Educational exhibit or Bill of Wrongs?

Critics assail proposed Reno monument meant to last 300 years

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: The Charters of Freedom monument outside the Carson City Courthouse. Sponsors want to build one in Washoe County, where county commissioners initially approved a site on the courthouse lawn in Reno.

Local sponsors hope to install what are touted as inscribed replicas of the nation’s three founding documents – the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – on public land in Washoe County. Who could be opposed to that?

The answer: lots of folks including historians, educators and historical preservationists. It’s not the idea of a display or the documents they’re against; it’s the way the nearly $90,000, 20-ton concrete monument is promoted, presented and constructed. In addition, opponents don’t want the modern structure to intrude on historic sites — the backers’ preferred location.

Sponsors said donations will pay for the monument. It’s promoted as a replica of the display in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. which houses the original documents. The exhibit, they said, would serve as an educational resource for students and the community.

Opponents of the plan insist the proposed monument is a misleading and inaccurate representation of history. They also argue it’s a vanity project for the North Carolina businessman and politician who featured his involvement with the displays during his recent unsuccessful Congressional campaign.

Structures made of 20 tons of concrete

“The monuments themselves are inaccurate, inaccessible, and unremovable,” said Alicia Barber, a Reno professional historian. “Purporting to be replicas of the original documents exhibited at the National Archives, they feature bronze plaques engraved with a contemporary digitized font of the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and what is labeled ‘Bill of Rights,’ but is actually a version of a 12-amendment draft of the Bill of Rights that is displayed in the National Archives.”

In addition, Barber and other critics said the monuments can’t be separated from the Tea Party political ideology espoused by Vance Patterson, the founder of the displays. Patterson created the non-profit Foundation Forward Inc. in 2013, to promote the installation of the structures.

So far, 32 have been dedicated around the nation, including one outside the Carson City Courthouse, which was dedicated in 2018. Six others await a ceremony, and at least six are in varying stages of construction, according to Patterson.

Sponsors consider Washoe historic sites

The Washoe County Commission had backed a plan to install the monument on the county-owned land between the historic Washoe County Courthouse, built in 1910, and the 107-year-old Riverside Hotel building. The sponsors this month withdrew their application to the Reno Historical Resources Commission after they realized the panel wasn’t going to allow the structure to be built between two of the city’s most historic buildings.

“I don’t think they want anything on the lawn area there and we respect that,” said Chuck Slavin of Reno, a sponsor of the project who also spearheaded the Carson City installation in 2018. “…We’ll go back to the (Washoe) county commission since they’ll end up owning the setting, wherever that might be and see what they want to do.”

‘A direct link to the Founding Fathers’

Vance Patterson, a founder of the Tea Party in Burke County, N.C., said he came up with the idea when he and his wife, Mary Jo, visited the National Archives in 2011. In a phone interview with the Reno News & Review, Patterson said he and his wife were so emotionally moved by seeing the nation’s founding documents that they wanted to make that experience available to others within their own communities. The monuments, he said, serve as a “direct link to our Founding Fathers” for people who haven’t been able to see the originals.

PHOTO/ PATTERSON FAMILY: Vance and Mary Jo Patterson at the dedication of a Charters of Freedom setting in Mitchell County, N.C., in March.

“We started working on the project (in 2012) to design and build a replica of what’s in the National Archives,” Patterson said. “…The first installation was in Burke County at the Old Courthouse in 2014… (For communities), the biggest question is where to put it.” He said it’s important that the displays be built on public property with high visibility and easy public access. Putting them on private property is risky, he said, because if the land is sold, the exhibit could be razed to make room for something else on the site.

“The best areas to put them are historic areas… We learned early on that things can change. These things are built to last 300 to 500 years, so you really need to be careful where you put them.”

— Vance Patterson, who designed the Charters of Freedom exhibits.

Patterson calls the displays ‘settings’ rather than monuments. “Monuments memorialize things; we’re not a memorial, we’re an active, hands-on educational supplement,” he said. “They are meant to be used by the schools and families to educate the kids. History, government and how government is supposed to work.”

Originally approved for courthouse lawn

The Washoe County Commission, without soliciting advice from experts or hearing any public comments, in 2018 approved the plan for putting the monument on the courthouse lawn. The process that enabled just three people to make such a decision is explained in a sidebar to this story in the Reno News & Review,

The proposal had to pass muster at the Reno Historic Resources Commission, where nine people this month submitted comments in favor of the plan. The board of directors of the Historic Reno Preservation Society urged the panel to reject the proposal, which would have ripped up 2,000 square feet of lawn that has been there for more than a century.

 “Unlike the state historical marker and the small World War II marker currently situated near the sidewalk in this vicinity, this monument would not be removable.  It would constitute a permanent, irreversible change to the historic setting of the courthouse.”

– Historic Reno Preservation Society Board of Directors.

The sponsors, Mike Widmer and Chuck Slavin, withdrew their request. But opponents’ objections aren’t limited to the courthouse site. Critics noted that the “Bill of Rights” displayed on the monuments is the draft document with 12 amendments, rather than the 10 eventually approved by Congress. That discrepancy is explained on a plaque affixed to the rear or sides of the concrete casings, but isn’t immediately obvious to those looking at the display.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: A plaque on the back of one of the casings provides details.

Information identifying the document’s text as an earlier version is present, Barber said, but, “I’m pretty sure most people never see it and (that’s) no excuse for not displaying the actual 10-amendment Bill of Rights alongside that label.”

The words on the documents are set in a modern, digitally-rendered script, misrepresenting the hand-written originals. “That contradicts the claim of bringing to the public the experience of viewing the original documents,” Barber said.

Patterson said that the “Bill of Rights” is a nickname and not an official title of a document. He said the three documents “are what are known as the ‘Charters of Freedom,’ and just because they don’t match up with what people want them to say, those are the documents, I’m sorry.”

He said the explanation about the 12 amendments is on the side of the monuments because “we don’t want it to be obvious. We don’t want anything to detract from the documents themselves. We’re trying to replicate the experience that Mary Jo and I had in Washington.” He said replicating the original script of the documents would make them impossible to read and negate the educational value of the exhibits.

First Amendment is Third on monument

“If people can’t read it, how can they be educated?” Patterson asked. “The signatures are the same as on the original documents. When you see the original Bill of Rights, it’s so faded, you can’t hardly read it anymore. The First Amendment is 45 words long and the Second Amendment is just 27 words. It’s important that they be able to read it. If they can’t read it, they just walk away.”

PHOTO/ALICIA BARBER: The “Bill of Rights” within the display is set in a digitally-rendered script and has two amendments that were never adopted by Congress.

The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment is the Third Amendment on the monument and the Second Amendment is the Fourth Amendment on the replica. “That’s a problem,” Barber said.

Educational value of settings debated

“The irony is that these documents are indeed our covenants of self-government, and the (Washoe) County Commission didn’t exactly seek public input,” said Michael Green, an associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “… Simply putting these documents outside without any context or background except to admire them and be able to say they are sitting there doesn’t teach us a lot about what they say or mean.”

For, example, Green said, “why those two amendments in the original Bill of Rights did not take effect, or why that three-fifths clause in the original Constitution was important. It also makes them look less like the vital, still heavily-debated documents they are, than like something cast in concrete, never to change.”

Historian questions whether politics plays a role

The dimensions of the display casings also violate multiple standards for accessibility to disabled people, Barber noted. In addition, she said, the monuments “are inseparable from the political and ideological stances of the man behind them.” Patterson was a part of the “birther” movement,  a debunked theory long popularized by Donald Trump, that accused Barack Obama of being born outside of the United States and thus ineligible to be president. His efforts to install the monuments around the nation is showcased as a major accomplishment in his most recent campaign for Congress.

“The political views of a donor of private funds for a monument to be erected on public property would normally be irrelevant. However, in this case, the views of Foundation Forward, Inc. founder are directly relevant to the content of the monuments his organization is designing and getting permission to install in public space, and clearly reveal how he wants the documents displayed there to be both perceived and interpreted.”

–  Alicia Barber, professional historian.

Barber said the recent controversies over the nation’s Confederate monuments and memorials are a reminder of the “integral significance of the intent of those who construct monuments” in a certain time and place.

“The monuments have nothing to do with politics,” Patterson said, his or anyone else’s. He said the nation’s founding documents speak for themselves. He often delivers a talk at the monuments’ dedication ceremonies. But he wrote to Washoe County officials that, if there were objections to him speaking, he would not attend a Reno event.  “He stated he does not wish to take away from the educational intent of the project,” according to county officials.

 “Ten amendments make up our Bill of Rights. And they protect We the People from a government of tyranny. They spell out what our rights are against a government that wants to take them away. Now, the federal government and Progressives are using a part of the Constitution known as ‘the general welfare clause’ to attack our Bill of Rights… Another part of the First Amendment that’s being attacked is the removal of all references of God in government. They’re already removing it from our schools, our courts, and all government offices. And this needs to stop.”

– Vance Patterson, address at a Tea Party gathering, Burke County, N.C., 2010.

A legacy to future generations

Each of the installations have the Patterson’s names featured on bronze plaques, Barber said, so the “branded” displays also serve as lasting memorials to the couple. But Patterson noted that major donors also may have their names inscribed on the plaques. Anyone in a community is invited to contribute letters to the time capsules placed inside each installation. All the capsules are scheduled to be opened on Sept. 17, 2087, the 300th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution.

“Anybody who wants to support this is welcome to do so and they can have their names on the plaques for hundreds of years,” he said. “(On other installations) we have contractors, individuals, high school students from a masonry class whose names are there. It’s a benefit to the community; it’s not about Mary Jo and I.”

Slavin said he and Widmer have raised about 45% of the $90,000 needed to construct the monument in Washoe County and will come back to the county commission with another site proposal. Slavin declined to comment about any of the critics’ objections to the proposal.

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