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I went to the New York Historical Society on Friday to check out the recent renovation and the current installations. The centerpiece of the new lobby is a large vitrine holding two small notebooks once owned by John Lansing, a lawyer from Albany, who was a delegate to the 1787 Philadelphia Convention. Written in a delicate, nearly illegible hand, these rare notebooks will soon be digitized by the Society and added to its significant collection. The library on the second floor has always been home to visiting scholars and writers. I have spent many hours there researching articles and books. Once endangered with closure, this American treasure trove has survived a reorganization. The Lansing notebook acquisition is typical of the Society's interest and foresight, a Historical Society extending from the past into the future of our still young nation.

To my surprise, Lansing's Constitutional Convention notebooks were written secretly against the express orders of George Washington. Washington had asked for a vow by the delegates not to take any notes, an off-the-record debate. Though probably intended to encourage everyone to speak freely, it can also be read as an attempt to silence and/or censor the historical record. Fortunately, our first President did not succeed and the evolution of our freedoms continued.

Lansing and others—such as Rufus King and James Madison—were courageous enough to defy these orders. Without them we would never have eyewitness documentation of this seminal event in our early history. According to the Society press release, Lansing's notes are the most detailed and unedited. He recorded speeches and debates, assigning names to the speakers and their locations in the chamber. He was distressed that the delegates were seeking to establish an entirely new government rather than simply amending the Articles of Confederation, as charged. Lansing and his fellow New Yorker Richard Yates left the Convention early, but not before he had participated actively and created this illuminating record. Quill pen in hand, he managed to fill these two notebooks, probably on his lap, and to secret them away when he left. No security guards at the door, no sensors, only censors.

The following year, Lansing went to the New York State ratification convention where he insisted that the new Constitution be enlarged by a Bill of Rights.

If you go the Historical Society, be sure to go up to the Luce Collection on the Fourth Floor where glass fronted storage vitrines of Tiffany lamps, furniture, silver, porcelain, a rare stage-coach, weaponry, and much more, await a writer’s curiosity and imagination. The curators’ narratives here are limited to computer descriptions of individual items, but we remain free to create our own narratives in our free society.

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