Preserving the Constitution

It's reassuring that the National Archives has chosen this moment to begin rebuilding the display cases holding the original parchment copies of the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence. What more appropriate time than when those foundations of American democracy have been so passionately invoked within the Capitol.

House managers frequently cited the Constitution in their prosecution. Presidential defender Charles Ruff responded to the Senate with a metaphor: "We are together, I think, the weavers of a constitutional fabric in which all of us now are clothed and generations will be clothed for millennia to come." Leave no flaw in that fabric, he intoned, or later it will spread.

The presence, or absence, of any flaws will be debated for years, if not millennia. But the nation's archivists have an easier - if technologically complex - task: trying to prevent flaws from spreading in the documents themselves. They know the old 1952 showcases were admitting chemical reactants that would slowly weaken the parchment. So, with design work now under way, by 2003 the founding documents will have new titanium or aluminum cases filled with chemically inert argon gas and just the right level of humidity. Good for centuries more.

Preserving the actual documents, of course, is only a symbolic counterpart of preserving their meaning in the hearts and minds of citizens. The Clinton impeachment trial, for all its controversy, should deepen Americans' regard for the continuing wisdom of constitutional processes.

People who line up each year to view the originals - more than 1.2 million - are a visible sign of that regard.

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