By JOHN Y. COLE
The Library has a long complicated association with the Declaration of Independence. In her July 1 lecture at the Library of Congress about her new book, American Scripture, Making the Declaration of Independence, historian Pauline Maier concentrated on the Library's copy of Thomas Jefferson's rough draft (or as he said "Rough draught") of the Declaration.
This article focuses on the story of the "other" copy of the Declaration of Independence: the final text and original engrossed document bearing the original signatures that was adopted by Congress on the morning of July 4, 1776, and then signed on August 2, 1776, and for several months thereafter. The Library housed this copy from 1921 until 1952, when it was transferred, along with the U.S. Constitution, to the National Archives.
On Sept. 29, 1921, Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam was a happy man. On that day President Warren G. Harding issued an executive order directing the transfer of the original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States from the State Department to the Library. Part of Putnam's argument for the transfer was that the Library could take better care of the documents than the State Department. Also, there was no National Archives in those days, so the transfer seemed logical. A Library "mail wagon" picked up the documents the next day and they were deposited in the safe in the Librarian's office.
On March 22, 1922, President Harding approved the Library's appropriation for fiscal year 1923, which included $12,000 for "a safe, permanent repository of appropriate design" for what turned out to be a "shrine" for the display of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in the Library. This appropriation made it clear that Librarian Putnam had more than preservation in mind when he acquired the documents for the Library: while fully "safe-guarded," they also "should be open to inspection to the public at large."
The designer of "the shrine" was Francis H. Bacon, brother of Henry Bacon, the architect of the Lincoln Memorial. It was located on the west side of the second floor (the mezzanine) of the Jefferson Building, "directly opposite the Minerva [mosaic], and on the axis of the Capitol," in front of a blocked center window that faced the Capitol. The dedication took place on Feb. 28, 1924, in the presence of President Calvin Coolidge and a representative group of Congress members.
What is amazing from today's perspective is that the ceremony took place, according to the 1924 Library of Congress Annual Report, "without a single utterance, save the singing of two stanzas of "America." More than two dozen auxiliary documents about the Revolutionary Era from the Library's Manuscript Division were also displayed, along with "portraits of signers of the Declaration and of the Constitution, with their biographies." Perhaps this auxiliary display was inspired in part by the list of the names of the signers of the Declaration of Independence in the stained glass ceiling panels of the second floor South Gallery in the Jefferson Building (today's European Division Reading Room).
The Library was very concerned about the preservation of the documents and took great care with them. Information regarding the treatment and thinking about the physical condition of the Declaration are outlined in the 1949 Annual Report (these details were later reprinted as "The Declaration of Independence: The Story of a Parchment" by Assistant Librarian David C. Mearns) and in Verner W. Clapp's article "The Declaration of Independence: A Case Study in Preservation" in the December 1971 issue of Special Libraries. It is difficult to judge the success of the Library's preservation efforts. As Pauline Maier points out in the introduction to her book, preservation was poorly understood earlier in this century, and many of the most progressive techniques of the time seem primitive by today's standards.
There is no doubt, however, that from the 1920s through the 1950s, the Library relished and took full advantage of its role as the possessor and protector of the nation's sacred documents. Two weeks after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were sent by train to Fort Knox, Ky., for safekeeping. On the train trip, the compartments "adjoining and connecting" the sleeping car compartment containing the documents "were occupied by armed Secret Service agents and Verner W. Clapp," who had recently been promoted to Chief Assistant Librarian. During its stay at Fort Knox, the Declaration was frequently examined "to make certain that no further harm had come to it." When the documents were returned with great fanfare to public display at the Library on Oct. 1, 1944, a Marine Guard of Honor stood beside the Shrine in the Great Hall. The Marines would be relieved in succeeding weeks by Army and Navy Guards of Honor.
As part of the ceremony (and just prior to the playing of the national anthem by the Marine Band), Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish told the Marines: "It is appropriate that these fragile objects which bear so great a weight of meaning to our people, and indeed to all the peoples of the world, should be entrusted to the guard of men who have themselves seen active service in a war against the enemies of everything this Constitution and this Declaration stand for."
In 1943 the Library published The Declaration of Independence: The Evolution of a Text by Julian Boyd, librarian of Princeton University and the newly appointed editor of the Jefferson papers, which are held in Library's Manuscript Division. Published as part of the 200th birthday of Thomas Jefferson, the booklet brought together accurate facsimile reproductions of the principal documents "illustrative of the evolution of the ideas and phraseology of the Declaration of Independence." In the Library's 1943 Annual Report, Librarian MacLeish, never shy about venturing an opinion, said that the publication "may prove to be one of the most important single events in the history of the Library. It is a model of what such a work should be and its potential usefulness in increasing American knowledge of a basic American document cannot be overestimated."
In light of the heavy symbolic importance the Library placed on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, it is not surprising that the transfer of the documents to the National Archives was a painful -- and drawn out -- experience.
At the laying of the cornerstone for the new National Archives Building in 1933, President Herbert Hoover said that the Archives, as home of official government records, would someday house the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Librarian Putnam however, would not hear of such a transfer and neither would his successor, Archibald MacLeish, who served as Librarian from 1939 to 1944. The task fell to Luther H. Evans, Librarian of Congress from 1945 to 1953.
Aware of the opposition to this action among the Library's senior managers, Evans asked the Joint Committee on the Library to "instruct" (not "authorize") him to transfer the documents, and the committee so instructed him on April 30, 1952. Writing in the LC Information Bulletin, Evans underplayed the event, explaining that the decision "was in substance that the routine application of the statutes concerning the records of the U.S. Government and of its predecessors required this action. ... It is naturally an emotional wrench to surrender the custody of the principal documents of American liberty. Logic and law require it, however."
On a sunny Dec. 13, 1952, the "sacred parchments" -- carefully encased, crated and placed on mattresses -- were carried in an armored Marine Corps personnel carrier down Constitution and Pennsylvania avenues to their new home and "shrine." The vehicle was accompanied by tanks, a motorcycle escort, a color guard, two military bands and four servicemen carrying submachine guns.
The original documents were gone, but in the next decade the bicentenary of the American Revolution brought renewed attention to the Revolutionary era at the Library of Congress. In 1968 Congress approved the Library's plans for a phased bicentennial program and subsequently authorized the addition to the Library's staff of several historians, all specialists in early American history. Many useful publications and projects were undertaken, and the Declaration of Independence received its share of attention. Paul H. Smith, editor of the Library's Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, uncovered new information about the actual signing of the Declaration and presented it in the article "Time and Temperature: Philadelphia, July 4, 1776," in the Oct. 1976 issue of the Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress (ceased publication in 1983).
Another study of the Declaration, The John Dunlap Broadside: The First Printing of the Declaration of Independence by Frederick R. Goff, honorary consultant in early printed books and former chief of the Rare Book Division, was published by the Library in 1976. The book presents the results of a remarkable survey of the surviving first printed copies of the Declaration. Seventeen of the surviving 21 copies were brought together at the Library for Dr. Goff's examination in May 1975.
In our own time, the Library has deservedly focused its attention on the "original Rough draught" of the Declaration, a four-page document in Jefferson's own hand, with changes made by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and others. The draft was transferred to the Library in 1903 from the State Department as part of the Thomas Jefferson Papers. The four pages of the document have been digitized and can be studied in the Library's online exhibition "American Treasures of the Library of Congress" (http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/). It also is presented in the online version of an earlier exhibition, "Declaring Independence: Drafting the Documents (http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/declara/declara1.html.) The Library's 25,000-item collection of Jefferson Papers will be digitized by the end of the year 2000, when the Library marks its bicentenary.
Plans also are being made for publication of a revised edition of Julian Boyd's The Declaration of Independence: The Evolution of the Text. A new edition is needed because of the later discovery by Boyd of a fragment of the composition draft in Jefferson's hand. The fragment, which was publicly exhibited for the first time during the July 4 holiday in 1995, can be seen in the "Declaring Independence" online exhibit.
Thus this latest relationship between the Library and the Declaration of Independence focuses more on access and technology than on physical possession or reflected patriotic glory. Somehow it is appropriate, if a little sad, that when the Jefferson Building recently reopened to the public, the "shrine" had been moved to storage.
John Y. Cole is director of the Center for the Book.