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Text and History of Declaration

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Signers of the Declaration
Text and History of Declaration

History of the Document

The best known of all the copies of the Declaration of Independence is the parchment copy, engrossed by Timothy Matlack. This one, signed by 56 Delegates of the Continental Congress on and after August 2, 1776, is displayed today in Exhibition Hall at the National Archives Building. Jefferson's final draft of the Declaration, known as the "rough draft," cumulatively bearing the corrections, amendments, and deletions of the drafting committee and of Congress as a whole, as well as Jefferson's marginal and textual notes, is preserved among the Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress. The revised draft, adopted by the Delegates on July 4, 1776, and signed only by John Hancock and Charles Thomson, President and Secretary of the Continental Congress, is known as the broadside copy. It was sent to the printer and has never been located. Sixteen copies of the printed broadside have survived. In addition to the "rough draft," as least six other handwritten contemporary copies of the Declaration, one fragmentary, have survived and are in various archival collections. Five were made by Jefferson and one by John Adams.

A Multitude of Amendments, Alterations and Additions

The history of the parchment copy of the Declaration is fascinating. From 1776 until 1789, along with other important national papers, it was safeguarded by Secretary of Congress Thomson, who carried it with him as Congress, at first to escape British troops and later for other reasons, convened in various cities: Philadelphia, Baltimore, Lancaster, York, Princeton, Trenton, Annapolis, and New York.

When the Constitution took effect in 1789 and Thomson left office, he relinquished the Declaration to the newly created Department of State, which was under the temporary stewardship of Acting Secretary John Jay. Its offices were in New York's old City Hall (Federal Hall). The next March, Thomas Jefferson became the first Secretary of State and custodian of the instrument he had created. Later that year, Philadelphia became the seat of the Federal Government and the Declaration returned to its birthplace. There it remained for a decade, until 1800, when the Government moved to the new national Capital of Washington.

Secretary of State John Marshall apparently at first stored the Declaration in his Department's temporary offices in the old Treasury Building, at 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW., and possibly then at Seven Buildings, 19th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. After a few months, likely in 1801, the document was transferred to the War Office Building, at 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW., where the Department of State moved its offices. The Declaration remained there until the summer of 1814, during the War of 1812 when British troops invaded the Capital. Shortly before they arrived, Secretary of State James Monroe packed the instrument and other state papers in linen sacks and sent them by wagon to a barn on the Virginia side of the Potomac 2 miles above Chain Bridge for one night, and then to a clergyman's home in Leesburg, Va. Within a few weeks, after the British threat had subsided, the documents were brought back to Washington and probably temporarily kept in various structures because of the burning of the War Office Building by the British.

In 1820 the Department of State moved the Declaration to its headquarters at 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Stored for years in scroll fashion, the document had already been damaged by numerous unrollings, other handling, and frequent moves. In the period 1820-23 the use of a "wet" copying process to produce a facsimile apparently divested the parchment of some of its ink, especially that of the signatures.

Subsequently the Declaration remained relatively undisturbed until 1841, when Secretary of State Daniel Webster, concluding that it should be on public view, ordered that it be mounted, framed, and moved to the newly constructed Patent Office, in the block bounded by Seventh, Ninth, F, and G Streets NW. The Patent Office was then part of the Department of State. Placed beside George Washington's commission as commander in chief of the Continental Army in a large frame on a wall of the second floor hall opposite a window, for 35 years the Declaration endured exposure to glare, summer heat, and winter cold. The text retained its legibility, but the parchment faded and yellowed, cracked and warped. Many of the signatures had faded, some becoming blurred or almost invisible.

The Federal Government in 1876 lent the Declaration to the city of Philadelphia, site of the national Centennial Exposition. On July 4 Richard Henry Lee, grandson of the signer, read it publicly. It was then exhibited in a fireproof safe behind a plate glass window and seen by more people than ever before. Philadelphians, deploring its condition, fought to retain it and only reluctantly returned it to Washington. Heeding the outcry of those who had viewed the time-worn parchment, a Government commission studied the possibility of restoration and in time concluded that such an attempt might be damaging.

Meantime, in 1877, as a safeguard the Declaration was moved from the Patent Office to a more fireproof building at 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. shared by the State, War, and Navy Departments. It had narrowly escaped destruction, for only a few months later fire gutted the Patent Office. Finally, in 1894, for protection from the light, State Department officials sealed the 118-year-old sheet between two glass plates and locked it in a safe in the basement. There it lay, except for rare occasions, in darkness and unobserved for more than a quarter of a century.

In 1921 the Department of State, responding to the recommendation of a special commission, relinquished custodianship of the Declaration to the Library of Congress. The transfer was made personally by Herbert Putnam, the Librarian, using a library mail truck, a Model T Ford. At first he kept the document in his office. In 1924, however, he placed it together with the Constitution, on public exhibition in a bronze-and-marble shrine on the second floor. At this time, the Declaration was encased between heavy glass panes specially treated to keep out harmful rays of light.

The Declaration and the Constitution remained there until the outbreak of World War II. On December 26, 1941, just 19 days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, they left Washington under heavy guard by train en route to Fort Knox, Ky., where they arrived the following day. Specialists took advantage of the opportunity and cleaned and restored the Declaration to the maximum degree. In 1944 both it and the Constitution were taken back to the Library of Congress. They remained there until 1952, at which time a tank under military escort carried them to Washington's National Archives Building, repository of the Nation's permanent records, which are under the jurisdiction of the National Archives and Records Service of the U.S. General Services Administration.

National Archives Building
Constitution Avenue entrance of the National Archives Building, Washington, D.C. (National Archives)
The Charters of Freedom

STILL enshrined there today, along with thousands of other priceless national records, is the parchment copy of the Declaration. The massive bronze doors at the Constitution Avenue entrance to the building lead to the circular Exhibition Hall. At its rear center stands a marble shrine containing the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. They are sealed in helium-filled bronze and glass cases, screened from harmful light rays by special filters, and can be lowered within seconds into a large fireproof, shockproof, and bombproof vault.

The hall also features a "Formation of the Union" exhibit, a collection of documents illustrating the evolution of the U.S. Government from 1774 until 1791. They include the Articles of Association (1774), the Articles of Confederation (1777), the Treaty of Paris (1783), and Washington's inaugural address (1789). Above the exhibits are two murals. In one, Jefferson is presenting the Declaration to John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress; in the other, James Madison is submitting the Constitution to George Washington, President of the Constitutional Convention.

marble shrine
This marble shrine at the rear center of Exhibition Hall, National Archives Building, contains the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. (National Archives)
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Last Updated: 04-Jul-2004