On the road with the Declaration

Congressman JASON ALTMIRE traces the eccentric travels of the Declaration of Independence

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When listing the names of the founding heroes of American independence, the name Charles Thompson does not roll off the tongue. Although present in Philadelphia, he was not directly involved in the historic debate that summer of 1776. But he played a critical role in preserving the document that symbolizes the birth of our nation -- the Declaration of Independence.

According to a detailed history prepared by the National Archives, the unusual travels of the parchment document over the next two centuries begins with Charles Thompson, who as secretary of the Continental Congress had custody of the Declaration after it was signed.

As the Revolution continued over the next several years, the Continental Congress met in many different locations. During this uncertain time, it is believed that Thompson carried the Declaration with him as he followed the Congress to Philadelphia; Baltimore; Lancaster and York, Pa.; Prince- ton and Trenton, N.J.; and Annapolis, Md. In 1785, the Declaration arrived in New York, where the first U.S. Congress convened four years later.

When Thompson retired in 1789, President George Washington ordered what would soon be called the Department of State to take possession of the Declaration. Appropriately, the first secretary of state was Thomas Jefferson, whose duties would include custody of the document he had authored.

In 1790, the temporary U.S. capital was moved to Philadelphia. When, in 1800, President John Adams directed that government records be moved to the District of Columbia, the Declaration began its longest water journey, traveling by ship to Washington, where it would stay for 14 years.

In 1814, Secretary of State James Monroe personally witnessed the British invasion that led to the burning of the Capitol and the White House. After Monroe notified government officials of the imminent threat, a State Department clerk placed the Declaration in a linen sack and carried it 35 miles to Leesburg, Va. Several weeks later the Declaration was returned to Washington, where it remained until 1876.

It was during this time that the first public concerns were raised about the condition of the irreplaceable document. Likely stored in a rolled format, the Declaration would have been opened and rerolled countless times over the years. The rough handling of the document and exposure to sunlight damaged the parchment and caused an irreversible fading of the ink, noted as early as 1817.

Secretary of State John Quincy Adams commissioned a facsimile, unveiled in 1824, that may have been completed using a 19th-century technique of ink transfer. The resulting printed copies were the source of the first accurate image of the Declaration for generations of Americans, but the process may have hastened the deterioration of the original document.

In 1841, the Declaration was transferred for display in the new Patent Office building. There it hung for the next 35 years in a humid hallway where temperatures fluctuated opposite a window with direct access to sunlight. Numerous contemporaneous accounts reference the rapidly fading ink, in particular the near-invisibility of many of the signatures. Nevertheless, it is probably fortunate that no immediate action was taken on the recommendations of an 1876 commission that studied options for restoration, because one option was to "replenish the original with a supply of ink."

Transported to Philadelphia for the 1876 Centennial celebration, the Declaration was displayed in a fireproof safe behind heavy plate-glass. Crowds cheered as it was read in Independence Square. After a failed attempt by city leaders to make Philadelphia its permanent home, the Declaration was returned to the Patent Office in Washington. Luckily, it moved back to the State Department only months before an 1877 fire gutted the Patent Office building.

The State Department announced in 1894 that it would no longer display the Declaration. For much of the next 30 years it was kept wrapped in a locked steel case. The box was opened for an 1898 photograph made for Ladies' Home Journal and for a comprehensive analysis completed by the National Academy of Sciences in 1903. The academy criticized the decades of mishandling and recommended that the document be "never placed on exhibition."

In 1921, President Warren Harding issued an executive order authorizing transfer of the Declaration and the Constitution to the Library of Congress. In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge presided over the dedication of a new public display in a brief ceremony that, unsurprisingly for "Silent Cal," featured not one spoken word.

In 1933, President Herbert Hoover laid the cornerstone of the National Archives building, initiating a 20-year dispute about the best place to permanently display the founding documents. Differences of opinion involving the Library, the Archives and the role of Congress would rage throughout the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. The transfer would eventually be made to the Archives, but not before one more unexpected journey.

Soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Declaration and the Constitution were transferred under armed escort to Fort Knox, where the Declaration underwent a thorough restoration. The upper right corner of the document had become detached and past attempts to reattach it had left the remnants of glue and scotch tape. Once repaired, the Declaration remained at Fort Knox for three years, with one exception -- it was brought back to Washington for the 1943 dedication of the Jefferson Memorial.

The Declaration was returned to the Library of Congress in 1944 and then transferred, along with the Constitution, to the National Archives in an elaborate 1952 ceremony led by President Harry Truman.

Today, the barely legible Declaration is displayed alongside the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in bullet-proof glass cases equipped with ultraviolet light filters. At night, the documents are stored under ground. A computerized camera system has been installed to constantly monitor them and immediately detect any sign of deterioration. Barring a national emergency, it is unlikely that the Declaration will ever be moved again.


Jason Altmire , D-McCandless, represents Pennsylvania's 4th Congressional District ( www.altmire.house.gov ).


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