This article is part of our latest Fine Arts & Exhibits special report, which focuses on how art endures and inspires, even in the darkest of times.
Most Americans know something about the United States Constitution, even if it’s just the preamble beginning with “We the People…” But how many citizens know that the Wyoming State Constitution granted women the right to vote more than 30 years before the 19th Amendment guaranteed it nationwide? Or that the original Louisiana State Constitution mandated that all children, regardless of race, should be educated together?
State Constitutions usually don’t get much attention. But the New-York Historical Society’s exhibition “Colonists, Citizens, Constitutions: Creating the American Republic,” which offers what the institution believes to be the largest public exhibition of state constitutions ever, provides a rare window into the ingenuity and complicated compromises that established the United States.
“It’s a chronological romp through how Americans began to see themselves and how they understood self-governance,” said Louise Mirrer, the chief executive of the Historical Society.
“Colonists, Citizens, Constitutions” opened in February but closed two weeks later because of the pandemic. The fragile historical documents on display were hustled off to dark storage. As fall approached, museum officials had to decide whether they would bring back the show once they were allowed to reopen or move on to the next planned exhibition.
The show’s organizers chose to reopen the exhibition on Sept. 11, giving it a new closing date of Feb. 7, 2021. “We had to disrupt our whole exhibition schedule,” Dr. Mirrer said.
But the issues at the center of the exhibition couldn’t be more relevant, with the 2020 census just concluding, and a presidential election on the horizon. “We thought it was so important,” she said.
Another pertinent element: The foreword for the catalog for “Colonists, Citizens, Constitutions” was written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the Supreme Court, who died in September.
In the foreword, Justice Ginsburg notes that “original Constitutions permitted slavery and severely limited who counted among ‘We the People.’” Although much of that changed as a result of amendments and court decisions — what she calls “huge progress” — “the work of perfection is scarcely done,” she writes. “Many stains remain.”
The exhibition also demonstrates that the road to perfection is not necessarily linear.
“From our perspective today, we can look back and see things that seem to us like progress, and other things that seem to be clearly moving in the wrong direction,” said James Hrdlicka, a curator of the exhibition. “But people in the past didn’t always share those assumptions about what was just, what was equality and what was the ideal form of government.”
The exhibition features 25 state constitutions, along with the U.S. Constitution — one of 13 known remaining copies of the hundreds that were printed for distribution after the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
The documents on display are all part of a private collection of Americana owned by Dorothy Tapper Goldman and her husband, S. Howard Goldman. (Mr. Goldman died in 1997.)
Dr. Hrdlicka, a history lecturer at Arizona State University, said he chose state constitutions that had noteworthy provisions or signaled a historical trend.
For example, nothing in the U.S. Constitution prohibited states from granting women the vote, even though women nationwide were not enfranchised until 1920. In 1889, the Wyoming Constitutional Convention became the first to do so when it declared explicitly in its constitution that this right “shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex.”
“Both male and female citizens of this State,” the document continues, “shall equally enjoy all civil, political and religious rights and privileges.”
Wyoming’s decision, however, might have had more to do with its six-to-one ratio of men to women than with any progressive ideology, Dr. Hrdlicka said. Also, he added, “men who were permanently settled in the territory might have wanted to counterbalance the votes of transient laborers.”
One section of the exhibition focuses on slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, with an emphasis on the experiences and perspectives of African-Americans throughout the entire period. It includes the majority opinion of Chief Justice of the United States Roger B. Taney in the 1857 case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, which determined that Black people could never become American Citizens.
Documents like the Dred Scott decision, as well as early census reports showing the counting of each enslaved American as three-fifths of a person, demonstrate the long series of racial injustices that the United States is still wrestling with today.
“Everything we find ourselves struggling with, you can see here.” Dr. Mirrer said.
The history of the Louisiana Constitution shows that change didn’t always move in the direction of human rights. In a brief period after the Civil War, when African-Americans made up at least half the delegates to the state’s 1868 Constitutional Convention, the state constitution stated that every parish should have at least one public school and that all children between the ages of 6 and 21 should be admitted “without distinction to race, color or previous condition.”
When the Louisiana Constitution was rewritten in 1879, that last clause was removed, and segregated schools became the norm.
“When we look back at this story, it seems extremely messy to us,” Dr. Hrdlicka said. “But it shows that we can’t take for granted that things get more just and more equal — that’s something we have to actively work towards.”
Ms. Goldman said she initially thought she would wait to exhibit her extensive collection until the 250th anniversary of the United States in 2026. Then she reconsidered. “I thought, ‘That’s too late,’” she said. “We have an election in 2020, and perhaps it would help some people understand where we come from and what we have yet to do.”