We the People: Alabama's Defining Documents

Jul 5, 2019

(Huntsville, AL)-- It was two hundred years ago today when delegates from across the Alabama territory made their way to Huntsville. They were gathering for a constitutional convention to draft a document that would make Alabama a U.S. state. The document they came up with, along with the five constitutions that followed it are back in Huntsville where it all began.

  A  crowd gathered as officials cut the ribbon to open the “We the People: Alabama’s Defining Documents” exhibit at the Huntsville Museum of Art. Curious history buffs made their way around the exhibit looking through the glass at the collections of parchment. What they saw are the documents that made Alabama possible.

“All six of Alabama’s state constitutions and the 1861 ordinance of secession.” 

1819 Constitution
Credit Alabama Department of Archives and History

That’s Steve Murray. He is the director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History. He said the process of putting this exhibit together started five years ago. He said they wanted a special way his department could focus on the state’s bicentennial.  

“We wanted to think about how the archives could put at the forefront the important documentary history of Alabama. And there is nothing more fundamental to our state’s history than the constitutions that have shaped our government and govern the relationship of citizens to the state and the state to the nation.”

The ordinance of secession Murray is talking about is the document that broke Alabama away from the Union in January of 1861, three months before the start of the U.S. Civil War. Murray said these pieces of parchment are more than just governing documents.

1861 Ordinance of Secession
Credit Alabama Department of Archives and History

“Together they are the documents that tell the history of Alabama and of the forces that shaped each of those documents at the respective times they were drafted.”

Murray said there is a lot people can learn by studying the constitutions and the ordinance of secessions.

“There are some persistent themes that run throughout that history. We can look back to the founding of the state and talk about economic concerns, racial issues that are fundamental to the society that was built here 200 years ago and how those things in tandem shaped the unfolding of Alabama’s history, the conflicts that arose, the political agendas that develop.”

The oldest of these constitutions is two hundred years old, so getting them ready to be viewed by the public took some work.

“So these documents have been in our care for over a century, they were in stable condition.”

Scotty Kirkland is the director of exhibits for the department of archives and history. He said they had a goal in mind when getting the documents preserved.

“To ensure Alabamians, 200 years from now, can enjoy them and debate over them, these documents all underwent extensive conservation”  

Alabama's 1865 Constitution
Credit Alabama Department of Archives and History

That is where Katie Boodle comes in.

“I’m an associate paper conservator at the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover  

Massachusetts.”

She said there were a lot of complicated steps in the process of preserving Alabama’s documents and not just because the paper is old.

“Most of those involve how each of the sheets of parchment were joined together, some of the ribbons that were connecting the 1819 were fraying and some of the ink was problematic.”

That ink is something called iron gall ink. It’s this same ink the founding fathers used to write the Declaration of Independence.

“It is a very common historical ink, mostly because it was made from primarily tree galls and something known as green vitriol or as we technically know it as iron sulfate.”

Alabama's 1868 Constitution
Credit Alabama Department of Archives and History

  In plain English, tree galls are growths on trees that contain an acid that’s used to make the ink. Boodle said the problem was the recipe, there isn’t a set one for this kind of ink.

“They were kind of mixed together to make this pulpy mass, water, vinegar or wine was then added to dilute it and then a binder of gum Arabic or some sort tree resin was added to kind of hold the whole thing together.”

While it was a difficult task Boodle said it was a task she was glad to undertake.

  “It was a lot of fun. They’re a format we really don’t see too often, its kind of a weird thing. I don’t know how prevalent the format is but I know I personally have never seen them outside of the houses of parliament at the archives there.”

The preservation process was not cheap. The yearlong project cost right around 150 thousand dollars. The money was appropriated by the state legislature. Then, there was the actual process of moving the documents from Montgomery to Huntsville. Scotty Kirkland said they had fun with it as well. They used a police motorcade. 

Alabama's 1875 Constitution
Credit Alabama Department of Archives and History

“So the motorcade happened because of course we wanted to have the documents securely shipped from Montgomery to Huntsville and so as we talked to other state agencies including ALEA we were really interested in having a motorcade, out board of trustees got involved and they came up in a quite a bit of style.” 

Now that they are safely on display in Huntsville, Kirkland said he hopes the documents will spark conversations between visitors, both young and old, about where Alabama has been and where it is going.

“I think some of the things that have happened in the name of the bicentennial in education over the last three years has been tremendous. I have a young son and he’s more interested now in history than he  

was before and think that’s where the real lasting effect will happen.”

Steve Murray thinks that is exactly the kind of opportunity they have set up.  

Alabama's 1901 Constitution
Credit Alabama Department of Archives and History

  “These documents will be around 200 years from now. This means descendants of the people here today can come back generations in the future and have this same interaction with these incredibly important documents.”

For now, the exhibit is on display at the Huntsville Museum of Art. Murray explained what’s next for the collection.

“So it will be on display here for about six weeks. They’ll go back to Montgomery and go into storage for a bit of a rest because we try to minimize extended periods of exposure to light and handling for these documents. In November, they’ll be installed again at the department of archives in Montgomery so we’ll have about two months of a repeat of this exhibit in Montgomery.”

Alabama Public Radio is a media sponsor for the "We the People: Alabama's Defining Documents" exhibit. 

For more on the exhibit, visit the website https://www.wethepeoplealabama.org/