Great Essentials Exhibit

Color photo of a wooden exhibit case displaying three documents, side by side, at waist height with blue text panels above.
Gaze upon 18th century printings of the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and U.S. Constitution.

NPS photo


Located in the West Wing of Independence Hall, the Great Essentials Exhibit displays surviving copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution of the United States, along with the silver inkstand that, according to tradition, was used during the signing of the Declaration and Constitution. Planning a visit? Get hours, location, exhibit photos, and other visiting information on the park's website.

These treasured objects reveal much about nation building. They illustrate the power of words and demonstrate how revelation often follows clearly expressed ideas. The revolutionary momentum triggered and reinforced by inspirational language is unmistakable; the impact of the printed word when widely circulated is undeniable. What ideas do we celebrate by enshrining these relics? What are the "Great Essentials of Society and Government" that John Adams wrote that the Founders sought to identify? Just as they were innovations then, they have become familiar to us now. They are:

  • Whatever power government possessed came from, and could be reclaimed by, those who are governed.
  • Free and independent nations existed to secure the welfare of the people.
  • Just government depended upon a written constitution, not the personal whims of human leaders.
  • Power must be carefully separated, balanced and shared by national, state, and local governments.

The Founders searched among the greatest philosophers to identify these ideas. They distilled and refined them. And they offered them to the world in three documents totaling fewer than two dozen pages endorsed by the simple act of signing name to paper.

Visit the website of the National Archives to see images of the founding documents and read more about them.

Last updated: June 6, 2016

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