Foundation Documents:  When Words Matter

“Polonius: What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet: Words, words, words.”

While seeming to trivialize text, Shakespeare’s most glorious legacy is his words.  Hamlet’s response  illustrates his indecisiveness at that point.

Some words matter more than others. The National Archives has just added two Foundation Documents to the three preserved under glass in its Rotunda: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  This legacy of words formed a new country and continues to motivate debate and political action today.

The two additional documents which can be seen in their original form for only the next three days are the two emancipation proclamations.   The first is Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, as the nation approached its third year of the bloody civil war. The proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

The second is General Order Number 3 issued in Galveston, Texas, nearly 160 years ago. June 19th is the day the people of that city learned of the existence of the Emancipation Proclamation and its promise of freedom for enslaved people in the United States.

But it took more than a General’s Order as related in this article:  The last two sentences of General Order Number 3 stated, “the freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

This foreshadowed the struggle for fair treatment and eventually led to the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865, which ended slavery in all states; the 14th Amendment in 1868, which provided citizenship, due process, and equal protection to all persons born or naturalized in the United States; and the 15th Amendment in 1870, which provided the opportunity to Black men to vote and hold office.

What Makes a Foundation Document?

The addition of the Emancipation declarations to the three original Revolutionary era ones, show that America’s founding ideal of freedom is not won and done.  It is an ongoing process subject to challenge.  Always a work in process.

The Archives Central Rotunda room is dark and cavernous.  The documents are barely visible in light equal to four candles, the original illumination.  Its temple-like appearance is appropriate for these articles of political faith.

Below the Rotunda is the  Rubenstein gallery with its more active historical description of multiple citizen campaigns to attain the rights promised in the Rotunda’s collection.  One educational purpose in showing these historical, and ongoing struggles, is that freedom is fragile.  It requires effort and constant vigilance.

Entering this exhibit are the words: “The great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for the right.”  The major controversies and generation long battles for equal rights are profiled in multiple contexts from slavery, women’s suffrage, union organizing and Pride protests.

Do Credit Unions Have Founding Documents?

How does the cooperative movement fit into America’s ever-evolving quest for greater individual and social freedoms?

Certainly, fairness and economic equity have been an important part of the political debates from the very founding of the initial colonies.  Building cooperative financial options to counter the overwhelming concentrations of capitalist power and control was an essential part of the  progressive reform initiatives in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

But do credit unions have “foundational documents,” that is words that motivate and energize when someone  believes and acts on them? Would words like Member-owned;  People Helping People; or some longer statement from Filene, Estes Park or even later in credit evolution be essential for understanding today’s movement?

Many credit unions have an About section on their web site providing the story of their beginnings. Some will even show continuity with the institution as it exists today.

The difference between a story of words, and a founding document, is that the latter still animates today’s leaders.  These are people who believe that the credit union ideal, like freedom itself, is a never ending struggle between the status quo led by those in charge versus the needs of those left out or behind.

Benjamin Franklin is quoted in the Archives’ Rights exhibition:  “There is truth in the old saying that if you make yourself a sheep, wolves will eat you.

If a credit union has difficulty identifying its founding documents,  it is not because these do not exist. It is because they have been forgotten or overridden or, more likely, just eaten by wolves.

To honor and celebrate those on whose shoulders we stand, professionally or personally, take a moment to find that family, organizational or external expression that captures your purpose.

If you can’t readily identify one, you might link to this site and read through an example of engagement powered by words.   Credit union member rights, like all rights, are just words until someone believes in them and acts to attain their full meaning.



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