About the National Archives

Remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero at the July 4 Ceremony, National Archives Building, Washington, DC

July 4, 2010

Who is the Archivist?

David S. Ferriero

David S. Ferriero The Archivist of the United States is the head of our agency, appointed by the President of the United States.

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Good morning, and welcome to the National Archives. Thank you all for coming on the 234th anniversary of the day the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence.

It’s nice to see so many of you coming to downtown Washington to observe the nation’s birthday, and to celebrate in a setting like no other place in America -- because there is no other city like the capital of the great nation that came into being that summer of 1776 in Philadelphia.

As you all may know, the Continental Congress actually declared independence from Great Britain on July Second, but didn’t adopt the Declaration of Independence until July Fourth. And that has become the day we celebrate. Before we go any further, I want to recognize some of the special friends of the National Archives who are with us this morning:

Representative Lacy Clay of Missouri, Representative John Larson of Connecticut, and Representative Michael Turner of Ohio.

The Foundation for the National Archives—many of whose board members are with us this morning, including Ken Lore, board president.

And our friends from John Hancock Financial Services, who have guaranteed the success of this event for so many years.

And finally to thanks to the 3,000 employees of the National Archives in our 44 facilities around the country who, everyday, ensure that the records of our country are collected, protected, and made available. This is a very special day for all of us at the Archives.

* * *

In coming together every Fourth of July, we celebrate our democracy and how it has survived attacks by the British, our own Civil War, the wars of the 20th century, and various Constitutional crises over the decades.

And like our democracy, the Declaration of Independence has had to survive wars and crises as well as poor treatment and careless display.

It first had to survive the Continental Congress.

Thomas Jefferson was at work drafting the Declaration well before the Congress declared independence on July 2, 1776. After a few changes by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, the draft went to the delegates.

The Congress began debating the draft on July 2. The delegates cut out about a fourth to a third of what Jefferson wrote, but retained the central ideas. Finally, on July 4, it was done. Cheers went up, and church bells rang out in Philadelphia.

Several weeks later, Congress ordered the Declaration written on parchment, and on August 2, most of the 56 Founding Fathers re-assembled and signed it --- the same document that’s inside this building.

* * *

Then came the Declaration’s long fight for survival.

During the Revolution, the rolled up Declaration moved from city to city as Congress itself moved to avoid capture by the British.

In 1789, the Secretary of State took custody as the nation began under the present Constitution. But the Declaration still moved, as the capitol moved, from Philadelphia to New York and finally to the new city of Washington. Each time it was used, then moved, it was unrolled and rolled up again.

When the British came to destroy Washington in 1814, State Department clerks hurriedly wrapped up some of the government’s most cherished documents, including the Declaration, in bags of linen for safekeeping outside the city. First, they hid them in an unused gristmill near Chain Bridge in Virginia, then in a private home in Leesburg until the war was over.

But the "hands of time" were taking their toll on the Declaration, and it was noticeable. In 1820, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams ordered a man named William Stone to engrave a facsimile of the Declaration. Prints were made from it.

The original Stone engraving from 1823 and a print from it are on permanent display inside, a few steps from the Rotunda at the entrance to the Public Vaults.

Throughout the 1800s, the Declaration was on exhibit for long periods at several places in Washington. In each case, it was exposed to sunlight, fluctuating temperatures, and humidity—all of which took their toll on the document.

Finally, officials took note of the effects of the aging, and carefully wrapped the Declaration and stored it flat at the State Department, where it joined the Constitution. But in 1921, President Harding signed an order transferring both documents to the Library of Congress. There, they went on display again, subjecting the Declaration to more light and humidity.

* * *

Even before the National Archives building was constructed, many people believed that the Declaration and the Constitution belonged here, where the Bill of Rights was scheduled to be displayed.

President Roosevelt and the first Archivist of the United States, R. D. W. Connor, had agreed the Declaration and the Constitution belonged in the Archives. Such a move, however, was strongly opposed by the Librarian of Congress, and Roosevelt and Connor didn’t want to fight with him over it.

Then came World War II. Just after Pearl Harbor, the Library sent the Declaration and the Constitution to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for safekeeping alongside our nation’s gold bullion. The documents remained there until September 1944, when they were returned to their permanent display in the Library of Congress.

Finally, in 1952, Archivist Wayne Grover and the new Librarian of Congress, Luther Evans, concurred that the documents should be in the Archives and made plans for the transfer. It occurred on December 13, 1952, with great ceremony and heavy guards, as the two newly-encased documents were carried up these steps into the Rotunda.

They remained in the Rotunda until 2001, when they were removed so our conservation staff could perform long-planned, careful conservation treatment on them and prepare them for their return to the Rotunda in September 2003 in their new state-of-the-art encasements.

* * *

And the Declaration of Independence was safe for a year until 2004, when the good treasurer hunter, Nicholas Cage, cleverly stole it during a party in the building—stole it to protect it from the evil treasure hunter. Our "National Treasure" was miraculously (and circuitously) restored to its rightful place and now poses the most often asked question in the Rotunda. "Can we see the map on the back?"

I can tell you for certain that the only thing on the on the back of the Declaration are the words "Original Declaration of Independence dated 4th July 1776"

Nothing more.

There is a mystery, however on the front of the document—the lower left corner has a distinct handprint. Whose we do not know but we are looking for early (very early) photographs to at least determine when it first appeared.

Spread the word!

And the Declaration has not been forgotten in the digital age. Just this past week, the online magazine, Slate, joined forces with Twitter to host a contest to reduce the Declaration to a single Tweet. That meant reducing its 8,000 or so characters to only 124.

Here are some of my favorite entries:

"You should’ve listened. We’re outta here. Thx, bye."

"Don’t tax me bro."

"Hey King George, this being your colony isn’t working for us. So get lost."

"It’s the taxes, stupid."

And my favorite: "We are updating to USA 1.0. All taxes, tea, soldiers previously compatible with England 2.0 will not work with USA 1.0."

About as far from Jefferson’s elegant prose as you can get.

But the idea, the essence, of the Declaration remains: that all men are created equal, that governments derive their powers from the consent of the governed, and that everyone is born with certain unalienable rights, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Even a Tweet such as "You’re not the boss of me!" retains the essence of Jefferson’s message if not his manner of delivering it.

Two hundred thirty-four years later, the parchment has faded, but the spirit of the Declaration has not waned. It lives on in our daily lives.

Today and this weekend, millions of Americans will be celebrating the Fourth in parades and patriotic gatherings all over the nation, just as we are celebrating along the National Mall.

The message of the Declaration still moves us, and its words help unite us as a people on this—its 234th birthday.

Thanks to all of you for joining us today and helping us fulfill John Adams prediction that this day "be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of the Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."