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New York Museum Displays Freedom Theme in US History - 2002-12-18

Freedom and how its meaning for Americans has evolved through generations, is on exhibit in New York. That city's historical society has opened a display on the central concept of the U.S. Constitution.

One of the exhibition's early highlights is a hand written letter from President George Washington to a friend, dated September 9, 1786. In it, he declares, I never mean to possess another slave by purchase, it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by which slavery in this country may be abolished.

The letter, which predates the abolition of slavery in the United States by almost 80 years, is intriguing because George Washington is not typically associated with the anti-slavery movement. In fact, he owned many slaves. But seeing the pencil strokes of the nation's first president up close, in an intimate letter to a friend on such a controversial subject, can be stirring to those who see it.

Exhibition co-curator James Basker says the exhibition, entitled Freedom: A History of Us, is all about this kind of tangible connection between people of the past and those of the present.

"A connection with real human beings who made the decisions and fought the fights to acquire, to defend, and to extend freedom in the past. Whether you're talking about George Washington or Phyllis Wheatley or Frederick Douglas or Martin Luther King, Jr., these are real people, and by looking at these documents in their handwriting, even imagining the sweat stains on a stump speech of Abraham Lincoln's, makes it more real," Mr. Basker said.

The exhibition covers a period of roughly 200 years, from a rare 1776 printing of the Declaration of Independence, to a placard bearing the words, "I am a man," carried in a sanitation workers' march led by civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr.. The march took place on April 4, 1968. Later in the day, Dr. King was assassinated.

Susan Saidenberg, exhibit co-curator, said the collection's strength is found in items dating from the Civil War era when freedom in America was being simultaneously re-enforced and re-defined - 90 years after the Constitution was adopted.

"Americans, even during the Civil War, believed that they were still fighting to defend the U.S. Constitution and a republic that gave equal rights. Ninety years later, these men were thinking I'm fighting for the Constitution, I'm fighting for the flag. And that's a very important part of what freedom was," Ms. Saidenberg said.

In a letter to his pregnant wife dated November 16, 1861, a United States soldier writes, "I hope that you will not feel sad that I am not with you as your friends' husbands are with them. Remember that you have more cause to rejoice, that you have a husband contending for the Constitution and flag of his country."

Also on display is a three by 1.5 meter Abolitionist flag from 1859, with 20 stars and nine stripes, representing the states that had already criminalized slavery. Curator James Basker calls the discovery of the flag, in an Ohio hotel in 1996, miraculous. Like many of the other items, he says, the flag survived only because it was initially misplaced.

"Many times these survivals come about because something is lost. It's found tucked down a side drawer, in the back of a file drawer, down the back of a piece of furniture. So it can't be handled, it can't be destroyed, or worn out. It gets accidentally preserved, so they turn up like time capsules," Mr. Basker said.

During all crises in the United States - the Civil War, the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the 2001 terrorist attacks - Americans debate the question of curtailing their freedoms in order to maintain a safe and secure homeland. Co-curator Susan Saidenberg says that when curators were assembling this collection, the issue was in the forefront of their minds.

"Here are Americans over a period of 200 years who have sacrificed, in some cases, their lives, for freedom. And as we think about what our freedoms are today, what do we really want to protect? What do we want to preserve? How do our rights impinge on other people's rights? I went back and looked at the documents in the collection, and it's clear that there is a long story of freedom in this country, but the definition has expanded and changed enormously," Ms. Saidenberg said.

All of the items in Freedom: A History of Us come from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and the Meserve-Kunhardt Collection. The exhibition will run in conjunction with an eight week public television series of the same name, scheduled to air early next year.