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Museum : Reminders of Constitution at LACMA

July 04, 1987|WILLIAM S. MURPHY

Before viewing the treasures currently on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, you may wish to pause in the lobby of the Ahmanson Building to examine an exhibit, small but appropriate for the Fourth of July, one honoring the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution.

The most important document in the exhibit is an engraving on parchment of the Declaration of Independence that was printed in 1823 by order of John Quincy Adams, then secretary of state, who two years later would become the nation's sixth President. Only 28 of the 200 copies printed and distributed by Congress are known to exist. It is owned by Touch American History, a local nonprofit historical foundation that has prepared the exhibit in conjunction with the museum.

Several other documents have been loaned by the Library of Congress. One is a draft of the Constitution containing hand-written notes by Charles Pinckney of South Carolina who, at 29, was one of the youngest delegates. Another is a proclamation by Congress calling for the designation of electors in each state to select the United States' first President under the new Constitution. George Washington was to be the popular choice.

There is a broadside signed by members of the Pennsylvania Legislature of that was printed in German urging German-speaking Pennsylvanians to support the ratification of the new Constitution. About one-fourth of Pennsylvania's population were German-speaking Americans, and most of the state's official papers were published in that language until the early 1800s. Presiding over these historic papers is a familiar portrait of Washington painted by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) that has been loaned to the exhibit by Dr. Armand Hammer. Stuart was one of the earliest artists to paint Washington; this particular canvas was commissioned by William D. Lewis in 1822. The Constitution exhibit will be at the museum until Sept. 27.

The 11-year span from the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776, to the signing of the Constitution Sept. 17, 1787, remains one of the most significant and exciting eras in American history.

It was on June 7, 1776, that Richard Henry Lee of Virginia offered a resolution in the Continental Congress at Philadelphia "that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent." The Declaration of Independence, a brilliant summation of the reasons for the war, was drawn up chiefly by Thomas Jefferson. One can only wonder what thoughts crossed his mind while he penned his original draft: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness . . . ."

Did he dream perhaps that more than two centuries later Americans would still be enthralled by the wording of the document?

The final phase in establishing a republic took place in 1787 when delegates of 13 American states convened in Philadelphia at the old Statehouse, now Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence had been signed in 1776. The Constitutional Convention labored over the document through a sweltering summer. Windows were closed and the sessions were conducted in strict secrecy.

Washington, the most respected man in America, was unanimously elected convention president. James Madison, who had spent months studying the histories of ancient and modern confederacies, would later be called "The Father of the Constitution." There was the brilliant Alexander Hamilton, a military hero of the Revolution who had led the final assault at Yorktown, Va., and Benjamin Franklin, then 81, a distinguished diplomat and a man of many talents--scientist, inventor, writer and printer.

Some of the delegates were unhappy with various proposals for the new Constitution and went home. At the last, three refused to place their signatures on the document, while 39 signed the finished paper Sept. 17, 1787. This was forwarded to Congress in New York, which sent copies to the 13 state legislatures for ratification. Nine were needed for approval. Delaware became the first, Dec. 7, 1787, and New Hampshire the ninth, June 21, 1788. North Carolina and Rhode Island remained holdouts until 1789 and 1790 respectively, after the new government was in operation, and after a Bill of Rights had been suggested to the states as amendments. The first Electoral College unanimously elected Washington the nation's first President.

Also currently on view in two new galleries at the County Museum of Art are the Gilbert Collections of Post-Renaissance Mosaics and Monumental Silver, a collection rivaled only by that of the Hermitage Museum at Leningrad. It includes samples of a wide variety of mosaic techniques including pietre dure , a hard-stone mosaic of tightly fitted marbles and gemstone. One example of this technique is a matched set of jewelry dating from 1800-10 believed to have belonged to Caroline Murat, a sister of Napoleon.

American paintings, sculpture, furniture and decorative arts beginning with the Colonial period are exhibited throughout seven galleries on the Plaza level in the new Ahmanson addition and the Ahmanson Gallery.

The County Museum of Art is at 5905 Wilshire Blvd. Open Tuesday-Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. There is an indoor-outdoor cafe. Closed Mondays. Parking across from the museum on Spaulding Avenue is $3 maximum on Saturdays; $5 on week days. Admission is $3 for adults, $1.50 for children and seniors.

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