This is a guest post by our friend andrew, over by the wayside. Many thanks!
(Image from W.H. Michael, The Declaration of Independence, Washington, 1904)
On this day in 1941, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were taken out of their exhibit cases at the Library of Congress, carefully wrapped in acid-free and neutral packing materials, and placed inside a bronze container designed especially to carry them. When the packing was complete, the “top of the container was screwed tight over a cork gasket and locked with padlocks on each side.”*
The documents remained in this state for the next few days, until the Attorney General ruled on December 26th that the Librarian of Congress could “without further authority from the Congress or the President take such action as he deems necessary for the proper protection and preservation of these documents.” At which point the library went back to work:
Under the constant surveillance of armed guards, the bronze container was removed to the Library’s carpenter shop, where it was sealed with wire and a lead seal, the seal bearing the block letters L C, and packed in rock wool in a heavy metal-bound box measuring forty by thirty-six inches, which, when loaded, weighed approximately one hundred and fifty pounds.
Along with other important documents like the Magna Carta and the Articles of Confederation, the Declaration and the Constitution were then taken to Union Station in an “armed and escorted truck,” where they were loaded into a compartment in a Pullman car on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Accompanying the documents were Chief Assistant Librarian Verner W. Clapp and some number of armed Secret Service agents.
The documents left D.C. in the evening and arrived in Louisville the next morning, where they were “met by four more Secret Service agents and a troop of the Thirteenth Armored Division, who preceded by a scout car and followed by a car carrying the agents and Mr. Clapp, convoyed the Army truck containing the materials” to the depository at Fort Knox. The documents were to be kept there until it was determined that they could once again be considered safe in Washington, D.C.
It was not the first time the Declaration and the Constitution had been moved because of war.
During the Revolutionary War, the Declaration was packed up repeatedly and taken along with the Continental Congress as it changed locations. During the War of 1812, both documents, then in the care of the State Department, were hastily packed up and taken to Virginia when the British attacked Washington. (In contrast, they do not seem to have budged during the Civil War or the first World War.)
And yet perhaps the greatest threats the documents have faced as documents have come not from their enemies but from their friends. The Declaration of Independence, especially, shows the toll that frequent handling and long exhibition in less than ideal conditions can take on parchment and ink. Already by the 1820s observers had begun to note that the documents were showing signs of age, and some expressed the hope that the production of special, certified copies would relieve the stress on and demand for the original.
Ironically, perhaps the most famous of these copies, the William J. Stone engraving completed in 1823, has been blamed for damaging the original through the copying process. It seems to have been widely believed during the later nineteenth and early twentieth century that Stone used a so-called “wet copy” procedure: this would have involved physically transferring some of the ink from the original to a facsimile, which would have then been used to produce the engraving. But this appears to be one of those maddeningly unverifiable “facts” of history: later researchers have concluded that there is not enough surviving evidence to make it possible to determine just what process Stone used. Other possible methods would not have caused such damage.
Less controversial, but unquestionably harmful, has been the effect of natural light. From 1841 to 1876 the Declaration was exhibited in the United States Patent Office Building in Washington, D.C. along with George Washington’s commission as Commander-in-Chief. (The Constitution does not seem to have been exhibited much until the twentieth century.) The documents were hung together in a single frame on a wall where they would have received sunlight from a window. Despite growing concerns about its heavily faded text, the Declaration was then brought to Philadelphia in 1876 for the Centennial Exposition.
It was not until 1894 that its custodians finally heeded the advice of the experts brought in to consult on its condition and took the Declaration off permanent exhibition. But even then the State Department found it could not keep the document completely out of the light. It appears that those with the right connections in Washington could still obtain their own viewings of the document in the State Department’s library — even when it was not officially being displayed.
In 1921, the Declaration and the Constitution (along with other documents of the early Republic) were transferred from the State Department to the Library of Congress, which would be able to provide better resources for their exhibition and preservation. It had been determined that while the text of the Declaration could not and should not be restored, it would be safe to exhibit the document again as long as extra steps were taken to protect it. And so in February 1924, the Declaration and Constitution went on display together at the Library of Congress in a special case designed to filter or block out harmful light. Plans were also made to give the documents more extensive conservation treatment but by the time they were ready, the war had intervened. As a result, the treatment took place at Fort Knox.
It was there that in the middle of May 1942, with Chief Assistant Librarian Clapp looking on, the conservators took the Declaration out of its container and went to work. It seems to have taken “about an hour” just to open the outer box. The document was carefully photographed, examined and cleaned. Various adhesives had been attached to the Declaration over the years, including tape and glue; these and their residues were carefully removed. There were also a few small holes and minor tears in the parchment; these were patched up.
The Constitution was not entirely neglected, but upon examination it was found to be in good condition, and it was re-packaged with newer materials. When the work was complete just a few days later, the documents were returned to their container and the container returned to the vault.
The Declaration was taken out at least once more, in 1943 for the dedication of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, but the documents spent the bulk of the war years in Fort Knox. In the fall of 1944, the military determined that they would be safe again in Washington, and on October 1st they went back on display at the Library of Congress.
*All quotations and most of the factual information in this post are taken from the Annual Report of the Librarian of Congress for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1949, which contains an extensive section on the history of the Declaration of Independence. Additional background from Verner Clapp, “The Declaration of Independence: A Case Study in Preservation” here; Jane Aikin, “Preparing for a National Emergency: The Committee on Conservation of Cultural Resources, 1939–1944” here; and of course in the sources linked in the text of the post.