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Constitution Center’s bold new exhibit takes on the Civil War and Reconstruction

A new permanent exhibit, opening Thursday, is believed to be the only one in the nation exploring the monumental events surrounding the Civil War and its aftermath.

Portrait of Abraham Lincoln by David Bustill Bowser, an African-American artist (circa 1864-1868) at the National Constitution Center
Portrait of Abraham Lincoln by David Bustill Bowser, an African-American artist (circa 1864-1868) at the National Constitution CenterRead moreCivil War Museum of Philadelphia, courtesy of National Constitution Center

It seems remarkable, but apparently it is true: There is not a single exhibition in the United States that explores the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the radical transformation they wrought on the nation’s governing framework and its daily life.

Nothing covering the whole story — from enslavement through resistance and on into brutal war, legal jockeying, constitutional amendments, and the rise of the violent and repressive backlash — can be found anywhere. It’s an epic of frustration and achievement brimming with heroes and unconscionable villains, a period so charged with significance it is often called the “second founding.”

But the National Constitution Center on Independence Mall is about to end the institutional silence. On Thursday, the center opens its first new permanent exhibit in years, “Civil War and Reconstruction: The Battle for Freedom and Equality.”

The exhibit, which contains more than 100 artifacts and interactive displays that invite deep, clarifying exploration of what might otherwise seem arcane documents, is built around many materials that once reposed in the old Philadelphia Civil War Library and Museum, a now-shuttered but storied institution founded by former Union officers in Philadelphia after the Civil War.

From Dred Scott’s 1846 petition for freedom, signed with his mark, an X, to a paper receipt for “Lucy Ann,” who was sold for $775 in 1862, to original copies of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution and the ominous rise of the Klan, the exhibit vividly illustrates the intractable problems clustered around brutal warfare and its aftermath.

Those problems, of course, are still with us today. Racial injustice, birthright citizenship, voter exclusion and suppression, the authority of the Constitution itself, all are very much part of contemporary politics and civic life.

“How can anyone who learns about these struggles not be inspired?” asked Jeffrey Rosen, president and chief executive of the Constitution Center. “It’s so unifying. If there’s any hope in this country today, it is the significance of this text, which binds us. People are still fighting for it. They’re debating what it means. But it has touched many and it is incredibly meaningful to bring it to people and inspire them to learn more about it.”

Even though politics seemingly engulfs the Constitution today? he was asked.

“The Constitution exists above politics to say not what the government should do, but what the government may or may not do," Rosen said.

“It is what is removed from politics. Politics may want to ban hate speech or flag burning, but the Constitution says you can’t do that because there are certain rights that are so fundamental they are above politics. Now, what the Constitution means is settled by politics. That’s the whole point of the Civil War. It took the heroic sacrifices of those abolitionists and other citizens to transform the Constitution and to express that transformation in the form of constitutional amendments.”

Scholar and filmmaker Henry Louis Gates Jr., who just took a turn as executive producer and host of the PBS series Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, said the exhibition is a "compelling example of how our great cultural institutions can help us learn from —and reconcile with — our troubled past.”

Gates called Reconstruction a “defining and dark era in our nation’s history" that has been “undertaught in our schools and misunderstood in our society for more than a century.”

The exhibition, which fills a 3,000-square-foot gallery, is divided into several parts. In the Constitution Center account, the Supreme Court’s infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision crystalizes the whole conflict and its aftermath.

Scott was an enslaved man from Missouri who lived for a time on free soil and then sued for his freedom. In similar cases, many courts freed the enslaved. But not this time.

Scott’s case reached the Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote a sweeping denial of Scott’s claims. No, Dred Scott was not a free man simply because he lived in a free state. Moreover, Scott was not a citizen. Nor could any black man, woman, or child, enslaved or free, ever be a citizen of the United States. Nor did Congress have the authority to ban slavery from the nation’s territories.

From a constitutional perspective, the Civil War was fought to overturn the Dred Scott decision, and “Civil War and Reconstruction” reaches deep into the historical narrative to show why, presenting important but often-overlooked figures as actors in the national drama.

John Rock, for instance, was a free African from Salem, N.J., who sought to be a doctor but was denied entrance into Philadelphia’s all-white medical schools. He became a dentist instead, until he was finally able to attend medical school. In 1852, Rock became one of the nation’s first black doctors, largely treating fugitive slaves.

When Rock himself became ill and sought to travel to France for treatment, he was denied a passport because, after Dred Scott, he was not considered a citizen.

Rock began studying the law, "and he is admitted to practice before the Supreme Court in 1865 the same day Lincoln signs the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery,” said Sheldon Gilbert, the Constitution Center’s vice president for content and development.

Well-known figures like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Charles Sumner make multiple appearances throughout the exhibition.

Lincoln’s story is told with depth and color, thanks to the presence of many artifacts from the Philadelphia Civil War Library and Museum, which ultimately transferred ownership of its artifact collection to the Gettysburg Foundation. Archives from the former museum are now housed at the Union League’s Heritage Center.

The displays used to illuminate the Civil War amendments are distinctly interactive. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery. The 14th Amendment established citizenship status and guaranteed equal protection under the law. The 15th Amendment guaranteed the right to vote for all men, regardless of color. Visitors can follow the evolution of the language from draft to draft.

The withdrawal of federal troops in 1876 thwarted “the promise of Reconstruction,” said Rosen. After that withdrawal, black people in the South faced the horrors of the mob and the terrorism of the Klan, he added.

“Not until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did Martin Luther King begin to make the promise of the [Civil War] amendments a reality,” he said.

In addition to the exhibition, the Constitution Center will feature daily performances in the exhibit highlighting Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a key African American activist, poet, speaker, and writer during Reconstruction.


Civil War and Reconstruction: The Battle for Freedom and Equality

New permanent exhibit opening Thursday at the National Constitution Center, 525 Arch St.

Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Admission: Adults: $14.50, seniors and college students (with ID) $13; veterans, $11; ages 6-18, $11; free for children under 6 and active military.

Information: 215-409-6600,