About the National Archives

Independence Day Ceremony

July 4, 2013

Thank you Steve, and thanks Steve Scully for joining us for your second year as emcee of today's activities.

Good morning and Happy Fourth of July!  Thanks for joining us in this celebration of the 237th birthday of the Declaration of Independence!   

237 years ago, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration. They hired a Pennsylvania scribe named Timothy Matlack to take feathered quill pen and iron gall ink to parchment and craft the document which is enshrined in the building behind me.   Parchment is made from animal skin—cow, sheep, or goat—and you often see the skull of one of those animals embellishing buildings here in Washington as parchment has come to represent permanence.  In fact, the lampposts on either side have rams' heads prominently displayed, symbolizing that parchment.

On August 2, 1776, most of the Founding Fathers re-assembled and signed the parchment.  But that was just the beginning of the Declaration's journey!

During the Revolutionary War, the Declaration was rolled up and moved from city to city as Congress moved to avoid capture by the British.

When the British were burning Washington during the War of 1812, Stephen Pleasonton, a clerk in the State Department, was directed by then Secretary of State James Monroe, to get the important documents out of town.  Clerks wrapped the Declaration and other precious documents in bags of linen, commandeered wagons, and in the dead of night headed for Virginia with the records of the country.  First, they hid the Declaration in an unused gristmill near Chain Bridge in Virginia, then in a private home in Leesburg until the war was over.

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

Finally, officials took note of these effects of aging, and wrapped the Declaration and stored it flat at the State Department, where it joined the Constitution until 1921, when President Harding signed an order transferring both of those documents to the Library of Congress.

Just before Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entrance into World War II, the Library sent the Declaration and the Constitution to Fort Knox for safekeeping, where they remained until September 1944, and came back to the Library of Congress.

Finally, in 1952, the documents came to their rightful home here at the National Archives. The transfer occurred on December 13, 1952, with great pomp and circumstance and security, as the newly encased Declaration of Independence was carried up these steps into the Rotunda.

And the Declaration of Independence was safe until 2004 when the good treasurer hunter, Nicholas Cage, cleverly stole it during a party in this building—to protect it from the evil treasure hunter.  And 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?"

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

Although the traveling days of the Declaration are over, the spirit of the Declaration continues on today. And soon we'll hear the words of the Declaration of Independence read aloud by our honored guests.  And being here today makes you part of the Declaration's journey.

After our ceremonies we invite you to come inside and see the Declaration. You can also enjoy our family activities and exhibits, including our newest exhibit: "Searching for the Seventies: The Documerica Photography Project."

Thanks for coming out today to celebrate our independence at the home of the Declaration of Independence. And enjoy the rest of our ceremony!