Courtesy of National Archives

The National Archives calls its display the Charters of Freedom, the founding documents of this old and crazy democracy that we live in. They are the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which is really the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. I visited the National Archives in Washington DC last month as part of reporting on my government secrecy project. My handler there brought me up to the Rotunda, where these holiest of holy scraps of parchment are displayed before crowds of tourists and schoolchildren. 

It seemed a good time to check in with the First Amendment, one that's dear to my heart, given the mounting attacks on free expression here and around the world. In the low light of the display case, I strained my eyes to be sure I glimpsed two words.

Speech. Press.

Yes, they were still there. As they have been since 1789. Though this version of the Bill of Rights has them as the Third Amendment. The first two weren't approved, so No. 3 moved to No. 1, which is where it stayed.  

Those words have sustained this nation and made the U.S. tradition of free expression a model for the rest of the world. Looking at them in the original gave me a frisson of happiness, in our age of polarization and anxiety.   

To help you celebrate Independence Day, here's the entire text of the First Amendment:  

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

And if you can't make it to Washington, you can download high-resolution copies of the Charters of Freedom here.

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