Underneath a government building in Washington, D.C., lies a vault that is strong enough to withstand an atomic blast. Each night, a door opens, and three precious documents are then secreted inside. And, in fact, these documents represent the very foundations of the United States as a country.
The vault is located beneath the National Archives Building – a neoclassical structure built in the American capital in the 1930s. As for the origins of the subterranean chamber, it was commissioned in 1952 when officials at the archives were looking for a safe place in which to house some of their most valuable exhibits.
So the officials turned to the Mosler Safe Company for a solution. The Ohio-based firm had in fact previously built a bank vault in the Japanese city of Hiroshima – a vault that had withstood the atomic bomb blast of 1945, no less. Furthermore, the company was also responsible for safeguarding gold at Fort Knox, the United States’ famous Bullion Depository in Kentucky.
The system that the Mosler Safe Company came up with was certainly secure. As a matter of fact, the firm constructed a 55-ton vault out of reinforced concrete and steel and installed it 20 feet below the National Archives Building.
When the vault was built, the United States was living under the fear and uncertainty of the Cold War. So in line with security concerns of the time, the chamber was constructed to be able to survive the blast of a bomb as well as other shocks and fire.
During the day, the vault’s contents were exhibited above ground in a display hall within the National Archives Building. However, at night something pretty amazing happened. A button was pressed, and a special elevator then drew the priceless artifacts down into the safety of the vault.
But what historical relics could possibly require such an intense level of protection? Well, in a nutshell, this special vault was designed to house what are among the most valuable documents in the U.S.: the Charters of Freedom.
The Charters of Freedom consist of three of the most significant documents in American history. Together, the United States Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution enshrine the very principles on which modern America was built.
The oldest of the three documents is the Declaration of Independence, which was ratified on July 4, 1776. Before then, the 13 colonies that made up the east coast of North America had been subject to British rule.
In 1775, however, the American Revolutionary War broke out, and the colonies declared themselves independent. The Declaration, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, was the official statement of this fact.
In that momentous document, Jefferson laid out the colonies’ reasons for wanting to break from the United Kingdom. The Declaration also, of course, contains the famous statement that “all men are created equal.” And this proclamation is in fact thought to be among the most well-known sentences ever written in the English language.
Now although Jefferson made several drafts of the Declaration, there is one copy that is widely regarded as the original. Signed by 56 members of Congress, this version makes up a third of the trio of highly treasured documents that sit in the National Archive’s vaults.
The second notable document in the collection is the original copy of the United States Constitution. Signed by delegates from 12 of the 13 states on September 17, 1787, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the document outlines many of the laws that still form the backbone of the United States’ legal system today.
The purpose of the Constitution was to unite a divided America, engendering one national government to bring together the different states. And the four-page-long document was in fact the first of its type ever to be created.
Over the years, the Constitution has been modified 27 times, with each change simply added on to the end of the original 1787 document. And today, these pages remain housed in the National Archives alongside the Declaration of Independence and a third iconic document: the Bill of Rights.
After the signing of the original Constitution, there were concerns among Anti-Federalists that the document gave the United States government excessive power. So to address this issue, a series of amendments were proposed that became known as the Bill of Rights.
Consisting of ten amendments, the Bill of Rights aimed to protect personal freedoms and place certain restrictions on governmental power. Many of the rights that we take for granted today, such as the rights to freedom of speech and religion, were in fact first enshrined here.
Originally, 14 copies of the Bill of Rights were made – one for each of the 13 states and an additional copy for Congress. And the latter copy found its way to the National Archives, where it has been on display since 1952.
At the National Archives, the Charters of Freedom were encased in hermetically sealed compartments to prevent deterioration. However, conservators then began to notice damage to the glass cases, and in 2001 the documents were removed so that vital preservation work could be carried out.
In today’s age of security fears, the Charters are apparently seen as a potential target, and even more rigorous security measures have been taken to protect them. Hence, when not on display, they are now housed in a brand-new $110 million vault – although the exact details of the system are top secret.