Commentary

Have you seen the Indiana Constitution lately?

July 4, 2022 7:00 am

Indiana’s constitutions are displayed several months a year during the legislative session in this special case. (Photo by Niki Kelly/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Today, we are justifiably bombarded with public discussion about freedom and constitutional rights. As we celebrate Independence Day, I thought I would write about our own Indiana state constitution.  Interestingly, Indiana has had two constitutions,  the initial document was affirmed in 1816.  Our current constitution was installed in 1851.  

One of my favorite things to do when I was a state senator was to talk to people visiting the Statehouse  What gave me the most joy was when kids (usually fourth graders) would stop on their tour and listen to one of our wonderful tour guides talk about our constitutions and the display case they were housed in.

On any typical day, if I was passing through the rotunda, I’d kindly interrupt and interact with the kids for a few minutes.  To get their attention I’d talk about the movie, “National Treasure” and how it was important to keep these important documents safe. Briefly, I explained all the cool gadgets we had installed on that wood box to keep the most important pieces of paper in our state secure so their kids could see them too. 

An idea

Offering all Hoosiers the opportunity to view our constitutions was not possible for most of our state’s history. In 1994, I was serving as chairman of a legislative summer study committee on library matters. Then-State Archivist Jerry Handfield testified that both constitutions had fallen into disrepair, and something had to be done to save them. Soon thereafter, I viewed them in the state library and clearly their future was in doubt.

Both Indiana constitutions up close and on display. (Photo from Indiana Archives)

Fortunately, Handfield, the Friends of the Indiana State Archives and I were able to secure a $10,000 grant from the Indiana State Bar Foundation to have those important documents conserved or rehabilitated.  We found Indiana University conservator, Jim Canary, at the Lilly Library in Bloomington and he accomplished a masterful job in bringing those documents back to life in 1995 and 1999, respectively. 

Once the future of the constitutions was secured, I asked the question: why don’t we publicly display them at the Statehouse like the Charters of Freedom in Washington D.C.?   Those concerned about the future of the documents agreed it would be a shame to just hide them away in a dark room somewhere. So, we set out to create a safe and honorable display place for the documents.

To get this done, a great deal of generosity, teamwork and planning had to happen.  And it did.  My first meeting was with then-Gov. Frank O’Bannon. Hailing from Corydon, the state’s first capital, he loved Indiana history and was supportive of the project.  He suggested we include some spare elm wood from the Constitutional Elm in Corydon in the display case design and place the cabinet in one of the niches in the rotunda. 

Construction

Next on the list was funding to build the case.  Once again, the Indiana State Bar Foundation came to the rescue and promised $25,000 to push this ambitious idea to reality.  Now, who would build it?  I called and wrote dozens of museums around the country searching for a reasonable display case carpenter and found no one. Then, lo and behold my parents’ next door neighbor, Dan Cantor, the owner of Indianapolis based Hamilton Exhibit, agreed to this special order and a $24,700 price. 

Cantor understood our display case demanded conservation standards including silica gel humidity control, fiberoptic lighting UV protection and bullet proof Plexiglas. To add Hoosier flavor to the case I took the family van to see “the keeper of the Constitutional Elmwood” Fred Griffin, in Corydon  per O’Bannon’s suggestion.  Griffin generously provided me the requisite wood to adorn the front of the display case. I delivered the invaluable wood and subsequently, and Cantor built the case in accordance to prescribed safety standards with Hoosier flair and on time. 

O’Bannon and other leaders gathered in January 2000 to dedicate the constitution display case in the Statehouse rotunda. Every Statehood Day – Dec. 11 – the constitutions are placed in the case and and displayed through the legislative session in March or April. Then they are returned to the State Archives vault for safekeeping.

In a scene of “National Treasure”, Nicolas Cage’s character, Benjamin Franklin Gates, says to his friend, Riley Poole that not only are they “treasure hunters but treasure protecters”.  Our Indiana constitutions are Hoosier Treasures, and it is my hope that our state continues to care for those invaluable documents and the people of Indiana go see them at the Statehouse often. 

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Jim Merritt
Jim Merritt

Jim Merritt served in the Indiana Senate for 30 years. He also wrote “Passing the Torch; Preserving Indiana’s Heritage” (Guild Press)

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