A National Treasure’s Life: A History of The Declaration of Independence

Join us for our first Movie on the Lawn event at Historic Kenmore on Friday, September 17 as we show National Treasure starring Nicholas Cage and the Declaration of Independence!

FACT: George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring used codes, ciphers, and invisible ink (among other tactics) to outwit the British during the American Revolution.

FICTION: There is a map in invisible ink on the back of the Declaration of Independence. 

You are probably wondering what the connection to George Washington is, right? He did not write the Declaration. He did not debate it. He did not sign it.  Ah, but he read it and more importantly, he read it to his troops on July 9, 1776. He was sent a copy hastily printed by John Dunlap, a printer in Philadelphia.

Much like Washington, the document is one of America’s treasures. The Declaration has a fascinating history on its journey to the National Archives, where, in National Treasure, Nicholas Cage’s character steals it in order to save it. Think about it! Just how did the document we all celebrate every July survive these past 200+ years?

National Treasure poster. Credit: Disney/Fandom

After it was signed, sealed, and distributed, the official version remained with Charles Thompson, Secretary to the Congress, until he retired in 1789.  The person who next took responsibility for the document was Roger Alden, deputy secretary of foreign affairs (The U.S. briefly has a Department of Foreign Affairs before it became the Department of State).  By March of 1790, Thomas Jefferson would become Secretary of State and protector of the document he spearheaded in drafting.  Talk about full circle!

In August 1800, the Declaration was moved to newly-built Washington, D.C., residing briefly in the Treasury building.  It was sent to the War Office in May 1801 where it would stay until 1814.  Thanks to the quick thinking of Stephen Pleasonton, a senior clerk at the State Department, the Declaration (among other critical documents. Ahem! The Constitution!) were secreted out of the City to a farmhouse in Virginia during the British attack on Washington on August 24, 1814.  The documents were returned to the Capital after three weeks, once the British had left town. 

While at the State Department, the document was mounted and displayed (with Washington’s Continental Army commission!) at the Patent Office (today the National Portrait Gallery) at the suggestion of then Secretary of State Daniel Webster in 1841. Preservation techniques were not considered, as the document was placed in direct sunlight and exposed to all manner of elements.  It remained on display for the next 35 years!

Memorial certificate attesting that the holder visited the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. Credit: Picryl

When it traveled to Philadelphia for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, the public was exposed to the dire state of the parchment caused by sunlight.  The good news was that it was better cared for during this time and was even kept in a fireproof safe. The bad news was that its condition was widely reported in the newspapers. In response to the resulting public outcry, Congress adopted a joint resolution that the Secretary of the Interior, Secretary of the Smithsonian, and Librarian of Congress figure out a way to save the Declaration.

Despite the commission, nothing was done for 17 more years. The document was exposed to even more light until 1894, when the State Department decided to shield it in a steel case. The Declaration was then examined by the National Academy of Science in 1904 to determine how best to preserve it.  The conclusion?  Keep it in a dark and dry place, never to be displayed again.  So, the State Department did just that and locked the document up for the next twenty years!

Between1904 and 1920, Herbert Putnam, then the Librarian of Congress, campaigned for the State Department to turn over the founding documents to the Library of Congress (LOC), with no luck. He would not see any movement on his mission to preserve and house the Declaration until Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby formed a committee to review necessary preservation steps and recommended the Declaration be sent to the LOC. President Warren Harding issued and signed an Executive Order on September 29th, 1921 to that effect. Putnam was ecstatic and used the official library vehicle, a Model T mail wagon, to transfer the document from the State Department to the LOC.

The question remains, though. How did it eventually end up at the National Archives?

During the tumultuous years of World War II, Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish was on a mission to protect the documents from potential damage. His solution? Stored them at Fort Knox!  It was perhaps one of the most “hush-hush” operations ever carried out by the LOC. George Washington probably would have been very proud to witness the operation carried out with a military precision worthy of Henry Knox’s (the Fort’s namesake) mission to move cannons from the Great Lakes to Dorchester Heights in Boston during the American Revolution.

Finally, the documents were transferred from the LOC to the National Archives building on December 13, 1952 (the cornerstone was laid in 1933). Congress created the Archives in the 1930s to care for government records and made the Declaration the Archives’ responsibility in 1952. Representatives of all the armed forces carried out the transfer, including military police, a color guard, the U.S. Army Band, the U.S. Air Force Drum and Bugle Corps. They used a Marine Corps armored personnel carrier, two light tanks, and a motorcycle escort.  Lining Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues were members of all the service branches. At the National Archives since 1952, the Declaration has been (and continues to be) preserved so that visitors can view it daily. Ultimately, it also inspired a fun action-adventure film!

Film footage of the transfer of the Declaration of Independence from the Library of Congress to the National Archives on December 13, 1952. Credit: National Archives.
The Declaration of Independence on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Credit: National Archives

While mostly fiction, National Treasure is one of those movies that excites people about History.  The number of times visitors to the National Archives have asked “Is there actually a map on the back of the Declaration of Independence?” and they hear “Nope” is not a bad thing.  It is clear that something brought them to that museum and it shows they took an interest and asked a question, which is a great start to studying History.

Interestingly, a line of the riddle from the movie:

The legend writ, the stain affected, the key in Silence undetected, fifty-five in iron pen, Mr. Matlack can’t offend

refers to Timothy Matlack, who while considered a “boisterous, swashbuckling personality,” was also known to be “a man of intellectual vigor, a fine writer and public speaker.” He was selected by the Continental Congress to write out the official document (the one now residing in the National Archives) that measures 24.25 by 29.75 inches.  He also — fun fact! — wrote out George Washington’s commission to lead the Continental army!

So, gather some friends, grab chairs, blankets, and whatever movie snacks will make you happy, purchase a ticket and join us on the lawn of Historic Kenmore on Friday, September 17 for an epic adventure starring the Declaration of Independence! Oh, and that guy Nicholas Cage too.

Amy N. Durbin
Director of Education

Puleo, Stephen. American Treasures: The Secret Efforts to Save the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address. Picador, 2017.