Tennessee treasures on display

Tennessee treasures on display

December 6th, 2012 in Opinion Free Press

Proud Tennesseans and state history buffs have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity this weekend. Beginning today, the state's three original handwritten constitutions -- from 1796, 1834 and 1870 -- are all on public display for the first time.

On Monday, the three brittle documents were carefully digitized, allowing them to be shared online with future generations. The next day, the priceless constitutions were hand delivered from the State Library and Archives next door to the building that houses the Tennessee Supreme Court. The documents received an escort by a detail from the Tennessee Highway Patrol during the journey -- which totaled only a few hundred feet.

The constitutions' rare public appearances are part of a weeklong celebration of the Tennessee Supreme Court that includes the 75th anniversary of the Supreme Court building and the opening of the new Tennessee Judiciary Museum, which is housed inside the building.

These three documents are so much more than just ink on a page. They tell the stories of their times, their authors and of our state. Most importantly, the Tennessee Constitutions have guaranteed and protected our rights and freedoms as Tennesseans for 216 years.

The Tennessee Constitution of 1796 is largely was copy of the North Carolina Constitution, which is understandable since Tennessee was previously the western section of the Tar Heel State. One noticeable difference is Tennessee's "Declaration of Rights," which was modeled on the Pennsylvania Constitution at the request of William Blount. Blount, who was instrumental in petitioning for Tennessee's statehood, was the only man to sign both the United States Constitution and the Tennessee Constitution. While serving in the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Blount shared a desk with his friend Benjamin Franklin, who authored Pennsylvania's Declaration of Rights.

Specifically, the Declaration of Rights states, "That all power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority, and instituted for their peace, safety, and happiness; for the advancement of those ends, they have at all times an unalienable and indefeasible right to alter, reform, or abolish the government in such manner as they may think proper." The dozens of rights protected by the original 32-section Declaration of Rights remain in the Tennessee Constitution today.

Upon reading the original Tennessee Constitution, Thomas Jefferson called it "the least imperfect and most republican" constitution adopted by any of the States.

The 1796 Constitution was noteworthy for disqualifying preachers, atheists and individuals involved in dueling from holding office. The dueling provision didn't stop one of document's signers -- a hotheaded 29-year-old named Andrew Jackson -- from becoming the state's first member of Congress.

The 1834 version of the state constitution tells the tragic loss of the rights of black people in Tennessee. Free black men were originally allowed to vote. The second Tennessee Constitution stripped them of that right. The third, and most recent, overhaul of the state constitution came in 1870, when slavery was officially outlawed in the Volunteer State.

It is interesting to note that members of the 1870 Constitutional Convention -- many of whom were, or would become, state lawmakers -- also snuck in a provision making it illegal to arrest members of the Tennessee General Assembly while the legislature is in session.

The documents are on display, free of charge, on Thursday and Friday from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. and on Monday from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. at the Tennessee Supreme Court, which sits on the grounds of the State Capitol, at 401 Seventh Avenue in Nashville.

This is the first time all three original versions of Tennessee's three Constitutions have been on public display -- and it might be the last.