Letter from Archibald MacLeish to Henry Morgenthau

MacLeish LetterDecember 30, 1941
National Archives, Records of the U.S. Secret Service

In March 1941, as World War II was being fought in Europe and Asia, the U.S. Government began to make plans to protect the nation’s artistic and cultural treasures. Three weeks and three days following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Archibald MacLeish, the Librarian of Congress, sent a heartfelt letter to Henry Morgenthau, the Secretary of the Treasury. In this letter MacLeish thanked him and the Secret Service for their help in protecting the "documentary history of freedom in our world." He was referring to the successful transfer of the library’s copy of the Magna Carta, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and other precious manuscripts from the Library of Congress to the Bullion Depository in Fort Knox, Kentucky. The documents came through the war unscathed, and in 1952, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were transferred from the library to the National Archives, the nation’s repository of the official records of the U.S. Government, for permanent safekeeping.

Student Interest:

  • When documents reflect human emotions, students empathize with historical figures.
  • Documents can be treasures. Learning about them, and the ideas they embody, connects students to a collective national heritage.
  • Documents are like puzzles that require students to piece together information—in this case, that the American entrance into World War II prompted the transfer of historically significant documents to Fort Knox.

Teachers Note:

This letter inspired a "Teaching With Documents" article in the September 2003 issue of Social Education (available online at http://downloads.ncss.org/publications/TWDSep03.pdf). The teaching activities ask educators and students to consider the intrinsic value of historical documents and the importance of preservation efforts.

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