s, when a renewed reverence for the building’s role in American history established its current name.”  Following the ratification of the Constitution, the city of “Philadelphia served for a decade (1790-1800) as the nation’s capital, during which time the buildings on Independence Square enjoyed the unique experience in American history to house the federal, state, and local governments simultaneously. The new Philadelphia county courthouse was fitted up for Congress, while the City Hall was adapted to accommodate the United States Supreme Court. City, county, and state officials occupied Independence Hall.”

To honor of the United States Constitution, here is the Preamble to the document, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”  Of course, you could also watch this, as many kids did when I was younger.

This post is part of an ongoing “road trip” featuring records from the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) and National Historic Landmarks Program Records, 2013 – 2017 (National Archives ID 20812721), a series within Record Group 79: Records of the National Park Service.