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One Stubborn Irishman

Senator Joe Biden, 2002


While Joe Biden came to the National Archives on more than one occasion during my tenure, outside of social visits I substantively engaged with him only once. As I have followed the press accounts since the fateful debate between him and Donald Trump, I have thought back on that experience.  


When Biden has his mind set on a goal, good luck at diverting him to an alternate path. And when his family is on board, diversion is virtually impossible. 


Maybe it’s his Irish roots. 


Joe’s mother Jean was a Finnegan and as Irish as the Blarney Stone. Affable, loving, but as tough as nails, she was referenced in Biden’s 2008 speech at the Democratic National Convention. 


“I was bullied as a child and my mother offered some tough-love advice. When I got knocked down by guys bigger than me — and this is the God’s truth — she sent me back out and said, ‘Bloody their nose so you can walk down the street the next day.’ And that’s what I did.” 


My experience with Joe was in 2001 and had to do with the Delaware copy of the Bill of Rights. Here is some background. 


In 1789, on the last day of the Constitutional Convention, George Mason of Virginia was one of three delegates who refused to sign the final copy of the document. He and others felt that the Constitution, in addition to establishing the government, needed to contain specific protections of individual rights. While James Madison deemed these amendments unnecessary, he recognized their utility in securing final passage. He therefore presented a list of amendments on June 8, 1789, and lobbied his colleagues to vote for their passage. 


The House passed a joint resolution containing 17 amendments and the Senate changed the resolution to consist of just 12 amendments. A conference committee of both houses settled the matter in September of 1789.  


William Lambert and Benjamin Bankson, engrossing clerks for the House and Senate, made 14 handwritten copies of the proposed amendments, which were signed by Speaker of the House Frederick Muhlenberg, Vice President John Adams, Clerk of the House of Representatives John Beckley, and Secretary of the Senate Samuel A. Otis. President George Washington sent a letter enclosing one copy to each of the 11 existing states and to Rhode Island and North Carolina, which had not yet adopted the Constitution. 


When most states ratified the Bill of Rights, they sent a separate letter noting approval or disapproval of each amendment. Those letters are held by the National Archives as federal records since they are the only documentary evidence of the actions by the states.  

Today, eight states still have their copies of the Bill of Rights that were sent by President Washington—Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. North Carolina’s copy was stolen during the Civil War but was recovered by an FBI raid in 2005 and returned to the state.  


Instead of sending a separate letter denoting passage of the amendments, Delaware simply signed and affixed a seal to their copy of the document and sent it back. Delaware’s copy then became a federal record because it is the only documentary evidence that Delaware ratified the amendments. 


That moment of administrative economy set off a storm 213 years later that landed on my desk at the National Archives. 


Wayne Smith, the powerful Republican majority leader of the Delaware house had been alerted to this anomaly in 2001 and made it his crusade to return the Delaware copy of the Bill of Rights back home. The first I heard of it was a phone call from Claire DeMatteis, Senator Biden’s legal counsel. Claire had deep Delaware roots. She was a graduate of both the University of Delaware and the Widener School of Law at Delaware. She had been in Governor Mike Castle’s administration and was a trusted voice throughout the state. 


Her position on that first call was simple. The Delaware copy of the Bill of Rights is ours and we are coming to get it. Mine was equally simple. It is a federal record, by federal law we are the repository, and you can’t have it. The two opposing positions had been established. 


I walked down the hallway and reported the matter to Governor John Carlin, Archivist of the United States. We naively concluded, well, that is that. 


Soon after, I received an electronic copy of the first of what would be many articles from the Delaware News Journal. It named me and quoted my conversation with Claire. I had received lesson #1 in this battle. Delaware is a small state with an extremely close relationship between public officials and the press. When I was speaking with public officials or their staff, I was speaking to the press. 


In a day or two I picked up the phone and the person on the other end identified himself as Mike Castle, Republican Congressman from Delaware, and former governor of the state. Quite friendly in his demeanor, he was calling to arrange a visit to the National Archives at College Park to see the document and discuss the matter with Governor Carlin. The two knew each other from their overlapping terms as governors of Delaware and Kansas in the mid-1980's.  


I was about to learn lesson #2


When it comes to the interests of Delaware, there are no Democrats or Republicans, only Delawareans. And a more formidable army has never been organized.  


When Congressman Castle arrived, I greeted him, took him into the stacks to see the document, and accompanied him to Governor Carlin’s office. Some scenes in your life you remember in technicolor, and this is one of them. The three of us sat in the Archivist’s conference room for what I thought would be a rather straight forward discussion. 

It was straight forward until Castle said, “I have a blanket in the trunk of my car and am prepared to take the document with me today.” 


In the famous words of Keith Jackson, “Whoa Nellie.” 


Both the belief that he could just carry away an important piece of constitutional history and the thought that wrapping it in a blanket was gonna fly was a shock to both Carlin and me. Our eyes met and as had happened before, the Archivist of the United States clearly expected me to present the bad news to Congressman Castle. 


“I’m afraid that we can’t do that Congressman. That document is what we call essential evidence and by law, it must stay here.” 


I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I remember that the gist was “we’ll see about that.” 


In the days that followed, Wayne Smith introduced a bill before the Delaware legislature that proposed leapfrogging the Archivist and going directly to President George W. Bush with a request for the document. The Delaware Press went into overdrive and the calls from Claire Dematteis on behalf of Senator Biden, and staffers representing Delaware’s other United States Senator Tom Carper, began to increase. Carper was on our oversight committee and had assisted in getting John Carlin confirmed as Archivist. I had a personal meeting with him on the confirmation and he had always been approachable and supportive. Now, we were unfortunately on opposite sides of an issue.  


In addition, the Governor of Delaware had arrived on the battlefield. 


Ruth Ann Minner left high school at 16 to help support her family. When she was 32 her husband died leaving her a single mother with three children. She earned her GED and later attended community college while working two jobs to support the family. She married Roger Minner who owned a towing business and when he passed away, she took over the operation. Those jobs that Ruth had to support the family were all in politics or public service and led to elected positions in the Delaware House and Senate. Those led her to a successful campaign for Governor. 


Ruth Ann Minner was one tough woman. 


So, when she jumped on the issue, we felt it on the Richter Scale. She had been elected in 2000 and from the start was championing the renovation of the Delaware State Archives Hall of Records. It would be an ideal place to exhibit the Delaware copy of the Bill of Rights and was directly tied to the battle at hand. 


With the Governor and both US Senators pushing from the D side of the aisle and Mike Castle and Wayne Smith lobbying the Bush White House for the Republicans, it was clear after several weeks that this was an issue that was not going away. When noises were made about possibly holding hearings on the subject, I told our folks and the Archivist that a compromise proposal was necessary. 


The pressure had come from a variety of people, but as the senior staff person for the senior Senator, Claire DeMatteis was at the center of the negotiations. On multiple occasions, she explained to me lesson #3, that Joe Biden would never give up on this matter until he was satisfied with the solution. 


In early September of 2001 I conveyed an offer through Claire to the Governor and the Delaware delegation which would have allowed display in Delaware of the document one week every five years for 25 years. Claire literally scoffed at the offer, and the delegation turned it down the same day.  


The fact that we had made a good faith offer held off hearings and made it clear that we wanted to work towards a solution.   


And then on a beautiful morning later in September, planes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The earth stood still, and all was put on hold. 


When negotiations were reinitiated in the spring of 2002, the Delaware State Archives played a larger role in the discussions and the safety and security guarantees helped move the ball. In addition, all were clear that we were the repository, and any agreement was going to have time limits. 


We gathered in Joe Biden’s office in the Russell Senate Office Building on July 23, 2002, for the announcement of the final agreement. More specifically we were in his conference room with TV cameras lining the back wall, print journalists ringing the room, and a small podium set on the end of a large mahogany table that dominated the space. 


When Joe walked in, we exchanged handshakes and he flashed a toothy victory smile that lit up the room. Though he was the clear winner that day, he went out of his way to make us feel at home. For example, knowing that we were folks with more than a passing interest in history, he shared with us that his conference room had its own noteworthy history.


The office had previously been occupied by Senator John Stennis of Mississippi. Stennis held his Senate seat for 41 years and became an iconic representation of the Old South, institutional racism, and obstruction of the Johnson civil rights agenda. 


Joe Biden came to the Senate primarily to fight for civil rights, and he tells the story of the day he paid his respects to Stennis as a newly elected Senator. Stennis asked him why he had run for the Senate and Joe blurted out, “to fight for civil rights Senator.” John Stennis was polite but made it clear that the meeting was over.  


Sixteen years later, in 1989 when Stennis was retiring from the Senate, Biden had enough seniority to pick a prime office in the Russell Building, and there was none better than the office of the senior senator from Mississippi. Joe went to see the 88-yr-old senator, then confined to a wheelchair and sitting behind that large mahogany table in the conference room. 


Joe told us that the table had been the desk of Senator Richard Russell of Georgia. Richard Russell and Senator Stennis remembered it as the place that they had crafted the Southern Manifesto, opposing the Brown v. Board of Education decision and encouraging all southern states to resist its implementation. In 1956, 19 Senators and 77 members of the House of Representatives became signatories.  


When Joe walked in on that day in 1989, Stennis asked him to come sit beside him. They had worked against each other on civil rights legislation and with each other on other matters over the years. Their respect for each other had grown into a friendship. 


When Joe was seated next to his wheelchair, Stennis asked, “Well, I guess y’awl are gonna take my office?” 


Joe replied, “Yes I am, Mr. Chairman.” 


Senator Stennis ran his hand over the top of the old mahogany table and said, “This table was once the flagship of the Confederacy. It was once used to oppose civil rights and I guess it's time that it went to someone who works for civil rights.” 


Wow. lesson #4. Joe Biden could beat you and then spin an Irish tale that would warm your heart and make you smile. 


When the press conference started, Senators Biden and Carper and Congressman Mike Castle were joined by Delaware Governor Ruth Ann Minner, State Archivist Tim Slavin, State Majority Leader Wayne Smith, and Archivist of the United States, John Carlin. Joe welcomed us and announced that the officials had brokered an agreement to bring a vital piece of Delaware history home for display during the upcoming year: Delaware’s original Ratification of the Bill of Rights.  


Minner, Biden, Carper, Castle, and Carlin then signed the Memorandum of Understanding, confirming the agreement.  


Joe stepped back to the podium and said, “This document is part of our history. It is a symbol of who we are as a people, and the values we hold dear. It ties us to our past and reminds us of those principles that will guide us into the future. Today is truly an historic occasion.”  


The highlights of the final agreement were: 


Every year, in Delaware, the Delaware Ratification of the Bill of Rights would be on display for a maximum of 460 hours, most likely from Delaware Day (December 7) to July 4th at the newly renovated gallery at the Delaware Public Archives in Dover, Delaware. When it is not on display, it is stored in a vault in the Delaware Public Archives. 


Delaware would host the National Archives famous “American Originals” exhibit for 90 days in Delaware in 2004. The exhibition featured some of the milestone documents in American history such as the Louisiana Purchase Treaty, the Voting Journal from the Constitution Convention and Thomas Edison’s patent application for the light bulb. 

 

The National Archives would conduct a special pilot program with Delaware to display other Delaware-specific documents that are in the National Archives collection. 

 

So, after an exhausting year of negotiations, Delaware got almost everything they wanted, and the National Archives maintained its position as the repository of federal records. 

 

And I learned some lessons that I have never forgotten. 

 

 

 

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