Bubble Wrapping History: The National Archives Moves To “Reimagine” The Founding

Below is my column in the Hill on the recommendations of the anti-racism task force to “reimagine history” at the National Archives. It appears that the Archives are moving forward with warnings and other reforms.

Here is the column:

We are living in the age of reimagination. We are not reducing police, we are “reimagining policing” … not “packing” the Supreme Court but “reimagining justice” … not embracing media bias but “reimagining journalism” … not embracing censorship but “reimagining free speech.”

Conversely, the lack of such imagination can be a career-ending flaw. As a result, many remain silent rather than question the need for the revisions that come with “reimagination.”

That dilemma was evident as a federal task force recently issued a call to “reimagine history” at the National Archives, including adding warnings to protect unsuspecting visitors before they read our founding documents. We are reimagining ourselves out of the very founding concepts that once defined us. Reimagining the founding documents comes at a time when many are calling to “reimagine the First Amendment” and other constitutional guarantees.

National Archivist David Ferriero created a racism task force for the National Archives after last summer’s protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Such task forces are created with the expectation that they will find problems, and — once recommendations are made — objecting to “anti-racist” reforms can easily be misconstrued as being insensitive or even racist.

Obviously, documents and spaces can be viewed differently from different backgrounds. There is also a need to contextualize our history to deal honestly with our past. However, the “reimagination” line should not divide the woke from the wicked. Yet that is the fear for many academics who do not want to risk their careers after campaigns against dissenting voices on campuses around the country.

For example, for many of us, the National Archives’ Rotunda — containing the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights — is a moving, reverential place celebrating common articles of constitutional faith. That is not what the task force members saw.

Instead, they declared that the iconic Rotunda is one of three examples of structural racism: “a Rotunda in our flagship building that lauds wealthy White men in the nation’s founding while marginalizing BIPOC, women, and other communities.” They called for “reimagining” the space to be more inclusive, including possible dance and performance art. Even the famous murals in the Rotunda might have to go: The task force noted that some view the murals as “an homage to White America.”

The report objected to the laudatory attention given white Framers and Founders, particularly figures like Thomas Jefferson. It encouraged the placement of “trigger warnings” to “forewarn audiences of content that may cause intense physiological and psychological symptoms.”

The task force report called for “reimagining” the portrayal of founding documents on OurDocuments.gov, the website for America’s “milestone documents.” The task force objected that the “100 milestone documents of American history” included “adulatory and excessive language to document the historical contributions of White, wealthy men.”

The task force called for warnings and revision of racist language but stressed that such language “means not only explicitly harmful terms, such as racial slurs, but also information that implies and reinforces damaging stereotypes of BIPOC individuals and communities while valorizing and protecting White people.” It also called for “the creation of safe spaces” in every facility run by the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA).

A task force subgroup recommended that NARA “retire” the term “charters of freedom” as descriptors for the founding documents because “these documents did not result in freedom for everyone.” In addition, new signage would contain “trigger warnings” to protect tourists from potential trauma in seeing the documents; visitors would now be warned that the documents they are reading may “contain harmful language that reflects attitudes and biases of their time.”

It is not clear how such signage truly ameliorates the harm for some in reading founding documents, as opposed to making a statement about the history itself.

Hopefully, most people visiting the National Archives have some passing knowledge of the age and history of both the documents and the country.

Before we bubble-wrap our history, it is worth discussing other inherent messages not from the documents, but the warning signs themselves.

There is no question that the documents, like many of the Framers, reveal an inherent hypocrisy in speaking of natural rights that were cruelly denied to millions left in slavery. That hypocrisy continued as women and minorities fought for the guarantees of those documents.

However, it is not the documents but our failure to live up to those principles that is the tragedy of our nation.

There were early figures who recognized that hypocrisy — even some like Jefferson, who personally embodied the contradictions of the time. Jefferson originally included a 168-word passage in the Declaration of Independence that condemned slavery as one of the evils foisted upon the colonies by the British crown; it was cut to secure the vote of Southern states. Yet Jefferson himself owned a large number of slaves, as did many of the Founders and Framers. Some other early figures — John Adams, Thomas Paine, Roger Sherman, Alexander Hamilton, the Marquis de Lafayette and others — were adamant abolitionists. They too are part of our history.

The Constitution itself is like a codified stratigraphic record of our struggle with own values. Indeed, more than 600,000 Americans were killed during the Civil War to guarantee those rights and ultimately reaffirm them with the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Bill of Rights. The Constitution contained the powers in the first three articles that allowed a free nation to end segregation, realize women’s suffrage, and guarantee equality for insular minorities. These documents were a promise that our nation strived to fulfill, a struggle that continues to this day.

The National Archives’ Rotunda is a reverential place because it represents a leap of faith by a nation composed of different races, religions and values. The documents compose our covenant of faith not with the government or the past but with each other. We have not always lived up to the ideals expressed in the documents — yet our history is not defined by where we began but, instead, by where we strive to be.

Before we bring in the dance groups and post the trigger warnings, perhaps what we need is a reaffirmation rather than a reimagination of who we are.

The National Archives is our collective story. These documents imagined a new country and a set of ideals that no nation had ever realized in history. They are a collective statement of transcendence from where we were to where we hoped to be as a people. Perhaps we are not there yet, but we have come a long way. That is worth understanding — and even celebrating — without the historical bumpers and safety proofing. Just imagine that.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates on Twitter @JonathanTurley.

102 thoughts on “Bubble Wrapping History: The National Archives Moves To “Reimagine” The Founding”

  1. The Enemies Within

    Stomp on its flag. Topple its statues. “Trigger warn” its founding documents. Smear it as a slave-loving country. Denounce it as inherently racist. Make it wear the hair shirt of blood guilt. Denigrate its basic values (individualism and liberty) as tools of oppression. Rewrite its history as a continuous “trail of tears.” Shackle its heroes with feet of clay.

    I know of no other country in history that had so many enemies within.

    1. …and who have no desire to actually live in any of the countries they admire, you know, to ease their own pain.

    2. Perhaps the Democrat strategy is to make this country so toxic, that no one will want to come here…we won’t need borders after all. Then they’ll enslave the population (natural rights don’t exist) and as we age out, we’ll be replaced by generations of the education industry’s useful idiots.

  2. Jonathan: For conservative constitutional scholars, like you, it is virtually impossible to “reimagine” our history–the kind going on at the National Archives. You call this “bubble wrapping history”. You apparently prefer to keep the Rotunda just as it is: “a moving reverential place celebrating common articles of constitutional faith”. Noble words but bearing little resemblance to the actual history of the country. The Declaration of Independence and other founding documents also contain lofty words like “pursuit of happiness” but the Founders didn’t have slaves, women or Native Americans when they drafted those documents. “Common articles” of faith were reserved for white property owners. That’s the messy part of history the National Archive task force seeks to address. But you oppose “trigger warnings” for any founding documents because they are a “collective statement of transcendence”. This view is consistent with the conservative view of American “exceptionalism”. It was best expressed by Ronald Reagan’s phrase that the US is a shiny “City upon a Hill, a “beacon of hope” for the rest of the world. Most of the world doesn’t agree with that assessment. In the movie “The American” the priest tells the character portrayed by George Clooney: “You are American, you think you can escape history”. This country was built on a foundation of inequality that persists today. The National Archives hopes to correct the historical record. It is conservatives who want to preserve the “bubble”, the illusion of American “exceptionalism” and keep school children from learning anything about the racial history of the country in school rooms or when they visit the National Archives’ Rotunda.

    1. If we are not the “beacon of hope” why do so many people die trying to get here? You don’t see US citizens taking rafts to Cuba.

  3. I think trigger warnings have their place. I would be content with a trigger warning at the archives that says,
    “Warning! Radical leftist scholars and politicians have perversely interpreted the Founding Documents in order to justify their grab for power. Be aware!”

  4. Mr. Turley: the use of the words “Re-imagine” etc, comes directly from the World Economic Forum founder, Klaus Schwab. He’s a very powerful guy in the emerging Globalist Technocracy.
    I am reading his books. One of them is Covid19: The Great Reset. Make no mistake – I do not care for this fascist but his books are quite telling of these people’s agenda.

    Through-out he speaks about Re-imagining our future, etc. He also speaks of Re-imagining this and that on his website.

    These people use words masterfully and if people are not privy to how they are using words to manipulate, they can easily fall prey to these vultures and parasitic personalities.

    I am afraid it may be too late to save the nation. It might be better at this point to start thinking of the possibility of getting enough people who would want to branch off from USA and form a new Constitutional Republic.

    Penelope

    1. The current experts I listen to est of the Death Rate from Fauci/Bill Gates/NIH/CDC/FDA/HHS/etc Gene Therapy Inoculation is about 3000 Dead Americans everyday now & many thousand more injured.

      Just the disruption in the World’s economy last year the UN, which I hate, admits that an est. in 2020 an extra 28 mil people died world wide. And that was without the so called vaz.

      Now just imagine this year with the Death Jabs just how many key employees will either die, be permanently disabled or otherwise be moved completely out of the work force.

      Even Klaus Schwab can “Re-Imagine” “the Great Reset” with his crew “Bill Gates” “Without Them, etc” when enough people realize they are the Scum they are.

      ……. No Food, No Electric, Nat Gas, Gasoline, etc…..

  5. Mr. Turley: the use of the words “Re-imagine” etc, comes directly from the World Economic Forum founder, Klaus Schwab. He’s a very powerful guy in the emerging Globalist Technocracy.
    I am reading his books. One of them is Covid19: The Great Reset. Make no mistake – I do not care for this fascist but his books are quite telling of these people’s agenda.

    Through-out he speaks about Re-imagining our future, etc. He also speaks of Re-imagining this and that on his website.

    These people use words masterfully and if people are not privy to how they are using words to manipulate, they can easily fall prey to these vultures and parasitic personalities.

    I am afraid it may be too late to save the nation. It might be better at this point to start thinking of the possibility of getting enough people who would want to branch off from USA and form a new Constitutional Republic.

    Worried in florida.

    Penelope

  6. The anti White movement maybe part of the anti establishment anti culture movement of the 60’s, but if it is something relatively new and leaning towards cultural Marxism then what aspects of White America feed into this? We just ended 20 years of war in Afghanistan and our presence in the ME has been worse. Our foreign policy is policy of wars so how are they wrong? We are not Europe and cannot point to the great achievements of Europe to define White America – White America glorifies war, not peace

  7. Ah yes. Bad guys in the rotunda. These men lived in a time when slavery was accepted by both men in favor of a representive government and those who wanted a more centralized form of government. Men of the left and the right owned slaves. However, what can we say of men of our more contemporary time. There are two close associates of Joe Biden that he praised. One of these men was Lyndon Johnson who was a racist. https://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/lyndon-johnson-civil-rights-racism-msna305591. The other friend of Joe Biden was Robert Byrd who was an Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan. It is said that you can know who a man is by the friends he keeps. If you listen closely Biden will occasionally slip up and call someone “boy”. It seems he can’t unknow what he knows.

  8. So the left tells us that those depicted in the rotunda should be pointed to as evil white men. They conveniently overlook the glorification of a man in the Democratic Party who was an admitted member of the KKK. They haven’t called for changing the names of over 50 buildings that have been named and are still named in his honor. Joe Biden called this past member of the KKK a lion in the Senate. The man’s name was Robert Byrd. Why aren’t the statue topplers protesting in front of the buildings with his name on their edifice. I provide a link as a source to substantiate the existence of buildings named after a Democratic KKK member. The information I point out is in paragraph four. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_places_named_after_Robert_Byrd. It must just be that these buildings are innocently overlooked by Black Lives Matter. Cornpop anyone?

  9. OT: Does anyone remember the Alternate Minimum Tax that was only supposed to tax the richest of the rich? Does anyone remember ‘you have to pass it before you can know what is in it.’ The it was Obamacare. Now we have the new Democrat Tax plan that violates Biden’s pledges and wants to hide itself until passed. Dems require secrecy to do anything because they are authoritarians.

    https://www.nysun.com/national/ways-and-means-shock-hold-off-on-the-pay-fors/91653/

    Ways and Means Shock: ‘Hold Off on the Pay-fors Until We Are at the Altar’

    Democrats Admit Hiding Details of Their Plan To Raise Taxes by $3,000,000,000,000

  10. The Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights have been my “safe space” for my entire life. Perhaps they should be included in Archives “safe spaces” for all. A “trigger warning” for George III was the shot heard round the world. Many more followed, and were commonly phrased as “Fire” or simply audible as “Bang!” and visible as a cloud of black powder smoke.

    The hypocracy of the exclusion of BIPOC and women by our founders deserves criticism and context describing the unenlightened mores of the time. As further context, the revolutionary nature of our enlightened documents that have subsequently provided inspiration for hundreds of millions of people of all colors and genders around the globe, as well as our own improvement, could also be included. Curiously, foreign tourists choosing to visit the Rotunda likely understand that better than many of our own citizens.

    These days I fear for the Bill of Rights.

    1. “A “trigger warning” for George III was the shot heard round the world.”

      I agree with you . Yes, the trigger warning was the shot heard around the world but an earlier warning came from an attorney with the last name of Otis ~1761 when George lll became monarch. The writs had to be rewritten under the name of George lll. Otis filed suit.

  11. In totalitarian regimes, there can be no institutions of moral authority that compete with the state. Of course, the institution that the Woke Comms must completely control is education. The Woke Comms must no longer teach our children about an America striving, however imperfectly, towards its noble ideals. Instead, they must teach about an America conceived in oppression and dedicated to racism. In short, Woke Communism will replace American justice with social justice, and destroy law and order, the rule of law, and both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution…

    If ever I feel worthy, Lincoln once said, it is when I contemplate the cause of my country deserted by all the world . . . and I standing up boldly and alone, . . . hurling defiance at [our] victorious oppressors. Here, without contemplating consequences, . . . I swear eternal fidelity to the just cause . . . of the land of my life, my Liberty, and my love. . . . But if after all, we shall fail, be it so. We still shall have the proud consolation of saying to our consciences, . . . we never faltered.
    https://amgreatness.com/2021/09/11/winning-the-cold-civil-war/

  12. The left is reimagining everything. The left reimagines pyrite and thinks it is gold, fools gold. They are the fools.

    Just listen to the Democrats of today that are reimagining fiat currency represents wealth, thinking they can print whatever money is needed.

  13. “a Rotunda in our flagship building that lauds wealthy White men in the nation’s founding while marginalizing BIPOC, women, and other communities.

    Talk about the big lie. .

    All of the this is nothing but gaslighting. You can claim anything is racist. And please do. Every time some person that has spent their life in academia, declares a building as luading Wealthy White Males, just adds a data point proving racism is all but disappeared. The best they got is lies.

  14. The National Archives belong to ALL Americans. I am done with the elitist know it all crowd hell bent on destroying this country.

    The bubble wrap should be saved for bone heads who came up with such a stupid idea.

  15. “Our greatest happiness does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed us, but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, occupation, and freedom in all just pursuits.”

    – Thomas Jefferson

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