Tennessee’s Founding Documents on Display for First Time

Tennesseans will get an opportunity for a rare glimpse of the original handwritten copy of Tennessee’s constitution this week.

In fact, all can get a look at all three of the state’s constitutions: The original, penned in 1796, which set the groundwork for the state’s creation. The second, from 1834, that allowed those who weren’t property owners to vote for the first time — but took away the right to vote from free African Americans. And the constitution signed and voted on in 1870 in the aftermath of the Civil War.

That latest revision of the constitution abolished slavery and is the document that we live under today.

“Those are probably the most important documents that we keep,” Assistant Tennessee State Archivist Wayne Moore told “They’re obviously the founding documents of Tennessee state government.”

On Monday the documents will be taken from a temperature-controlled locked vault, where they have not been available for the public to see, and digitized.

“It’s the first time these have been digitized to be available in a widely available form for the people in Tennessee,” Moore said. “One of the things that makes this kind of special is because those constitutions have always been stored away … and not available for anybody to see.”

After the documents are digitized — carefully, as some of the pages are so brittle they must be handled with cotton gloves and turned with a special spatula — they will be put on display as part of a week-long celebration that includes the opening of the Tennessee Judiciary Museum at 10 a.m. Wednesday in the Supreme Court Building.

In addition to the opening, the museum will host the original constitutions on display on the following dates:

  • Thursday, Dec. 6 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
  • Friday, Dec. 7 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
  • Saturday, Dec. 8 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
  • Monday, Dec. 10 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.


“The museum provides a great opportunity for the people of Tennessee to actually see the original founding documents of our state, which established our three branches of government and our fundamental constitutional rights,” Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Gary Wade said in a statement. “I believe that it will be a treasure for the people of Tennessee for generations to come.”

The display marks the 75th anniversary of the Supreme Court Building and the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

Tennessee’s founding documents are going on display as a debate is brewing in the state of Texas over similar important historical documents.

Every school child in Texas knows the famous “victory or death” letter — the plea for reinforcements written by Lt. Col. William Barret Travis on Feb. 24, 1836, as he and his outnumbered men hunkered down at the Alamo and faced Santa Anna’s Mexican Army.

But few have ever seen the original — even Texas’ official state historian — because of fears of what might happen to the document.

Moore said that kind of risk is worth it to show Tennessee’s history.

“It’s kind of a balancing act for us between preservation, which is our first priority, and access, which we also think is important,” Moore said. “These documents don’t mean as much in my view if the public never has an opportunity to see the landmark documents that govern their government. In their state, their government.”

In addition to the original constitutions, visitors to the museum will see a diorama of a judge’s chambers as it would have been when the building opened in 1937, a display of artifacts and documents from the appeal of the Scopes “Monkey Trial” in 1925, and a display of court records from the 1820s involving a land dispute with Andrew Jackson.

The Supreme Court building is at Charlotte Avenue and 7th Street, next to the Tennessee state Capitol.

Trent Seibert can be reached at, on Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.

Press Releases

Kyle to Host Meeting to Examine ‘Alleged Missing Voter Histories’

Press release from State Sen. Jim Kyle; June 27, 2012:

MEMPHIS – State Senator Jim Kyle is hosting a meeting on Monday, July 2 at the Shelby County Elections Operations Center to examine the recent report of alleged missing voter histories.

“We have heard a lot of talk about some 488 voter histories that have possibly been purged from our voter rolls here in Shelby County,” Kyle said. “I called on the State Election Commission and the State Coordinator of Elections to examine these allegations and report back to our local election commission their findings. I hope this meeting will serve as a venue to bring all parties together so we may have a clearer understanding as to the status of our voter rolls in Shelby County.”

State Election Commissioners Greg Duckett and Jimmy Wallace, along with State Elections Coordinator Mark Goins, will be on hand to give a presentation and have a discussion as the the recent allegations surrounding the voter purge. The Shelby County Election Commissioners along with other city and county officials have also been invited to attend the meeting.

Press Releases

Tennessee History Comes Alive This Spring At State Museum

Press Release from the Tennessee State Museum, March 16, 2010:

(NASHVILLE) — For the third consecutive year the Tennessee General Assembly Arts Caucus has partnered with the Tennessee State Museum in organizing a special spring exhibition. Opening March 17, the exhibit entitled, Tennessee History Comes Alive, serves as a showcase for the museum’s permanent collection and is free to the public.

This year each Arts Caucus member has chosen an artifact within the museum’s historical exhibits. Representative Matthew Hill of Jonesborough selected a pottery wheel used by Charles Decker, owner of Keystone Pottery.

Rep. Hill stated: “Tennesseans have the courage to take risks. Charles F. Decker left Germany for America in search of a better life. He created a successful small business called Keystone Pottery in Washington County. In addition to producing everyday pottery, his workers fashioned pieces of artistry and beauty.

Decker had the courage to seek out a better future for himself and his family. In his business pursuits, he demonstrated creativity and innovation. He is one example of the many Tennesseans who have had the daring to pursue their dreams.”

Visitors will interact with historical characters as they tour the exhibit. On Saturday, May 8, the exhibit will literally come alive as interpreters dressed in period costumes portray individuals from our state’s past. Visitors will have the opportunity to interact with historical characters while touring the exhibit, and can participate in special games and hands-on activities for children. Tennessee History Comes Alive Family Day begins at 1:00 p.m. and continues until 4:00 p.m. The public is invited to attend free of charge.

“It has been an exciting and educational process for the members of the Arts Caucus to work with the State Museum in choosing artifacts for this exhibit,” Art Caucus chairman and state Senator Doug Overbey noted. “Learning the stories behind these rare treasures and the people whose lives they have touched has been a truly interesting and inspiring experience. For instance, a watch presented by Territorial Governor William Blount to Tennessee Governor John Sevier which I selected to spotlight, demonstrates the leadership quality of both men as they oversaw the transition of Tennessee from being a part of the Territory South of the River Ohio into full statehood.”

“This exhibit, created in partnership with the Tennessee General Assembly Arts Caucus, highlights the ingenuity, craftsmanship, and material culture of Tennesseans,” Lois Riggins-Ezzell, executive director of the Tennessee State Museum said. “Visitors will learn about the people who made and owned the fascinating objects on view, unique treasures embodying the two dominant traits of the Tennessee spirit—perseverance and bravery— attributes demonstrated by our state’s historic personalities again and again.”

Tennessee History Comes Alive continues through August 29, 2010. The Tennessee State Museum, located at Fifth and Deaderick Streets in downtown Nashville, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. The museum, which is closed on Mondays, is free to the public.

About the Tennessee General Assembly Arts Caucus:

In 2005, House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh and the late John Wilder, then Lt. Governor, assisted with the creation of an Arts Caucus within the Tennessee General Assembly. Both Naifeh and Wilder served as the first two founding members. Today the Arts Caucus boasts a membership of 55 House and Senate members and is led by Senator Doug Overbey.

“The Arts Caucus helps facilitate valuable policy discussion on the importance of the arts in our state. The arts have an economic impact on our communities, define who we are culturally and should be part of nearly every policy discussion that takes place in the General Assembly. I am proud to serve as the Chair of this group because I believe the Caucus helps all members of the General Assembly stay informed about the many positive aspects of and the enormous impact of the arts on our citizens.”—Senator Doug Overbey, Chair of the Tennessee General Assembly Arts Caucus. For more information please visit:

About the Tennessee State Museum:

In 1937, the Tennessee General Assembly created a state museum to house World War I mementoes and other collections from the state, along with the Tennessee Historical Society, and other groups. The museum was located in the lower level of the War Memorial Building until it was moved into the new James K. Polk Cultural Center in 1981. The Tennessee State Museum currently occupies three floors, covering approximately 120,000 square feet with more than 60,000 square feet devoted to exhibits. For more information please visit: