Tag Archives: National Archives

The National Archives refurbs the Magna Carta

One of the really cool things about our National Archives is that it owns a copy of the Magna Carta, aka, The Great Charter of Liberties (thanks to a wealthy philanthropist).  Sadly, if you visit right now, you won’t be able to see it.  The 13th century document is currently getting a makeover of sorts.  Kindly, however, the National Archives has provided this cool looksy at the process.

So, why should you care about a 13th century document that is older than our country?  Well, when the barons had finally had enough of King John–yes, that King John–of King John’s taxes and other policies, they cornered him at Runnymede meadow, and handed him a document that they had written up with some aid by a few bishops on hand.  While they were primarily concerned with looking after themselves, the barons put a few lines in that most important of all legal documents that have become the hallmarks of the Rule of Law and of our dearest-held rights.  It wasn’t much aid  to a woman who wished to bring a rapist to justice (“54: No one shall be arrested or imprisoned upon a woman’s appeal for the death of any person other than her husband.”)–although, it does do some mighty fine things for the rights of widows–it nevertheless extended and insisted on the these rights for all free men in the kingdom, regardless of rank (other than that free part).

Try to think about this for a moment: imagine that France had secured a similar document and protected as the English lords would do (several successive kings attempted to do away with it, only to have it be reestablished by the combined might of the aristocracy), would there have ever been a Sun King, a Versailles, a vast centralizing of power in the king, a Marie Antoinette, a French Revolution, and a handful of blood baths?  Would the successive events have been possible if the power had been forcibly decentralized and the early stirrings of a parliament founded when France was still medieval, as happened in England?  Quite plausibly not!

Regardless of France, these United States of America referenced the legacy of the Magna Carta at length both in arguments for fair treatment while still a colony under Britain and in the construction of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

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Geneology research at the National Archives


Trying to fill gaps in your family history or figure out when your family came to the New.   World?  Much of your initial geneology research can be done online through a resource such as Ancestry.com, but if you get stuck you may want to investigate the resources at the National Archives.  Ancestry.com will provide census documentation and ship manifests for immigrants.  If you come to the Archives the staff can assist your use of this reource and these documents.

These documents have their limits in the information they provide, however.  At the Archives you may be able to build a more comprehensive history by investigating military records and other documentation filed with the federal government.  State governments also keep records and may further assist filling out family history through property records.


To visit the National Archives in Washington DC for the purposes of research (and not to visit the U.S. Constitution or Declaration of Independence) go to the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance–the side without the lines!  Once their you will go through security.  Travel light: no pens, no notebooks; bring a laptop for notes or a pencil and use their notecards (also make sure that your sweater or sweatshirt is not a bulky one).  If you actually end up going to get records, you will not be able to take these things into the records room.  Any documents that are yours which you bring in have to be shown in advance so there is no question that they might be stolen when you leave.

You will need to go through a PowerPoint about the rules and regulations–theft of records is a problem, so be understanding–and then you can get your researcher card.  Documents you request will go into the queue at regular intervals and the goal is to get them distributed within an hour.  The Archives also have regional offices throughout the country and if you get your researcher card in DC, it works at any of these facilities.

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Brush off the Dust’s Best of the Web, 11/7 – 11/10/11

1. It Started Digital Wheels Turning

A mathematician may have conceived of the computer in the 1830s!  Scientists intend to build his conception and give it a run!  If you like the history of technology, this is a must-read!  Click on the heading above to read this NY Times article.

2. Giotto Devil: Found in the Detail of Renaissance Fresco

Giotto Devil

Art history fans should take a peek at this article from the International Business Times: mostly of photographs taken of the now-renovated frescoes by Giotto in the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.  After restoring the work–you may recall a recent earthquake damaged the basilica–a new figure emerged in the clouds of one of Assisi’s and Giotto’s most famous frescoes.  To see the image more clearly, click on title above the picture.

3. Birth of Edmond Halley

Portrait by Thomas Murray, c. 1687

On November 8, 1656, the man who discovered and predicted a comet that returned every 75 years was born.  Edmond Halley was part of a rich scientific community in Enlightened Europe.  Read about his other contributions and his times in this short article from History Today by clicking on the headline above.

4.  He found history, and N.H. wants it back

Here’s an interesting case!  At an estate sale in Minnesota, a man purchased the find of a lifetime: copper, pre-Revolutionary War currency plates from the colony of New Hampshire.  N.H. would, however, like to contest the claim of ownership.  It will be interesting to see where this goes!  In the meantime, read more by clicking the heading above.

5. I was a plagiarist

The author of this post, albeit at a Canadian university, writes about an experience of unintended plagiarism.  She raises some truly valid points.  Her actions did not include cutting and pasting reviews from the publisher’s site, copying a Wikipedia entry or paying someone to write her paper, rather she used an expression she thought was scholarly jargon, but actually unique to the author.  How should we respond to plagiarism and how well is it taught?  To read it click on the title above.

6. The Berlin Wall Came Down

In honor of that day here is some historical perspective:

7. History Heroes: Marc Bloch

Marc Bloch was a historian whose own history is as interesting as any of the compelling works he wrote.  His life was ended by the Nazis.  Read a story of true heroism (as opposed to all the recent scandals of enabling) by clicking on the link above from Smithsonian’s “Past Imperfect” blog.

8. Visualizations and Historical Arguments

Carte Figurative

Regarding the issue of writing history in the digital age, John Thiebault writes about visualizations in historical arguments.  He argues that the ability to turn statistics into visualizations, cartograms, that communicate historical evidence has greatly improved with computer technologies.  Read this important analysis of visual communication in argumentation.

9. DocsTeach: Veterans’ Day

From the National Archives’ DocsTeach Website you can search “veterans” and narrow further by era to look at documentary evidence of veterans.  Check it out and browse around by clicking the heading above.

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The Civil War: New Perspectives on Old Things–How History Evolves

I spent Saturday (11/20/2010) at the National Archives, in Washington DC, for a day long symposium on the Civil War, entitled, “The Civil War, Fresh Perspectives”.  Instead of scholars presenting papers, the day’s program consisted of a keynote address by the current president from the University of Richmond and three panels of five scholars each, including a moderator, on the following topics: “The Home Front”, “A Global War: International Implications” and “The Nation Before and After”.

The Civil War: Fresh Perspectives Symposium

Bill Ayers, currently president of the University of Richmond, gave the keynote address.  In it, he explained the challenge of finding something new to discuss when the Civil War has been regarded daily for the last 150 years.  The concept behind this symposium is integral to history and one which is lost on the non-academic public.  People tend to think that what happened happened, that history is a body of historical facts and that these facts do not change because they are in the past just as they took place and all we have to do is memorize them, forget them or be bored by them.  In reality, though, our understanding of the past is hardly stagnant, nor do historians speak of “historical fact” nearly so often as people think.  Nor, for that matter, do historians agree nearly so often as people might think, and it was both the topic and the format that made the conference so interesting.

I teach my history classes at The Community College of Baltimore County with each unit accompanied by a question.  This question is paired with the unit’s material and the material helps to demonstrate the point.  Two questions that I pose are 1) “how do historians’ perspectives change regarding historical content?”; 2) “how do current events effect historical interpretation?”.  Both are intended to challenge the notion that history simply is, that it merely reports on the past and that once established it is unchangeable.  At the symposium on Saturday, Ayers opened by telling the audience that the method for achieving fresh perspectives does not necessarily require new documents and information, sometimes it is reconsidering the sources we have in new ways.  Ayers used the example of the word “loyalty”, which is ubiquitous in Civil War discussion.  When the primary sources use “loyalty” what do they mean?  Slave owners talk of their shock at the betrayal of seemingly “loyal” slaves.  Men talk about “loyalty” to their homeland and mean different things.  On both sides of the war “loyalty” justifies one’s position and one’s appeals, but again it’s definitions vary widely.  Often we must reconsider the sources we have.

Historians cannot help but be influenced by the events they live through and often these current events cause scholars to reread and reevaluate the sources that have been referenced for years.  No where is this more evident than in Cold War years and the 1960s.  The USSR-influenced academic papers were required to follow prescribed programs and were often rife with attempts to get “real history” out in code, between the state lines.  While in the West, history was written in response to the threat of nuclear annihilation and the fear of mutual destruction or Cold War government policies.  As the era changes, so do the perspectives.  I always ask the question about current events effecting historians in my Byzantine/Islam class of the same 101 course.

The other really refreshing outcome from the panels at the symposium is the obvious factor that not all historians agree.  While disagreements were not the dominant feature of the discussions, they were present though amiable.  Debate and conversation built off each scholar’s points, contributing and building nicely, expanding each subject for the audience.  It is important to respect that the field of history is a large body of contributing historiography, not one person’s (or textbook’s) point of view and represents historical knowledge as a whole from many angles and research projects.

So, one source is never enough for either the historian researching sources or the reader learning history.  Any self-respecting scholar would be the first to tell you so!

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Elections in cartoon, from the National Archives

By Clifford Berryman

In honor of the midterm elections tomorrow, I wanted to share a gem of a collection put together a few years ago on the National Archives website.  From a past exhibit at the Archives, this online exhibit is a collection of political cartoons by Clifford Berryman (1860-1949): http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/running-for-office/.  The website is ordered to theme and has a couple of special features, such as a brief bio about the artist and the ability to download and print his work (of course, there is also a printed book available).  Each theme has a handful of the cartoons and an explanatory blurb do usher you through Berryman’s political era.

Beginning the debate . . . (but not entirely understanding it!) . . .

Disconcerting consolation . . .

Election season courtship . . .

Working hard for their living at home and in D.C. . . .

Lame ducks (hoping their president will give 'em a place swim) . . .

Today, I tend to be biased toward The Week’s collection of cartoons each week–it is my favorite centerfold if it comes to that!  Visit their collection for current election discussion here: Cartoons – The Week, or if that isn’t what you’re in the mood for this election, go check out the Archives site and peruse the 50+ Berryman toons online!


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Teaser … Nuremberg Laws come to the National Archives, DC

In the above video, you see how the Nuremburg Laws, signed in 1935 by Adolf Hitler, come to be on display at the National Archives, from October 6-18. I am running this as a tease for my upcoming blog post which will follow my visit to the National Archives to see this exhibit on opening day.

These laws were an important step to the eventual horror of the Holocaust. As Patton had the originals, facsimiles were used during the actual Nuremburg War Crime Trials, but they were the opening volley ushering in the evidence of Nazi horrors: medical experimentation, work camps and death camps.

Third page of the Nuremburg Laws signed by Adolf Hitler

Today the laws are referred to as the Nuremburg Laws, but in pre-war Germany the above section was entitled, “Gesetz zum Schutze der deutschen Blutes und der deutschen Ehre” or, in English, “law for the safeguard of German blood and honor.”  In the above excerpt, Jews are forbidden from marrying citizens of German or German-related blood (and, any out-of-state marriages will be regarded as void in Germany),  from having sexual intercourse with the same, from employing German women under the age of 45 years in the household and from raising the Reich- and national flag.  Jews are protected by the state, however, should they wish to display Jewish colors.  These laws are the gateway drug for the Nazi Holocaust.

If you click on this sentence, you can read the rest of the law in a .PDF of an English translation (it is provided by the National Archives, but the site does not explain how old this translation is or why it was drawn up).

The National Archives has a couple of other related events running at the same time the laws are displayed.  A description follows, here:

FILM:  Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today
Wednesday, October 6, at 7 PM, William G. McGowan Theater

The Charles Guggenheim Center for the Documentary Film welcomes producer Sandra Schulberg, who will introduce the first complete 35mm picture and sound restoration of the U.S. Government’s 1948 film about the first Nuremberg trial—the International Military Tribunal. Nuremberg: Its Lesson For Today shows how the four allied prosecution teams—from the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union—built their case against the top Nazi leaders. The original film was written and directed by Stuart Schulberg, and edited by Joseph Zigman, under Pare Lorentz, chief of Film/Theatre/Music at the U.S. War Department. It was completed by Schulberg in 1948, under Eric Pommer, chief of the Motion Picture Branch of U.S. Military Government in Berlin. Please note—viewer discretion is advised.(78 minutes)

Wednesday, October 20, at 7 PM, William G. McGowan Theater

Beyond the familiar history lessons of World War II is an untold story of a Nazi plot to seize the world’s greatest cultural treasures—a plot thwarted by one tiny band of soldiers, detailed in The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. The National Archives Experience, in partnership with the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, welcomes author Robert Edsel, who will discuss a story that remains relevant as irreplaceable historical artifacts are still missing, and restoration, search, and discovery continue. A book signing will follow the program, and the book is available at a discount from the Archives Shop (202-357-5271) before and during the event.

The typical format is somewhat reversed this week as the shorter blog post is running today, while the lengthier, more in depth post will run at the end of the week.  So, check back to see a lengthier discussion and commentary on this law.  Follow me on Twitter, ETFranz, for updates about the visit to the National Archives and this exhibit!

For more information about the exhibit, please, visit the National Archives website: http://www.archives.gov/ (currently the first entry under “News and Events”).

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It’s Constitution Day!!!

Right after the colonists won the War for Independence, they sat down to write some rules, the Articles of the Confederation.  These articles reflected a general suspicion of strong central authority.  For example, the first article established our (somewhat cumbersome) title, The United States of America, and the second article reads:

“Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.”

(I wonder if the Confederates of the Civil War South ever looked at this wistfully or bitterly.)  After we established a name for ourselves, the most unifying statement in the entire document is:

“The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretense whatever.”

Other than that, the states act independently, with the assembled Congress assigned the task of  final arbitrator in disputes among the states, first authority in foreign relations and the sole body allowed to declare war (although, even there, Article 6 has an exception).

Honestly, I find it amazing that the whole thing did not fall apart–especially given the incredibly low success rates of other revolutions to establish free societies.  The period of American history between the war and the establishment of the Constitution bears more scrutiny for most Americans.  Regardless, there is a great dissatisfaction with the situation coming from some prominent Americans, including Alexander Hamilton and b.  So, in the sweltering summer of 1787, the first American government conspiracy was afoot!  As delegates gathered in Philadelphia behind closed doors and locked windows achieving sauna-like secrecy, the future of our capital, our three branches of government and other important details were loudly hammered out with much debate.  Slavery was tabled for another time.  And, the inclusion of a Bill of Rights was tabled for a very short time–getting a unanimous vote on the final draft was only achieved with a promise that the first amendments would be the first ten we have today, also known as the Bill of Rights (a promise that was kept!).

If you can, head down to the Archives and see the original and in the same hall see other important documents historically establishing our freedoms, such as Colorado’s ratification of the 19th Amendment for women’s suffrage.  Otherwise, check out the website at the National Archives and take a look at their Constitution Day events and especially their Charters of Freedom page.  Also, the regular series “Inside the Vaults” features some handwritten and printed documents from the era, pertaining to the Constitution’s history; please, view it below (other videos in the series are also available profiling various sources from vaults inside the Archives):

So, Happy Constitution Day!!  Take a look at it, buy a copy, do something you can do because you have the right to do it . . you know petition the government, state your opinion on government policy, write an article or a blog, say a prayer or don’t (the First Amendment is pretty cool)!

Decorative relief from the Basilica of St. John, Ephesus, Turkey


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