In the twilight of President Jimmy Carter’s life, longtime Huntington volunteer Dennis Harbach, who has tracked all things related to the institution’s history, recently shared a Los Angeles Times article on Carter’s 1991 visit. It was July 15, and Carter was here for the opening of the exhibition “The Sacred Fire of Liberty: The Creation of the American Bill of Rights.” The exhibition kicked off the Constitutional Rights Foundation’s bicentennial celebration of the ratification of the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
What Carter and others would have seen were some of The Huntington’s remarkable documents depicting key moments in the early republic: political cartoons and broadsides from the time of the American Revolution; an original letter written by King George III, granting independence to his former American colonies; important writings of George Mason, whose Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776 was the model for the Bill of Rights; several rare drafts of the Constitution, printed secretly for the use of delegates during the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787; and a 700-year-old copy of England’s Magna Carta, which served as a reminder that many of the ideals of the Bill of Rights were neither new nor American in their origin.
The exhibition—curated by John Rhodehamel, then-curator of American historical manuscripts at The Huntington—also featured two documents on loan from the Library of Congress: George Mason’s policy statement outlining his objections to the Constitution, primarily due to its lack of a bill of rights, enclosed in a letter to George Washington; and a letter to James Madison from Thomas Jefferson, in which Jefferson famously wrote: “A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse or rest on inference.” The exhibition also examined the paradox of human slavery in the American republic and the abolition of slavery after the Civil War, which brought to fuller realization the promises of the Bill of Rights.
After viewing the exhibition, Carter joined more than 300 community leaders and other guests on the south terrace of the Huntington Art Gallery for a gala dinner at which he provided remarks. “Our Founding Fathers planned for the Bill of Rights to be not just for this country, but to be used as a seed to be planted globally,” he said.
Carter had indeed long been a champion of human rights worldwide. A decade earlier, during his 1981 presidential farewell address, he had told the nation that one of the most constructive forces of the time was the “enhancement of individual human freedoms through the strengthening of democracy, and the fight against deprivation, torture, terrorism, and the persecution of people throughout the world.” He added: “The struggle for human rights overrides all differences of color, nation, or language.”
But he also knew how important it was to double down on the same work at home. At the Huntington event, Carter suggested that rather than “a complacency of self-congratulation” for the bicentennial of the Bill of Rights, the country needed to strive harder—on both individual and group levels—to “grant the privilege of a humane society … to others that might not have access to the same kind of privilege,” the LA Times reported.
And, in addressing the plight of homelessness, he said: “We should be concerned, after 200 years of promise of the glories of life, we still have this disparity of our citizens.”
It was a sobering moment and one that still resonates deeply today.
Carter’s visit to The Huntington also included a moment of personal reflection—as it has for the likes of artists Kehinde Wiley, Robert Rauschenberg, and countless others. For Carter, that very personal moment came when he was a second grader. He had read more books than anyone else in his class, and as a reward for his achievement, he received a reproduction of The Blue Boy, Thomas Gainsborough’s famous painting. Carter was delighted during his visit to view the original painting in the Huntington Art Gallery.
Kevin Durkin is the editor of Verso and the managing editor in the Office of Communications and Marketing at The Huntington.