Tennessee’s State Constitutions Transferred To New Home

Monday, March 1, 2021

The Tennessee State Library and Archives, with the assistance of the Tennessee Highway Patrol, and support from the THP Honor Guard, transported Tennessee’s three constitutions from their current building to their new, soon to open home on Bicentennial Mall. Several Tennessee Supreme Court justices and intermediate appellate judges joined other state leaders in the processional. Preserving Tennessee’s legal and civic history is among TSLA’s statutory responsibilities. 

Secretary of State Tre Hargett kicked off the event at the old library and archives and was quickly joined by Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeff Bivins, Justice Holly Kirby, Justice Roger A. Page, Court of Appeals Judge Andy D. Bennett, Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Tim Easter, and Court of Appeals Judge W. Neal McBrayer in front of the Nashville Supreme Court building, located next door to the old archives building. The group was joined by Governor Bill Lee and other constitutional officers in front of the Tennessee Capitol. Attorney General Herbert Slatery joined in front of the John Sevier State Office Building before members of the General Assembly added to the growing procession in front of the Cordell Hull State Office Building.

“These documents are so important because they are the foundation of our government,” said Judge Bennett.  “They establish the three branches of the state government along with each branch’s powers, duties, and limitations. For our society to function, the principles they provide must be observed and preserved. Events like the procession help us remember that.”

“I want to commend the Library and Archives staff for coming up with this unique way to celebrate the move of our three most valued documents,” Secretary Hargett said.  “In 2009, I inherited the dream of building a new facility. We have had the opportunity to work with Governors Bredesen, Haslam and Lee as well as leadership members of the General Assembly to make that dream a reality. I am delighted that we will soon be able to move into a building where we can fulfill our mission of making these documents accessible as well as preserving them according to our statutory responsibilities.”

Tennessee’s three Constitutions, first written in 1796 and revised in 1834 and 1870, are the highest valued and most historically significant items in TSLA’s collection. 

Tennessee’s first constitution came into effect on June 1, 1796, concurrent with Tennessee's admission to the Union. At the time, Thomas Jefferson described it as the "least imperfect and most republican of the state constitutions."

A second version of the constitution was adopted in 1835 and provided for a state supreme court. Tennessee’s third constitution was adopted in 1870, after the Civil War, and is still in use today. Our current constitution stood unamended until 1953, which was the longest period that any such document remained in effect without amendment anywhere in the world.

In the new building, Tennessee’s constitutions will be on display for a limited time. Replicas of the documents will be featured in a permanent display. Digital copies, along with full transcriptions are available online in the Tennessee Virtual Archive. 

The new 165,000 square foot TSLA building includes a climate-controlled chamber for safely storing historic books and manuscripts with a space-saving robotic retrieval system. A new blast freezer will allow TSLA staff to help save materials damaged by water or insects following floods and other disasters. The new facility also has classrooms for student groups and meeting space for training librarians and archivists.

The larger and more technologically advanced building is a major upgrade from TSLA’s current 1950s era home. The new facility has the much-needed space to properly house collections, improved climate controls and increased handicapped access. The extra space and efficiency will increase TSLA’s capacity by nearly 40 percent from 542,700 to 759,500 items.

The original building located on North 7th Avenue was open in 1953 and is the oldest library and archives in the country that had not undergone a significant expansion or renovation. Planning for the new facility started in 2005, ground was broken in 2017, and it will open to the public on April 13.

The original documents will be on display for a limited time after the grand opening and again on Statehood Day in the Library & Archives’ new exhibition space. Exact replicas of the documents will be a featured part of the permanent display in the new building. Digital copies, along with full transcriptions, are available online in the Tennessee Virtual Archive.

For more information about TSLA’s new building opening, follow their social media channels: Facebook: Tennessee State Library and Archives and Instagram: @tnlibarchives along with the Secretary of State’s Twitter account: @SecTreHargett.


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