Copies of the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights are part of a new exhibit at the state archives called, “Our Common Wealth: The Massachusetts Experiment in Democracy.” John Adams and John Hancock – two of the nation’s founding fathers born two years apart in what is now Quincy – both feature prominently in the museum.
In 1775, John Adams traveled on horseback from Braintree to Philadelphia for the first Continental Congress. War with England loomed and the decision to declare independence rested heavily on the future president.
Still, Adams managed to take detailed notes of his expenses during that 320-mile ride. His records, now on display at the state’s Commonwealth Museum, include listings such as 10 pounds to pay his servant and 30 pounds for lodging in Philadelphia.
This yellowed account, along with copies of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Bill of Rights, are part of a new exhibit at the state archives called “Our Common Wealth: The Massachusetts Experiment in Democracy.”
Adams and John Hancock – two of the nation’s founding fathers born two years apart in what is now Quincy, are prominently featured in exhibits showcasing the characters and debates that defined Massachusetts and United States.
“The more I study the Revolution, the more convinced I am it began here because it could not have begun anywhere else,” historian Robert J. Allison said at the museum’s opening last week. “It would be a much different story if Massachusetts didn’t have this tradition of self-governance.”
The $4 million, four-year project displays documents formerly stashed in the state archives. The Commonwealth Museum’s opening exhibit contains historic treasures valued at $100 million.
Guests enter the museum through a re-creation of the Arbella, the ship that brought the Massachusetts charter to the Pilgrims from England in 1630. The exhibit has five main sections, including a dimly lit display of copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Massachusetts Constitution, the commonwealth’s charter from 1629, and an updated charter dating to 1691.
In addition, four areas detail the state’s involvement in the establishment of the colonies, the sparking of the revolution, the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, and the advancing of civil rights in the 19th century. Visitors can take part in interactive games.
Museum director Stephen Kenney said schools have already planned field trips to the site.
“Now that I’m older, I’m a little more interested than when I was in school,” said Lynn Santamaria, who traveled from Bellingham to visit the exhibit on Wednesday. “I’d definitely bring my kids here.”
Visitors can learn about the 1780 debate over the Massachusetts Constitution, which was written by Adams. His hometown of Braintree was one of the last South Shore towns to ratify the state constitution, on June 5, 1780.
Weymouth and Milton had voted for the document on May 22, followed nine days later by Stoughton. Each of the towns held a meeting to discuss the constitution, the text of which can be read on a touch screen at the museum.
IF YOU GO
What: Commonwealth Museum, state archives
Where: 220 Morrissey Boulevard, Boston
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays; 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month. New exhibit opens Monday.
For more info: Call 617-727-9268 or visit commonwealthmuseum.org
Hancock is also featured in a touch-screen game called “Patriot or Tory?” Visitors can choose Hancock from a number of historical figures and answer questions that he would have faced during the lead-up to war with England.
“Many of these documents have stories,” Pulitzer prize-winning historian David Hackett Fischer said. “They tell stories about the commonwealth itself. ...(The documents) open the possibility for people to discover the way their lives interact with others and the larger history.”
Excerpt: Braintree town leaders’ 1780 response to proposed state constitution
The text of Braintree town leaders’ official response to the Massachusetts Constitution on June 5, 1780, when they ratified it – despite their misgivings:
“‘Tho’ the following are, in the opinion of your Comtee, of great importance & such as they wish to take place, yet, being impressed with the necessity of having a new, & better, form of Governmt than the present; they also Report, as their opinion, ‘tis better to accept the new Constitution, without any alteration, than to remain any longer under the present…
“The voice of the people, So far as may be, to be preserved, similar to that mentioned concerning Senators: And for similar reasons… Nominations to office, to be posted up, in public view, in the Secretaries Office, 14 days previous to their being appointed. R. such postings will give opportunity for obtaining the true character of the persons.
“The inventions of wicked Men have been frequently employed in devising means to evade written Laws; & in young States they have more frequently succeeded, than in Old; they, from time to time, improve their Statute Law – providing against such mal-doers - & transplanting (so far as human frailty will permit) into their written codes, the body of natural Law; but from a consciousness of the imperfection of their codes, the best Governments have provided Courts of Equity, to soften the rigour of Written Law, & to act upon such parts of natural Law, as have not been rendered sufficiently clear & plain in their Statutes.”
These changes to the state Constitution were suggested:
“Instead of, “safety &tranquility, their natural rights, & the blessings of life”: say, in greater safety and tranquility, all those rights, properties & blessings of life, for the secure enjoyment of which, they enter into civil society. The reason. Men, when they enter into civil Society, relinquish some of their natural rights, in order to their more secure enjoyment of the remainder.
The document ended:
“At a Meeting of the Town of Braintree, on adjournment, on the 5th of June 1780. Then Voted, that the new Constitution, with the alterations and amendments made by their Comtee, be accepted. Ninety-five vote in favor of it, but none appeared against it.”
Braintree June 5th 1780
To the Secy of the Convention