Welcome Remarks at Independence Day Ceremony
McGowan Theater, National Archives Building, Washington, DC
July 4, 2019
Good morning! It is great to see you here today to celebrate the 243rd anniversary of the Declaration of Independence! And special greetings to those of you in our Presidential Libraries around the country who are watching this via live-stream.
The Fourth of July Starts here.
Through that door behind me is the original Declaration of Independence––that seminal document signed by our Founding Fathers––enshrined in the Rotunda of this building. Although a typeset version of the Declaration was printed on July 4, 1776, the official government record on parchment was created and signed weeks later on August 2.
I’m a lucky man. Every day I get to visit the Declaration and marvel at its very existence. The fact that it has survived for 243 years given its history is truly remarkable. This parchment has traveled extensively. While this National Archives Building opened in 1935, the Declaration did not arrive here until 1952. During the Revolutionary War, it traveled with the Continental Congress and moved to Philadelphia; Baltimore; Philadelphia again; Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for only a day; and then to Princeton, New Jersey. At the end of the war in 1783, Congress was meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, then moved to Trenton, New Jersey. For five years, from 1785 to 1790, the Declaration’s home was in New York City.
In 1789 the Secretary of State was directed to take control of all records, books, and papers created by the national government.
And the Declaration went back to Philadelphia until this new Federal city, the City of Washington, was built in 1800.
When the British were burning Washington during the War of 1812, Secretary of State James Monroe directed State Department clerks to get the important documents out of town. One of those clerks, Stephen Pleasanton, is my hero. He wrapped the Declaration and other precious documents in bags of linen, commandeered a wagon, and in the dead of night headed for Virginia with the records of the country, just in the nick of time!
The next day, the White House was burning. But the Declaration was safely hidden in an unused gristmill near Chain Bridge in Virginia, then moved to 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, smoke, 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, when they returned to the Library of Congress.
Finally, these 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 with a military procession 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 4th July 1776.” That’s it.
After the ceremony, I invite you to come inside our cool, air-conditioned building and see the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. You can participate in family activities, and check out our new exhibit, “Rightfully Hers,” which commemorates the centennial of the 19th Amendment and tells the story of women’s struggle for voting rights as a critical step toward equal citizenship. The exhibit explores how American women across the spectrum of race, ethnicity, and class advanced the cause of suffrage and follows the struggle for voting rights beyond 1920. Come inside and learn more!
And a few reminders…
You can share your pictures and stories from your Fourth of July experience at the National Archives at @usnatarchives on Twitter and Instagram. Use the hashtag #ArchivesJuly4.
You can also add your own John Hancock to the Declaration of Independence at our special signing booth, inside the Boeing Learning Center.
And although we don't allow photography in the museum, we have made a special exception for our selfie station, where you can snap a selfie in front of a special backdrop featuring our founding documents.
Thank you for coming out today. The National Archives is the home of the official Declaration of Independence. July Fourth Starts Here!
Now, I would like to introduce our keynote speaker, Cokie Roberts. Cokie is a political commentator for ABC News and NPR, and in her more than 40 years in broadcasting, she has won countless awards, including three Emmys. She has been inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame and was cited by the American Women in Radio and Television as one of the 50 greatest women in the history of broadcasting. In addition to her reporting, Roberts has written six New York Times bestsellers, most dealing with the roles of women in U.S. history. Cokie holds more than 25 honorary degrees and serves on the boards of several nonprofit institutions. In 2008 the Library of Congress named her a “Living Legend,” one of the very few Americans to have attained that honor.
Cokie is also a vice president of the National Archives Foundation Board, and we are pleased she can join us today for our 4th of July celebration.
Please welcome Cokie Roberts…