Picks and Pans Review: Roads to Liberty

updated 04/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Claustrophobes beware. If you are prone to motion sickness, take some Dramamine. And given the lighting conditions, it wouldn't hurt to bring a flashlight to this mobile, trailer-mounted exhibit, subtitled "Magna Carta to the Constitution." But in this year of celebrating the 200th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, it's worth suffering some strain, eye or otherwise, to see the stirring reminders of the legacy of democracy housed in the exhibit, which began an 82-city tour in March.

The Magna Carta on display is one of four remaining original copies of the document, which a group of noblemen and Catholic Church officials forced King John of England to sign in 1215, limiting the powers of the monarchy. The document was a turning point in the development of free societies, and the idea of being in the presence of an original should be inspiring, even if the copy in the exhibit looks a little like one of those homework sheets the dog has chewed on.

Far more legible and more directly related to the United States are such documents as a copy of the Nov. 11, 1734 New-York Weekly Journal. It was in that paper that John Peter Zenger published a series of articles criticizing Colonial authorities. He was arrested for libel for printing, among other things: "Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom and no such thing as public liberty." (His acquittal was a landmark in the history of freedom of the press.) There is also the July 8, 1776 edition of the Pennsylvania Packet, which marked the first publication of the Declaration of Independence. That's an original. The copy of the Articles of Confederation, the national charter ratified by the states in 1781 and a precursor to the Constitution, is not.

An assortment of artifacts that dates to the period adds life to the paper records. There is a 1787 Brasher Doubloon, the first American coin, minted by New York goldsmith Ephraim Brasher. Worth $16 at the time, it is now valued at an estimated $1 million. A Revolutionary War-era hunting sword and scabbard and a barrel-like canteen, from the Valley Forge Historical Society collection, are evocative, and so is a 50-year-old replica of the inkstand used by the signers of the Constitution (even though there is no explanation provided of how the three small containers on its ornate silver tray were used).

A joint project of the Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Constitution Council of the Thirteen Original States, Inc. and the American Express Company, the exhibit is housed in a 40-foot trailer attached to an 18-wheel truck. When the truck's engine is running, the vibrations may make you feel too much like one of those of our forebears feeling the surge of the ocean in the hold of the Mayflower. But the exhibit is certainly worth a visit, particularly for those who will not be able to go to Washington, D.C. later in the year for programs on the Constitution mounted by the Library of Congress and the National Archives.

Roads to Liberty will be in Marquette, Sault Ste. Marie, Bay City, Flint, Detroit and Lansing, Mich. from April 5-10 and travel to Ohio and Indiana for the rest of April. It will tour the original 13 states thereafter, winding up in New York City from September 6-11.

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