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July 9, 2005 Paper Trail: Travels of the Declaration of Independence


Free Lance-Star

AS THE MEMBERS of the Continental Congress filed into Pennsylvania's State House on July 4, 1776, they were prepared for another of Philadelphia's hot summer days.

They undoubtedly also anticipated the day would bring more annoying flies and a continuation of the endless debate over the proposed Declaration of Independence.

But this day would be different. Even though the congressmen would endure their share of hot weather and pesky flies, the debate would finally end. Today, the Continental Congress would bravely and unanimously adopt Thomas Jefferson's amended draft of the Declaration.

Now--229 years later--the Declaration of Independence is a constant reminder of our determination to be a free and independent nation. Each year, countless visitors file through the National Archives in Washington to see this priceless document. Displayed in its bronze and marble "shrine," the Declaration of Independence is preserved by the most modern technical methods available. If it looks a little greenish, it's because of the ultraviolet light filters protecting it. Each night, it is lowered into an underground vault.

Unfortunately, our nation's birth certificate has not always enjoyed such special attention. During many of its years, it endured rough handling, considerable abuse, and miles of travel. It's amazing, given the Declaration's history of narrow escapes and poor treatment early in its life, that it is around for us to see today.

Although the members of the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration on July 4, they did not sign the document at that time. Because they had voted for independence, these men were now revolutionaries and traitors as far as the British were concerned. If their names were made public, their lives would be in grave danger. Some Colonists were still loyal to the British Crown, and it was difficult to know who was friend or foe. As a precautionary measure, the only names printed on the first copies were those of John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, and Charles Thomson, Congress' loyal secretary.

On July 19, after the unsigned copies had been distributed, the Congress ordered that the Declaration be "engrossed," or inscribed by hand on parchment, and that it be signed by every member. On Aug. 2, the inscribed Declaration was ready for signing, and John Hancock led off with his now-famous bold strokes.

When all those present had placed their signatures on the Declaration, it was probably entrusted to Charles Thomson in his capacity as secretary of the Continental Congress. Thomson, a conscientious man by all contemporary accounts, gave meticulous attention to all the papers in his custody.

Despite Thomson's care, the Declaration still received considerable abuse. Since all of the members of Congress were not present on Aug. 2 to sign the Declaration, it was necessary for Thomson to unroll and re-roll it each time a member wished to add his name to the growing list, until 56 men had signed.

The moving seat of government


Another problem Thomson faced in safeguarding the Declaration was the country's lack of a permanent capital. Congress met in a number of places, sometimes moving quite hastily because the British army was in pursuit.

Congress needed many of its records at hand for everyday reference. With the possibility of having them fall into British hands, the records not needed on a day-to-day basis were far too valuable to be left behind unguarded. So the Continental Congress carried all of its records, including the Declaration of Independence, during its travels.

Born in Philadelphia, the Declaration did not remain in its birthplace for long. Toward the end of 1776, Congress received word that the British were getting close to Philadelphia. The congressmen knew the British were particularly interested in capturing the ringleaders of the Revolution, so they fled to Baltimore, taking their papers with them.

The travels of the Declaration had begun only four months after its birth. It was in Baltimore that the members of Congress decided to take the risk of having their names made public; signed copies of the Declaration were printed and distributed. Now, more than ever before, the signers were prime targets for British reprisal.

By March of 1777, military action had quieted down in Philadelphia, and Congress moved back to that city. But the governing body did not remain in Philadelphia for long. By September, Gen. William Howe and his British troops were threatening the city, so Congress, and most likely the Declaration with it, fled to nearby Lancaster, Pa. After one day there, Congress moved 24 miles to York, Pa. While the British were busy at Philadelphia, the Declaration was stored in the York County courthouse, and York became the temporary seat of government.

By the summer of 1778, the Declaration was back in Philadelphia rested from travel for about five years. But at the end of that relatively short period, it moved again. In June 1783, some 300 disgruntled American soldiers marched into the city with complaints about back pay, and demonstrated before Independence Hall, where Congress and the Executive Council of Pennsylvania were both meeting. Most of the soldiers' complaints were against the state government, but Congress naturally received some of the insults. Deciding that the best way to avoid any serious trouble was for its members to leave the city, Congress once again packed up its belongings and left for Princeton, N.J.

Congress remained at Nassau Hall in Princeton until Nov. 3, 1783. From there, under a plan calling for alternate sessions at Annapolis, Md., and Trenton, N.J., it made its way to those two cities. The Declaration seemed destined indefinitely to be packed and unpacked, folded and unfolded, and sent from city to city.

In 1785, with Congress now meeting in New York, the Declaration was stored in the old New York City Hall. The National Archives assumes that it stayed there until 1790, although it may have been transferred elsewhere during building renovations.

On April 30, 1789, George Washington's presidential inaugural was held in New York. With the establishment of the federal government under the U.S. Constitution, the Continental Congress ceased to exist, so Charles Thomson turned all of its papers, including the Declaration of Independence, over to the new government. When Thomas Jefferson was appointed secretary of state by President Washington in March 1790, the Declaration was once again placed in the hands of the man who had written it.

In July 1790, Congress decided there should be a permanent seat of government, a law was passed specifying that such a move would be accomplished by 1800, and plans were drawn for a capital city on the banks of the Potomac River. In the meantime, all government offices were ordered back to Philadelphia, and the Declaration went along.

The Declaration moves to the Federal City

In 1800, the Federal City, as Washington was then called, was little more than a swampy wilderness, but President John Adams ordered that the government take up its permanent residence by November. This time, the Declaration was placed in a ship, taken down the Delaware River and across Delaware Bay to the Atlantic Ocean, into the Chesapeake Bay, then up the Potomac River to the new Federal City.

Even though the government now had a permanent capital, it did not have many public buildings--so the Declaration continued to be moved around within the city. When it arrived in the new capital, it went for about two months to a building constructed for the Treasury Department. After that, it was moved to one of the "Seven Buildings" at 19th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. After remaining there for about a year, it was taken to the Old War Office Building on 17th Street, where it remained until the summer of 1814.

In 1812, the United States was once again at war with Great Britain, but it was not until two years later that the city of Washington was threatened. In the summer of 1814, British Adm. George Cockburn sailed up the Chesapeake Bay and laid waste to plantations on the Virginia and Maryland shores. On Wednesday, Aug. 24, with fighting at nearby Bladensburg, Md., people began to flee the nation's capital.

When Secretary of State James Monroe saw the British forces land on the Patuxent River shore, he immediately ordered that the books and papers of the State Department be safeguarded so they would be out of reach of the enemy. Stephen Pleasanton, one of the clerks in the State Department, told, in an account written some 34 years later, how he went about following Monroe's orders:

"I proceeded to purchase coarse linen and caused it to be made into bags of convenient size Then, with the help of the gentlemen of the office, we packed the books and records in them and loaded them onto carts."

After the documents and books were hurriedly packed, Pleasanton and other members of the State Department staff rushed them out of the besieged city to an unused gristmill across the Potomac River in Virginia.

The Declaration had been moved to safety none too soon. That very night, the British marched into the city and burned many of the public buildings. The President's House, as the White House was then called, was in flames; the Treasury Building was burned; and the home of the Declaration had been destroyed. The sky glowed from the flames of the burning city, and the British flag was flying over Capitol Hill, but the Declaration had been saved.

While Washington burned, Pleasanton was still doing his best to protect the valuables in his possession. Feeling that the Declaration was still too close to the fighting, he moved it again. This time, he put it in a wagon and made his way over the rough country roads to the safety of Leesburg, 35 miles from Washington.

In Leesburg, the Declaration was hidden at Rokeby, a pre-Revolutionary War house built in 1757. In the care of a local clergyman, the Rev. Littlejohn, the Declaration was stored behind a heavy iron door in a vault under the front steps of the house. Although the iron door was melted down for cannon or railroad track during the Civil War, Rokeby, still a private residence, stands today as one of Virginia's historic landmarks.

After the battle at Bladensburg between the British and Americans, Washington experienced a violent windstorm. Rooftops were blown off houses, torrential rains flooded the city, and in mid-afternoon the darkness of night blanketed the war-torn city. The British troops, therefore, did not linger in Washington. Besides fearing that there might be a reinforcement of Federal troops nearby, they were exhausted from a particularly difficult battle. Sick, wounded and wet, the British made their way back to their ships.

Even though the British had left the city, the Declaration was still kept safely at Rokeby. It was not until after the British fleet had sailed out of the Chesapeake Bay that the Declaration was returned to Washington. But, after its fortunate trip to Leesburg, the Declaration still did not have a permanent resting place. As the State Department was moved from building to building within the city, the Declaration went along, with the constant threat of fire.

In June 1841, Secretary of State Daniel Webster decided that the Declaration should be displayed in the State Department's Patent Office Building, and, once again, it was moved. Over the next 35 years, the Declaration received another rest from traveling. But travel might have been better than the treatment it received during its rest.

While at the Patent Office, the Declaration was hung on a wall opposite a tall window where it was exposed to the damaging glare of direct sunlight. As the years went by, the sunlight caused the parchment to fade and yellow. And as if the sun's glare was not enough, the Declaration was also exposed to another deteriorating influence--temperature variations. The cold of winter and the damaging heat of summer took their toll of the document.

In 1876, when the United States was celebrating its 100th birthday, President Ulysses Grant allowed the fragile and timeworn document to make the difficult journey back to Philadelphia. Here, before the crowds gathered for the occasion, the Declaration of Independence was read aloud by a grandson of Richard Henry Lee, one of its signers. The ancient manuscript was exhibited for the thousands who wanted to see this charter of our freedom.

Many who saw it were concerned about its appearance. As a result of this concern, Congress established a committee to look into the preservation of the age-dimmed document. Little, however, was done.

When the centennial was over, the Declaration was returned to Washington. Instead of being placed in the "fireproof" Patent Office Building, however, it was taken to the new State, War and Navy Building (the Old Executive Office Building), just west of the White House. This time, as during the summer of 1814, the move was a fortunate one. Within months after the move, the very room in the Patent Office Building where the Declaration had hung for so many years was completely destroyed by fire.

But even though the Declaration had been spared, it was now, more than ever, in danger. An open fireplace in the room where it was displayed made destruction by fire a constant threat. Although that never happened, heat and fireplace smoke, as well as cigar-smoking visitors, caused the document to deteriorate even further.

The Declaration goes into darkness

As the years went by, the condition of the Declaration became so much worse that, in 1894, it was taken from display and retired into darkness. "The rapid fading of the text of the Declaration of Independence and the deterioration of the parchment on which it is engrossed," the State Department announced, "render it impractical to exhibit or handle it. For the secure preservation of its present condition it has been carefully wrapped and placed flat in a steel case." The public, it was decided, would never see the Declaration again.

For more than a quarter of a century, the Declaration lay in the total darkness of its steel vault. Then, in 1920, another committee of experts examined the document and decided that the Declaration could be brought out of its seclusion. They concluded that if the Declaration were sandwiched between glass plates, hermetically sealed, and exposed only to diffuse light, there was no reason why it could not be safely exhibited. In 1921, after years of darkness, the Declaration was brought out of its dungeon.

Since the State Department lacked suitable exhibit space, once again the Declaration changed addresses. It was taken by mail truck to the Library of Congress. But still, it was not displayed; from its transfer in 1921 until 1924, it was kept in the safe of the Librarian of Congress while appropriate exhibit space was being built.

Finally, in February 1924, the famous old document was placed on public display at the Library of Congress. Many important persons, including President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, were on hand to participate in the ceremony that gave the Declaration back to the citizens of the United States. Here, in a marble and bronze setting, the Declaration remained on display, protected from further deterioration for almost 20 years.

On to Fort Knox

But the travels of the Declaration had not ended. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, con-cerned officials, fearing an attack on Washington, decided to move the Declaration to safety. This time, it was scheduled to go to the federal bullion depository at Fort Knox, Ky. During 1814's wartime evacuation, the Declaration had been hurriedly stuffed into a linen bag. This time, procedures were more elaborate.

On Dec. 23, 1941, the Declaration was removed from its shrine, placed between two sheets of acid-free paper and carefully wrapped. Then it was deposited in a specially designed bronze container that had been heated for six hours to remove every trace of moisture. The top of the container was secured, and padlocks were placed on each side. After the attorney general had given his approval, the transfer of the Declaration continued. Under constant armed guard, the bronze container was sealed with a wire and lead seal, packed in rock wool, and placed in a metal box. When the box containing the precious document was finally loaded on a Pullman train at Union Station, it weighed 150 pounds.

The Declaration, accompanied by Secret Service agents and a Library of Congress official, was on its way to Fort Knox. On arrival in Louisville the next morning, it was met by four more Secret Service agents and a troop of the Army's 13th Armored Division. Under this protection, the Declaration was escorted to its destination. After many hours of painstaking preparation and work, the Declaration was safely stored.

On April 13, 1942, the 200th anniversary of Jefferson's birth, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington was dedicated. For that occasion, the Declaration was taken from its vault, kept enclosed in a bulletproof case and, accompanied by an armed guard of Marines, was placed on display at the foot of the memorial's statue of Jefferson.

With that one exception, the Declaration remained in the vaults at Fort Knox for the next three years.

By late 1944, the danger of an enemy attack had passed, and the Declaration was brought back to Washington. On Oct. 1, 1944, it was again on public display at the Library of Congress. A Marine guard, relieved on a rotating basis by a Navy and an Army guard, stood nearby to give the document the protection it warranted.

Even though the Declaration of Independence was back in the nation's capital, it still had not finished traveling. As far back as 1933, when President Herbert Hoover laid the cornerstone of the National Archives, he had announced that the Declaration, along with other important documents of the government, would be kept there.

As the National Archives building was being constructed, extensive preparations were made to house these documents. An exhibit hall, especially designed for the Declaration, the Constitution of the United States, the Bill of Rights and other early records of the government was constructed. Artist Barry Faulkner was commissioned to paint two large murals relating to the Declaration and the Constitution on the walls of this exhibition hall. The Federal Records Act requiring the transfer of retired, noncurrent documents was passed in 1950, and in 1952, after almost 20 years, the National Archives exhibition hall came to house these historic documents.

On Dec. 15, 1952, after the decision to transfer the Declaration to the National Archives, armed guards carried this document, along with the Constitution, down the steps of the Library of Congress building to the street. On either side of these guards, servicemen and service women stood by to provide more protection. Once the documents reached the street, they were placed inside an Army tank. This impressive procession slowly made its way to the National Archives, where it was to have a permanent home.

For the next several decades, the Declaration was displayed at the original National Archives building in downtown Washington, where visitors could enter the formal exhibition hall and see it.

But, even then, it was not destined to rest in perfect peace. From July 2001 to September 2003, the archives' rotunda was renovated and new security measures were taken. During that period, the Declaration was taken to an undisclosed location. On Sept. 17, 2003, with the renovation completed, the Declaration of Independence was, once again, on display.

Today, the Declaration--along with the other charters of our freedom--is preserved and protected by the best available techniques of modern science. In addition to being housed in the safety of the National Archives, every other precaution possible has been taken for maximum protection.

In the archives' exhibition hall, the Declaration is settled in a Thermopane glass case that contains inert helium gas and a carefully measured amount of water vapor. Dust and excess moisture, as well as free oxygen, sulphur and other damaging elements are excluded. The temperature and humidity in the case are continually monitored and recorded. Special filters of laminated glass with a yellow cellulose-acetate inner layer have been installed over the display case and the spotlights to shield the Declaration, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights from harmful ultraviolet rays.

Beneath this bronze and marble shrine, 20 feet below the exhibition hall, a fireproof, bombproof vault of steel and reinforced concrete houses the Declaration, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights when they are not on display. Each night, an electrically operated mechanism lowers the documents into this protective vault until they are brought up again in the morning. In the case of power failure, a stand-by mechanism lowers the documents to safety.

It is difficult to imagine a safer, more permanent home than this. But, given the Declaration's unpredictable history, perhaps its adventures are not over.

EVE CARR, a freelance writer living in Stafford County, was the program assistant to the archivist of the United States during the 1960s.