WASHINGTON (AP) - The only copy of the Magna Carta in the United States is the centerpiece of a new museum gallery that opens Wednesday at the National Archives and traces the evolution of U.S. rights and freedoms.
The archives will open its new "Records of Rights" exhibit in an expanded museum space on the National Mall after more than a year of construction to carve out more space for visitors. The Magna Carta will be shown as the precursor to the freedoms envisioned in the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Magna Carta was the first English charter to directly challenge the monarchy's authority with a declaration of human rights. Noblemen came together in 1215 to declare their rights to King John. The declaration was reissued in 1297, and the copy now at the National Archives was one of four made that year. There are 17 surviving original copies of Magna Carta, including 15 in Britain and one displayed at Australia's parliament.
The display will be surrounded by documents and images exploring the evolution of citizenship, equality and free speech. Three sections detail the nation's progress toward equal rights for African-Americans, women and immigrants. The documents on display will include original discharge papers of a slave who fought in the Revolutionary War to gain his freedom, the 15th Amendment granting black men the right to vote, immigrant census papers and the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act signed by President Barack Obama in 2009 to ensure equal pay for women.
Philanthropist David Rubenstein donated $13.5 million to fund the project and the Magna Carta's conservation. Congress also provided funds for the museum space.
Rubenstein bought the historic document at auction in 2007 for $21 million and sent it to the National Archives on a long-term loan. It was previously owned by Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot. Rubenstein said he wanted to keep the document from leaving the country.
Magna Carta became a precedent for the concept of freedom under law as envisioned by America's founding fathers, according to historians. American University law professor Stephen Vladeck has said it's the first example, at least in the Western Hemisphere, of a monarch agreeing to abide by legal rules written by others.