One year after World War II concluded, U.S. Attorney General Tom Clark believed Americans had become complacent about their rights and responsibilities as citizens and the value of their many freedoms.
On May 22, 1947, with the endorsement of U.S. President Harry S. Truman, Clark gathered 200 people at the White House. Conference participants represented business, finance, labor, industry and government.
Americans, the group decided, should see a free traveling exhibition of the nation’s historic documents. The American Heritage Foundation, a New York-based organization, was established to organize an exhibition aboard the Freedom Train.
Fifty-two railroads shared the task of taking the Freedom Train on its 33,000-mile journey. Staff members of the National Archives assembled about a quarter of the 126 documents on display.
Americans lined up in droves to see Thomas Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. Caesar Rodney’s letter, written on July 4, 1776, described the voting on the Declaration of Independence. George Washington’s letter outlined the winter hardships his troops suffered.
The Freedom Train’s journey began in Philadelphia on September 17, 1947, the 160th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution. Guarding the displays were 27 U.S. Marines, many of whom had seen combat during World War II.
The Freedom Train arrived for a three-day stay in Pittsburgh, at Pennsylvania Station, in September 1948. In Downtown Pittsburgh, a line formed an hour before the exhibition opened. Men removed their caps when they boarded the train.
The Freedom Train’s tour ended on Jan. 22, 1949. By that time, more than 3.5 million people in 48 states had seen America’s founding documents.