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.