Dec. 15, 2016, marked the 225th anniversary of the ratification of the first 10 amendments to the United States Constituion, better known as the Bill of Rights.
In commemoration, the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C. created an exhibit called “Amending America: The Bill of Rights.” Until 2017, “Amending America” was only featured in the district, but now the exhibit is in the middle of a seven-week run at the Jewish Museum of Maryland in downtown Baltimore, a venue much more fitting for this subject matter than one might assume.
Before becoming the JMM’s executive director, Marvin Pinkert was the director of the National Archives Experience, an effort to enhance the visitor experience at the Archives, for more than 11 years. Although the research for “Amending America” by curator Christine Blackerby didn’t begin until after Pinkert left the National Archives in 2012, the exhibit was one of the last projects for which Pinkert gave the green light.
Pinkert said it wasn’t until he began working for National Archives that he had any extensive knowledge of the Bill of Rights. He recalled an interview from his first days at National Archives in which a Texas radio reporter asked him why the Bill of Rights on display in the Rotunda at the National Archives had 12 amendments, not 10.
“I said, ‘It has what?’” he laughed. “The conversation went downhill from there. But it embarrassed me into actually understanding a little bit more about the Bill of Rights.”
The answer Pinkert could not conjure years ago is that originally there were 12 proposed articles Congress considered making into Constitutional amendments. Only 10 of those articles were ratified to become the Bill of Rights, on Dec. 15, 1791. A detailed facsimile of the aforementioned primary document is on display at the Jewish Museum.
The exhibit features many facsimiles rather than primary documents since the originals are considered too rare and valuable to travel. Pinkert assured, however, that the recreations were crafted with utmost attention to detail. “They’re a long way from being a Xerox,” he said.
A different wing of the exhibit illustrates examples in which the precedents set by the first 10 amendments to the Constitution have been implemented throughout United States history.
Examples include when the blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Lillian Hellman invoked her Fifth Amendment right during the McCarthy-era Red Scare trials of the 1950s, and the passage of Roe v. Wade, which determined that a woman’s decision to have an abortion was considered a right to privacy under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.
The arrival of the “Amending America” exhibit provided the Jewish Museum with an opportunity to unveil a related pamphlet about the Maryland Jew Bill, a bill that after its passage in 1826 halted the practice of requiring Maryland legislators to declare belief in the Christian religion upon taking office.
“One of the key things to remember here is that until the 14th Amendment is ratified, the interpretation of the courts was that the Constitution and its amendments applied at the federal level and not at the state level,” said Pinkert. “If you were Jewish, you could run to be president of the United States, but you couldn’t run to be dogcatcher in Maryland.”
The pamphlet about the Jew Bill and a corresponding lecture by “On Middle Ground” co-author Eric Goldstein are part of a series of programming by the Jewish Museum that will run in conjunction with the “Amending America” exhibit.
“One of the things we’ve done with our programming is to focus on some of the Jewish leaders who, in the period since the amendments were ratified, were influential in the interpretation of those amendments,” said Pinkert.
During the JT’s tour of the exhibit, Pinkert pointed out modern-day examples of the Bill of Rights in the news.
“It struck me, since the day we’ve opened the exhibit, there hasn’t been a day when one of the 10 amendments isn’t in the news,” he said, citing President Donald Trump’s insinuation that the raid of lawyer Michael Cohen’s office was not in line with the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, and Cohen’s subsequent announcement that he will plead the Fifth Amendment in court.
“Amending America” also features a display with magazines, comic books and other forms of media that call into question the freedom of the press under the First Amendment. According to Pinkert, the United States has found cause for hearings in Congress every decade or so on a different form of media that is supposedly corrupting youth. Aside from libel, he said, most attempts to ban such publications have been defeated.
“We had a series of hearings on comic books, a series of hearings on radio, a series of hearings on television,” he said before adding coyly, “I’m pretty sure there’s also been one dealing with the internet, I’m not positive.”