Records of Rights

Permanent Exhibit
David M. Rubenstein Gallery

Records of Rights: A Permanent Exhibition in the David M. Rubenstein Gallery

In “Records of Rights,” explore how generations of Americans sought to fulfill the promise of the founding documents. The David M. Rubenstein Gallery exhibition showcases original and facsimile National Archives documents and uses an innovative 17-foot-long touch-screen interactive table to illustrate how Americans have debated about and fought for rights like free speech, religion, and equality.

Preview some of the featured documents in the "Records of Rights" Online Exhibit.

Magna Carta

1297 Magna Carta

Begin your exploration of "Records of Rights" by viewing an original 1297 Magna Carta, on display courtesy of David M. Rubenstein.

 

 

Landmark Document Case

See the historic 15th Amendment, which prohibits the Federal government and the states from denying the right to vote based on "race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

Let us not commit ourselves to the absurd and senseless dogma that the color of the skin shall be the basis of suffrage, the talisman of liberty.

—James A. Garfield, 1865

 

Joint resolution proposing the Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution
Joint Resolution Proposing the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution
National Archives, General Records of the U.S. Government
 

With the abolition of slavery and the ratification of the 14th Amendment, more than 4 million African Americans were granted U.S. citizenship. In the South especially, where African Americans made up a large part of the population, states passed laws restricting their right to vote.

Ratified in 1870, the 15th Amendment made it illegal to deny someone the right to vote based on race. For about 20 years, the 15th Amendment successfully protected the rights of African American male voters, who elected many black politicians to public office.

However, Southern states soon enacted new laws that effectively prevented African Americans from voting. Poll taxes and literacy tests largely silenced black Americans’ political voices for nearly 75 years.

 

Photograph of First African-American Senator Hiram Revels
Photograph of First African-American Senator Hiram Revels
National Archives, Records of the U.S. Information Agency

Appointed to fill a vacant seat when Mississippi was readmitted to the Union, Hiram Revels became the first black senator in the United States in 1870. The Mississippi legislature elected to appoint Revels by a wide margin. Black legislators believed that having Revels in the Senate would work against discrimination, while Southern Democrats believed he would weaken the Republican Party. Revels proved to be a competent senator, however, and was perceived as a representative for African Americans across the country. A teacher and a pastor, Revels advocated for better educational opportunities for African Americans.

 

Telegram from Augustus C. Johnson in Favor of Abolition of the Poll Tax, page 1, 1962
Telegram from Augustus C. Johnson in Favor of Abolition of the Poll Tax, page 1, 1962
National Archives, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives
Telegram from Augustus C. Johnson in Favor of Abolition of the Poll Tax, page 2, 1962
Telegram from Augustus C. Johnson in Favor of Abolition of the Poll Tax, page 2, 1962
National Archives, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives

In this 1962 telegram, Augustus C. Johnson called for an end to the poll tax in Virginia, highlighting the tax’s true purpose: to “curtail the vote” of black Americans. When drafting the 15th Amendment, advocates of a constitutional right to vote and those who wanted the states to determine voting rights had to compromise. While prohibiting racial discrimination, the 15th Amendment does not prohibit states from restricting voting rights for other reasons. This wording allowed Southern states to effectively disenfranchise African Americans through measures such as poll taxes and literacy tests.