The original copy of the constitution of the United States resides, alongside its two siblings, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, in a specially designed rotunda at the National Archives in Washington, DC. Each nestles cosily in a custom-built container of titanium, glass and nickel-plated aluminium that hermetically seals the papers within a cloud of inert argon gas in order to minimise the chances of reaction and degradation. The documents are maintained at a steady temperature of 19.4 degrees Celsius and 40 per cent humidity, with all variations carefully monitored by an electronic system designed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Such is the importance awarded these documents that in the event of a nuclear attack each container is engineered to plummet down to a bespoke nuclear bunker hidden beneath the building, ensuring that the documents will persist long into the nuclear winter, unlike the hundreds of unprepared tourists who came to see them.
Americans have been understandably precious when it comes to their constitution; after all, it represents the oldest written example of its kind. But this concern with foundational documents has transformed over time into a particularly obsessive kind of civic religiosity. Much of this can be dated to the