February 22, 1861 – George Washington’s birthday – Abraham Lincoln stood in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia on his inaugural journey from Springfield, Illinois to Washington, D.C. He had won the presidential election in a divided country without the support of a single southern state.
Moved by the historical significance of Independence Hall, Lincoln said, “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” He spoke of the notion of a new nation that promised hope to the world with equal opportunity for all and chillingly stated, “Can this country be saved upon that basis? If it can, I will consider myself one of the happiest men in the world if I can help to save it. If it can’t be saved upon that principle, it will be truly awful. But, if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle…I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it.”
The freedom and equality for all that was promised in the Declaration of Independence was skirted in the original U.S. Constitution by not addressing the issue of slavery. In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln revived the topic and spoke of a “new birth of freedom” in the nation. That promise was ultimately fulfilled and enshrined in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution that ended slavery, required states to respect individual rights, promised equal protection to all people, and expanded the right to vote to African-American men.
The National Constitution Center, the only museum in the country dedicated to the groundbreaking U.S. document, focuses on the constitutional debates from this turbulent era of American history with a new permanent exhibit Civil War and Reconstruction: The Battle for Freedom and Equality. The exhibit begins with the rising tensions over slavery, which brought about the bloodiest war in American history, and then explores the period after the Civil War when the country attempted to rebuild and passed transformative Reconstruction Amendments.
The exhibit is illustrated with remarkable artifacts and rare documents from the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia – one of the largest, private Civil War collections in America.
Items on display include:
• Original copies of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments
• Dred Scott’s signed petition for freedom
• A fragment of the flag that Abraham Lincoln raised at Independence Hall in 1861
• A ballot box marked “colored” from Virginia’s first statewide election that allowed black men to vote in 1867.
• Interactive elements that delve into the drafting of each of the three Reconstruction Amendments
In addition to key figures in the conflict over slavery such as Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, the exhibit brings to life the stories of lesser-known individuals who fought for equality during Reconstruction, such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.
Starting on June 19 (Juneteenth—the holiday that commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the Confederacy), visitors can also experience FOURTEEN, an emotional theatrical performance with dramatic readings that are focused on the Reconstruction era and the ratification of the 14th Amendment.
The Civil War and Reconstruction exhibit is adjacent to the American Treasures gallery, which features the five rarest original drafts of the Constitution and joins the National Constitution Center’s other permanent exhibits including The Story of We the People and Signers’ Hall, as well as engaging temporary programs like Hamilton: The Constitutional Clashes That Shaped a Nation, which explores the debates and clashes between Alexander Hamilton and his rivals that helped form the United States, on display through December 31, 2019.
In 2020, the National Constitution Center continues its mission to present the “greatest vision of human freedom in history” with a gallery that tells the story of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.
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