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History on display

Okay, dagnabit, this working-for-a-living-bit can be really annoying. Because there is absolutely nothing in this world The Legal Genealogist would like more than to be in Tennessee tomorrow. Or Friday. Or Saturday. Or Monday.

Tennessee Constitution, approved 1835

Because on any one of those four days, for the very first time, the public will be able to see the original handwritten versions of all three Tennessee state constitutions.

The first was adopted in early 1796, by a convention, in the hopes of winning approval of the United States Congress for Tennessee’s admission to the Union as a state.1

It’s a remarkable document for its time: all free male landowners — regardless of race — were eligible to vote; and its Declaration of Rights included an assertion “That, government being instituted for the common benefit, the doctrine of non-resistance against arbitrary power and oppression is absurd, slavish, and destructive to the good and happiness of mankind.”2

And, of critical importance to the residents of a landlocked state, it provided “That an equal participation of the free navigation of the Mississippi is one of the inherent rights of the citizens of this State; it cannot, therefore, be conceded to any prince, potentate, power, person, or persons whatever.”3

And it worked; Tennessee was admitted by statute approved 1 June 1796.4

The second was written in convention in 1834 and adopted by the voters in 1835. It gave more opportunities to the average citizen, but limited those opportunities to white men. The black men who had voted since 1796 lost the right to vote in this Constitution.5 But it kept the provision “That an equal participation of the free navigation of the Mississippi, is one of the inherent rights of the citizens of this State: it cannot, therefore, be conceded to any prince, potentate, power, person or persons whatever.”6

The third and last of Tennessee’s Constitutions, still in effect today, is the Constitution of 1870, adopted in convention on 23 February 1870.7 Like its predecessors, it contained a detailed Declaration of Rights and this one declared:

• “That elections shall be free and equal, and the right of suffrage, as hereinafter declared, shall never be denied to any person entitled thereto…”8

• “That slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, are forever prohibited in this State.”9

• “The General Assembly shall make no law recognizing the right of property in man.”10

Amazing documents. And never on public display. Until tomorrow. And for four days only. Once those days are over, the documents will go back to a very secure vault in the very secure Tennessee State Library and museum visitors will see copies only.

And if you don’t think security for documents like these is an issue, consider this: the documents were moved, by hand, yesterday, with a Tennessee Highway Patrol detail standing guard.11

It’s part of the opening celebration for a new museum, the Tennessee Judiciary Museum, which opens today in the Tennessee Supreme Court Building in Nashville, with public access starting tomorrow. According to a press release from the Court, the museum is “a project of the Tennessee Supreme Court Historical Society in cooperation with the Tennessee State Library and Archives and the Tennessee State Museum.” According to Supreme Court Chief Justice Gary Wade, the museum will “tell the story of the Tennessee courts from the perspective of the judges, the lawyers and the litigants.”12

Now the whole idea of being able to go and see those original constitutions is so appealing. But in case you’re teetering on the edge, let me throw in a few other little tidbits. You’ll also get to see a display of court records from Tennessee’s early history centering on a land dispute involving Andrew Jackson, and artifacts and documents from the appeal in the case of State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes.13

Yeah, that John Scopes. The high school teacher prosecuted for teaching evolution. In 1925, he was convicted and fined $100, and appealed, challenging the law on constitutional grounds. In 1927, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law — but overturning the conviction on technical grounds. The anti-evolution law wasn’t repealed in Tennessee until 1967.14

The address for the Tennessee Supreme Court building is 401 Seventh Ave, Nashville, 37219, at the corner of Charlotte Avenue, and the hours for the public exhibition are:

Thursday December 6, 8 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Friday, December 7, 8 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Saturday, December 8, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Monday, December 10, 8 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

Okay… somebody want to take over my law school class for me tonight? I need to check on round trip airfare to Tennessee…


Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Note: With a big tip of the hat to Gordon Belt, Director of Public Services for the Tennessee State Library & Archives. See Gordon Belt, “Tennessee’s founding documents on display…,” The Posterity Project, posted 28 Nov 2012 ( : accessed 4 Dec 2012).

  1. See “Historical Note: Tennessee Constitution of 1796,” Tennessee State Library and Archives ( : accessed 4 Dec 2012).
  2. Tennessee Constitution, 1796, Article XI, § 2.
  3. Ibid., Article XI, § 29.
  4. An Act for the admission of the State of Tennessee into the Union,” 1 Stat. 491 (1796); digital images, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875,” Library of Congress, American Memory ( : accessed 4 Dec 2012).
  5. The Tennessee Constitution of 1834: Historical Note,” Tennessee State Library and Archives ( : accessed 4 Dec 2012).
  6. Tennessee Constitution, 1835, Article I, § 29.
  7. Tennessee Founding Documents : Constitution of the State of Tennessee,” Tennessee Blue Book 2011-2012, PDF version, 609 ( : accessed 4 Dec 2012).
  8. Tennessee Constitution, 1870, Article I, § 5.
  9. Ibid., § 33.
  10. Ibid., § 34.
  11. Tennessee Constitutions Moved For First-Ever Public Display,” Tennessee State Courts, posted 3 Dec 2012 ( : accessed 4 Dec 2012).
  12. Supreme Court Building in Nashville to mark 75 years,” Tennessee State Courts, posted 30 Oct 2012 ( : accessed 4 Dec 2012).
  13. Ibid.
  14. Tennessee Acts of 1967, chapter 237, set out at “Tennessee Evolution Statutes” ( : accessed 4 Dec 2012).
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