This year, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) posted a blanket “Harmful Language Alert” on its website for U.S. government documents, including on pages displaying the U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence. On a page last updated on July 29, 2021, NARA posted a new Statement on Potentially Harmful Language, which warns website visitors:
[S]ome items may: reflect racist, sexist, ableist, misogynistic/misogynoir, and xenophobic opinions and attitudes; be discriminatory towards or exclude diverse views on sexuality, gender, religion, and more.
NARA is a federal agency charged with preservation of U.S. government documents; the agency also runs a museum containing the original U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence. After members of the public began to inquire about this notice on the U.S. Constitution, NARA responded on Twitter:
This alert is not connected to any specific records, but appears at the top of the page while you are using the online Catalog.
NARA adopted this blanket warning for all items in the catalog, which was one the recommendations in the 105-page April 2021 Archivist’s Task Force on Racism Report. This report also criticizes the museum’s “Rotunda in our flagship building that lauds wealthy White men in the nation’s founding while marginalizing BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color], women, and other communities” as well as “Its reverential, quasi-religious treatment of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights [which it says] does not adequately reflect a full history of the founding of the United States.”
Other recommendations in the report include no longer using the language “Charters of Freedom” for the Rotunda, and development of a style guide to “denote anti-racist terminology (e.g., use of “enslaved people” rather than “slaves”).
No such global disclaimer appears on the federal government websites run by the Library of Congress, or the U.S. Supreme Court, both of which also display the Constitution. Lawmakers, judges, and scholars vigorously disagree about the best ways to interpret and apply the document.
David Azerrad, an Assistant Professor and Research Fellow at Hillsdale College’s Van Andel Graduate School of Government, has stated:
Nowhere in the Constitution—or in the Declaration of Independence, for that matter—are human beings classified according to race, skin color, or ethnicity (nor, one should add, sex, religion, or any other of the left’s favored groupings). Our founding principles are colorblind (although our history, regrettably, has not been).
Danielle Allen, James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University and Director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, has indicated that “When union and policy commitments come into conflict, those who wish to preserve free self-government must choose union.” Despite criticizing some provisions, Allen defends the Constitution for its “flawed genius” as:
the world’s greatest teaching document for one part of the story of freedom: the question of how free and equal citizens check and channel power both to protect themselves from domination by one another and to secure their mutual protection from external forces that might seek their domination.
The separation of state and federal governmental powers is central to our Constitution, and the document was written to preserve the freedom of “We the People.” The Framers—emphasizing that people are not angels—had foresight to establish a process whereby a diverse country could work together under the Constitution and at times amend it in order to “form a more perfect union.”
Don’t stop reading at the disclaimer on the Archives webpage. And don’t stop reading if you find something offensive in these foundational documents. If you do, you might miss later parts of the full documents—like the Reconstruction Amendments, which established freedoms which brought together a fractured country after blood was shed on both sides during the Civil War. You might miss the First Amendment, which permits freedom of speech for those who disagree and allows even unpopular dissenters to convince others to change the law of the United States.