- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 14, 2006

NEW YORK (AP) — Since becoming the nation’s chief archivist, Allen Weinstein has embarked on a campaign to expand what he calls “civic literacy” — teaching people to better understand and appreciate the origins and meaning of American democracy.

Where better to offer such a class than on the site of the Wall Street building where the U.S. government was founded and George Washington was inaugurated as the first president? And who better to be there than the latest crop of immigrants to take their own oath of allegiance to the Stars and Stripes?

Yesterday, about 80 immigrants from 30 countries officially became Americans against a unique historical backdrop — a parchment copy of the first amendments to the Constitution as ratified by New York’s state legislature in March 1790.

New citizens, meet the Bill of Rights.

“It sends chills up my spine. It seems to me there could be no more appropriate setting for the reaffirmation of the values that this country has always lived by and will continue to live by,” said Mr. Weinstein, a son of Russian immigrants who has made the advocacy of American ideals his life’s work as a university professor, prolific author and self-described “democracy activist.”

He said the symbolism should be most meaningful to new citizens making the transition from countries controlled by dictators and repressive regimes, where there is nothing resembling an American-style bill of rights.

“The first questions that many people ask about the United States are about the rights that Americans have, and can they have those rights for themselves,” Mr. Weinstein said.

Australian-born musician and actor Ian Phillip Stephen, who was among those taking the oath yesterday, called it “a tremendously big deal for me,” especially at a historic site like Federal Hall.

Although the original Federal Hall was torn down in the early 19th century and replaced by the U.S. Customs House that stands there today, a statue of Washington marks the spot where in 1789, Congress first met to establish the federal government, and he took the oath of office as president.

New York’s ratification document normally rests among other priceless artifacts at the National Archives. It comes back to the city for the first time in 217 years, and visitors will have only four days to view the original before it is returned to its vault in Washington, said Susan Cooper, a spokeswoman for the Archives.

Once the document goes back, a facsimile will replace it in a permanent interactive exhibit.

The U.S. Constitution was signed and sealed in Philadelphia in 1787, but delegates from the 13 states continued fierce debate over its lack of a declaration of “individual rights” to protect citizens from government oppression — the issue that had spawned the American Revolution.

Thomas Jefferson joined fellow Virginian James Madison, author of the Constitution, in successfully arguing for the list of amendments to protect freedom of speech, religion, assembly and other personal liberties.

Mr. Weinstein said its display at Federal Hall was “an incredibly exciting prospect” in view of that site’s history in the creation of American democracy.

“We want people to be inspired by the origins of their country,” he said.

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