Fascinating Travels of the Charters of Freedom
Press Release · Monday, August 2, 1999
Early Travels, 1776-1814
Once the Declaration was signed, the document most likely accompanied the Continental Congress as it traveled during the uncertain months and years of the Revolution. Initially, like other parchment documents of the time, the Declaration was probably stored in a rolled format. Each time the document was used, it was unrolled and re-rolled. This action, as well as holding the curled parchment flat, doubtless took its toll on the ink and on the parchment surface through abrasion and flexing. Even though the acidity inherent in the iron gall ink used by the engrosser, Timothy Matlack, allowed the ink to "bite" into the surface of the parchment, the rolling and unrolling of the parchment still presented many hazards.
After the signing ceremony on August 2, 1776, the Declaration was probably filed in Philadelphia in the office of Charles Thomson, who served as the Secretary of the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1789. On December 12, threatened by the British, Congress adjourned and reconvened 8 days later in Baltimore, MD. A light wagon carried the Declaration to its new home, where it remained until its return to Philadelphia in March of 1777. In July of 1789, the First Congress under the new Constitution created the Department of Foreign Affairs and directed that its Secretary should have "the custody and charge of all records, books and papers" kept by the department of the same name under the old government. Thomas Jefferson, the drafter of the Declaration, returned from France to assume his duties as the first Secretary of State in March of 1790. Appropriately, those duties now included custody of the Declaration.
In July of 1790, Congress provided for a permanent capital to be built among the woodlands and swamps bordering the Potomac River. Ten years later, by direction of President John Adams, the Declaration and other government records were moved from Philadelphia to the new federal capital.
In 1814, the United States was again at war with Great Britain. Secretary of State James Monroe rode out to observe the landing of British forces along the Patuxent River in Maryland. A message from Monroe alerted State Department officials, including a clerk named Stephen Pleasonton, of the imminent threat to the capital city and, of also to the government's official records. Pleasonton "proceeded to purchase coarse linen, and cause it to be made into bags of convenient size, in which the gentlemen of the office" packed the precious books and records including the Declaration. A cartload of records was then taken up the Potomac River to an unused gristmill belonging to Edgar Patterson. Here the Declaration and the other records remained, probably overnight. On August 24, while the White House and other government buildings were burning, the Declaration was stored 35 miles away at Leesburg. The Declaration remained there at a private home until the British had withdrawn their troops from Washington and their fleet from the Chesapeake Bay. In September 1814, the Declaration was returned to the nation's capital. With the exception of a trip to Philadelphia for the Centennial and to Fort Knox during World War II, it has remained there ever since.
From 1814 to 1841, the Declaration was kept in three different locations as the State Department records were shifted about the growing city. The last of these locations was a brick building that, it was later observed, "offered no security against fire."
The longest of the early sojourns of the Declaration was from 1841 to 1876. In 1841, Secretary of State Daniel Webster wrote to Commissioner of Patents Henry L. Ellsworth, who was then occupying a new building (now the National Portrait Gallery), that "having learned that there is in the new building appropriated to the Patent Office suitable accommodations for the safe-keeping, as well as the exhibition of the various articles now deposited in this Department, and usually, exhibited to visitors . . . I have directed them to be transmitted to you." An inventory accompanied the letter. Item 6 was the Declaration.
The Declaration and Washington's commission as commander in chief were mounted together in a single frame and hung in a white painted hall opposite a window offering exposure to sunlight. There they were to remain on exhibit for 35 years. This prolonged exposure to sunlight accelerated the deterioration of the ink and parchment of the Declaration.
The Centennial and the Debate Over Preservation, 1876-1921
In 1876 the Declaration was exhibited in Philadelphia at the Centennial National Exposition. The Public Ledger for May 8, 1876, noted that it was in Independence Hall "framed and glazed for protection, and . . . deposited in a fireproof safe especially designed for both preservation and convenient display. [When the outer doors of the safe were opened, the parchment was visible behind a heavy plate-glass inner door; the doors were closed at night.] Its aspect is of course faded and time-worn. The text is fully legible, but the major part of the signatures are so pale as to be only dimly discernible in the strongest light, a few remain wholly readable, and some are wholly invisible, the spaces which contained them presenting only a blank."
The following year, the Declaration was placed in a cabinet in the State Department library, where it was exhibited for the next 17 years. Even though smoking was permitted in the library, and the room contained an open fireplace, this location turned out to be safer than the premises just vacated; much of the Patent Office was gutted in a fire that occurred a few months later.
In 1894, the State Department announced that the Declaration could no longer be displayed, given its fragile condition: "The rapid fading of the text of the original Declaration of Independence and the deterioration of the parchment upon which it is engrossed, from exposure to light and lapse of time, render it impracticable for the Department longer to exhibit it or to handle it. For the secure preservation of its present condition, so far as may be possible, it has been carefully wrapped and placed flat in a steel case."
On May 5, 1920, a committee appointed by Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby commented on the housing of the document: "The safes are constructed of thin sheets of steel. They are not fireproof nor would they offer much obstruction to an evil-disposed person who wished to break into them." About the physical condition of the Declaration, the committee stated: "We believe the fading can go no further. We see no reason why the original document should not be exhibited if the parchment be laid between two sheets of glass, hermetically sealed at the edges and exposed only to diffused light."
The committee also made some important "supplementary recommendations." It noted that on March 3, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt had directed that certain records relating to the Continental Congress be turned over by the Department of State to the Library of Congress: "This transfer was made under a provision of an Act of February 25, 1903, that any Executive Department may turn over to the Library of Congress books, maps, or other material no longer needed for the use of the Department." The committee recommended that the remaining papers, including the Declaration and the Constitution, be similarly given over to the custody of the Library of Congress. For the Declaration, therefore, two important changes were in the offing: a new home and the possibility of exhibition to "the patriotic public."
The Library of Congress . . . and Fort Knox, 1921-52
Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam was both ready and eager. He presented himself forthwith at the State Department. The safes were opened, and the Declaration and the Constitution were carried off to the Library of Congress in the Library's "mail wagon," cushioned by a pile of leather U.S. mail sacks. Upon arrival, the two national treasures were placed in a safe in Putnam's office.
On October 3, Putnam took up the matter of a permanent location. In a memorandum to the superintendent of the Library building and grounds, Putnam proceeded from the premise that "in the Library" the documents "might be treated in such a way as, while fully safe-guarding them and giving them distinction, they should be open to inspection by the public at large."
The sum of $12,000 requested by the Librarian, was appropriated and approved on March 20, 1922. Francis H. Bacon was appointed to design a "shrine" to house the Declaration. The Declaration was to be housed in a frame of gold-plated bronze doors and covered with double panes of plate glass with specially prepared gelatin films between the plates to exclude the harmful rays of light. A 24-hour guard would provide protection.
On February 28, 1924, the shrine was dedicated in the presence of President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, Secretary Hughes, and other distinguished guests. Not a word was spoken during a moving ceremony in which Putnam fitted the Declaration into its frame. There were no speeches. Two stanzas of America were sung. In Putnam's words: "The impression on the audience proved the emotional potency of documents animate with a great tradition."
With only one interruption, the Declaration hung on the wall of the second floor of the Great Hall of the Library of Congress until December 1952. On April 30, 1941, worried that the war raging in Europe might engulf the United States, the newly appointed Librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish, wrote to the Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Jr. "to enquire whether space might perhaps be found" at the Bullion Depository in Fort Knox for his most valuable materials, including the Declaration, "in the unlikely event that it becomes necessary to remove them from Washington."
On December 23, the Declaration and the Constitution were removed from the shrine and placed between two sheets of acid-free manilla paper. The documents were then carefully wrapped in a container of all-rag neutral millboard and placed in a specially designed bronze container, secured with padlocks on each side. The container was finally sealed with lead and packed in a heavy box; the whole weighed some 150 pounds. At about 5 p.m. the box, along with other vital records, was loaded into an armed and escorted truck, taken to Union Station, and placed in a compartment of the Pullman sleeper Eastlake. More Secret Service agents and a cavalry troop of the 13th Armored Division met the train in Louisville, KY, and convoyed its precious contents to the Bullion Depository at Fort Knox.
In 1944, when the military authorities assured the Library of Congress that all danger of enemy attack had passed, the documents were removed from Fort Knox. On Sunday, October 1, at 11:30 a.m., the doors of the Library were opened and once again the Declaration was back in its shrine.
With the return of peace, the keepers of the Declaration were mindful of the increasing technological expertise available to them relating to the preservation of the parchment. They were readily assisted by the National Bureau of Standards, which even before World War II, had researched the preservation of the Declaration. The problem of shielding it from harsh light, for example, had in 1924 led to the insertion of a sheet of yellow gelatin between the protective plates of glass. Yet this procedure lessened the visibility of an already faded parchment. Could not some improvement be made?
In 1951, following careful studies made by the Library staff, members of the National Bureau of Standards, and representatives of a glass manufacture, the Declaration was sealed in a thermopane enclosure filled with properly humidified helium. The exhibit case was equipped with a filter to screen out damaging light. The new enclosure also had the effect of preventing harm from air pollution, a growing peril. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights were also preserved in the same manner.
Soon after, however, the Declaration was to make one more move, the one to its present home.
The National Archives, 1952 to the Present
In 1933, while the Depression gripped the nation, President Hoover laid the cornerstone for the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. He announced that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution would eventually be kept in the impressive structure that was to occupy the site. Indeed, it was for their keeping and display that the Exhibition Hall in the National Archives had been designed. The final transfer of these special documents did not, however, take place until almost 20 years later.
At 11 a.m., December 13, 1952, Brigadier General Stoyte O. Ross, commanding general of the Air Force Headquarters Command, formally received the documents at the Library of Congress. Twelve members of the Armed Forces Special Police carried the 6 pieces of parchment in their helium-filled glass cases, enclosed in wooden crates, down the Library steps through a line of 88 servicewomen. An armored Marine Corps personnel carrier awaited the documents. Once they had been placed on mattresses inside the vehicle, they were accompanied by a color guard, ceremonial troops, the Army Band, the Air Force Drum and Bugle Corps, two light tanks, four servicemen carrying submachine guns, and a motorcycle escort in a parade down Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues to the Archives Building. Both sides of the parade route were lined by Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Marine, and Air Force personnel. At 11:35 a.m. General Ross and the 12 special policemen arrived at the National Archives Building, carried the crates up the steps, and formally delivered them into the custody of Archivist of the United States Wayne Grover. (Already at the National Archives was the Bill of Rights.)
The formal enshrining ceremony two days later, was equally impressive. Chief Justice of the United States Fred M. Vinson presided over the ceremony, attended by officials of more than 100 national civic, patriotic, religious, veterans, educational, business, and labor groups. Governor Elbert N. Carvel of Delaware, the first state to ratify the Constitution, called the roll of states in the order in which they ratified the Constitution or were admitted to the Union. As each state was called, a servicewoman carrying the state flag entered the Exhibition Hall and remained at attention in front of the display cases circling the hall. President Harry S. Truman, the featured speaker, said: "The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are now assembled in one place for display and safekeeping. . . . We are engaged here today in a symbolic act. We are enshrining these documents for future ages. . . . This magnificent hall has been constructed to exhibit them, and the vault beneath, that we have built to protect them, is as safe from destruction as anything that the wit of modern man can devise. All this is an honorable effort, based upon reverence for the great past, and our generation can take just pride in it."
The present shrine provides an imposing home. The priceless documents stand at the center of a semicircular rotunda of granite and marble. The Charters of Freedom are slightly elevated, under armed guard, in their bronze and marble shrine. The Bill of Rights and two of the four leaves of the Constitution are displayed flat. Above them the Declaration of Independence is held impressively in an upright case. Ultraviolet-light filters in the laminate give the inner layer a slightly greenish hue. At night, the documents are lowered into a vault beneath the rotunda.
The Declaration has had many homes, from humble lodgings and government offices to great public displays. It has been carried in wagons, ships, a Pullman sleeper, and an armored vehicle. In its current home, it is viewed by more than one million people a year, everyone of whom has had a moment to reflect on the meaning of democracy. In the words of poet and Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are "these fragile objects which bear so great a weight of meaning to our people."
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This page was last reviewed on October 29, 2021.
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