- - Thursday, July 3, 2014


Americans celebrate the Declaration of Independence on Friday, taking for granted that the cherished document is, and always has been, readily secure and protected in terms of its original parchment. However, history reveals that it was one of the most peripatetic documents as a result of real and perceived threats to its existence.

Recall that although the Declaration was approved on July 4, the Revolutionary War had just begun, and the military situation dictated where the Continental Congress moved. From its original location in Philadelphia, the rolled-up document traveled with Congress to Baltimore; Lancaster and York, Pa.; and Princeton and Trenton, N.J.; with a couple stops back in Philadelphia. When the Constitution went into effect in 1789, home for the Declaration was New York City, the first capital; then Philadelphia, the interim capital; and finally Washington, D.C., in 1800. Its trip from Philadelphia to Washington was by boat, down the Delaware River, into the Chesapeake Bay and up the Potomac River.

Its stay in the permanent capital was interrupted, though. During the War of 1812, when the British invaded Washington, the Declaration was wrapped in “coarse linen” and on Aug. 24, 1814, transported to Leesburg, Va., to a private home where it remained until the next month when hostilities subsided. In 1876, during its centennial celebration, the document was carefully shipped to Philadelphia, where it was on display from May to October. Afterward, it was placed in the Library of Congress, both for display purposes and security.

For the next 65 years, all was quiet on the Declaration front. When war broke out in Europe in 1939 and Nazi expansionism accelerated, the Librarian of Congress, Archibald Macleish, on April 30, 1941, suggested to higher-ups that the Declaration and other important documents and records should be shipped to the Bullion Depository at Fort Knox, Ky., for safekeeping. Nothing was done, however, until the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7; then the decision was made to remove the materials. Packed in a heavy container weighing 150 pounds and sealed with lead, the Declaration was transported on Dec. 26 to Union Station in an armed truck and placed in a Pullman sleeping car, accompanied by Secret Service agents, arriving in Fort Knox the next day. Not until Sept. 19, 1944, was it shipped back to the Library of Congress.

The story of the moving Declaration doesn’t end there, though. War concerns were replaced by bureaucratic squabbling over the proper habitat for the document. Built in 1933, the National Archives was supposed to be the one and only home for the Declaration. But when in October 1934 President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed the first archivist, Wimberly Connor, and urged him to gather all the historic documents, including the Declaration, into the new building, the Librarian of Congress, Herbert Putnam, objected.

Archivist Connor didn’t want a fight, so he urged FDR to wait until Putnam left office. When Putnam finally retired in 1939 and Macleish replaced him, the move of the Declaration to the National Archives was set to go. Because of government red tape, though, World War II broke out first, and off the Declaration went to Fort Knox.

Surprisingly, after the war, the bureaucratic story reads like a boxing match. In Round One, Connor, the first archivist, was replaced by Solon J. Buck, who felt that the Library of Congress was the proper home for the Declaration. In Round Two, in 1949, Buck’s successor, Wayne Grover, disagreed. In Round Three, the new librarian of Congress, Luther Evans, agreed with Grover that the Archives should be the document’s home. In Round Four, Sen. Theodore H. Green, chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library, wanted his members to approve the move. They did.

On Dec. 13, 1952, in a ceremony replete with full military honors, the Declaration was finally deposited in the National Archives. The formal speaking ceremony, held two days later, was highlighted by President Harry S. Truman’s remarks that the Declaration was secure: “the vault beneath is as safe from destruction as anything that the wit of modern man can devise.”

That’s the end of the moving story.

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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