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Where: Minnesota History Center, 345 Kellogg Blvd. W., St. Paul

Cost: The exhibit is included in the price of admission: $11 adults, $9 seniors and college students, and $6 children ages 6 to 17. Free Tuesdays from 5 to 8 p.m.; free for society members and for children younger than 5.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday except holidays.

Special event: A lecture and discussion are set for 2 p.m. Saturday. Historian Saul Cornell of Fordham University will discuss what the Founding Fathers might say about how the U.S. Constitution "operates in a 21st-century world they could never have imagined."

Contact: 651-259-3000

Rare documents on display give a glimpse into early U.S. history

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON
  • Star Tribune
  • April 18, 2012 - 9:10 PM

The past is present in a dimly lit room at the Minnesota History Center with a rare convergence of renowned civic documents.

The Minnesota Constitution along with the first printing of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights all can be seen in the "We the People" exhibit through July 4th.

The exhibit takes up just a room but holds powerful stories and history.

"It's small but it's gem-like; it's not often people can see these documents together without going to D.C.," said Danielle Dart, public programs associate at the center.

Intrinsic historic significance notwithstanding, the documents also prove that past is prologue and should give comfort to those who fret today about what they consider to be divisive partisan politics.

For example, the state has two copies of the Minnesota Constitution that were submitted to the federal government. The two are identical, but the era's version of Democrats and Republicans so disliked each other that they refused to get into a room together and sign the same document. So one party's members signed one and another signed the other.

A "lack of civility," Dart noted wryly, "is something we've done before."

On display also are the notes from the debate about the content of the state's Constitution. If someone wanted to read about how legislators decided who could vote, the book includes that information.

Indians were allowed to vote provided they "embraced the habits of civilization" by cutting their hair and farming, Dart said. Women, of course, were not allowed to vote and after a huge debate, state lawmakers decided against allowing "free black men" to vote.

Nearby, but also under protective cover, are the U.S. Constitution and a draft of the Bill of Rights.

"This would have given American citizens the first glimpse of what our government was to become," Dart said. About 500 copies were printed and distributed for public comment in 1787. Only eight copies remain.

After two years of comment and debate, the federal government's three branches came to be in 1789. Dart said U.S. citizens engaged in strenuous debate but remarkably "there was no bloodshed, no second revolution."

The Bill of Rights sprang from those discussions and in the early 1789 draft on display at the History Center, the right to free speech isn't the First Amendment. That came later.

The version by then-Virginia representative James Madison, referred to a "well-regulated militia composed of the body of the people." The right to bear arms became the Second Amendment, but debate came later on whether the founders meant for the right to be collective or individual.

Leaving the exhibit this week, Charles and Maxine Rademacher of Cannon Falls, Minn., came out intrigued. "It's something you never really look at," Charles said.

Maxine found the use of language interesting and was surprised to learn that the debate lasted two years. "I was impressed with the time it took," she said.

Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson

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