The Declaration of Independence’s Many Homes

This July 4th is the United States’ 239th birthday, which got me thinking a little bit about our country’s birth certificate – the Declaration of Independence.

Everyone knows that the Declaration is stored in Washington, D.C. in the National Archives (assuming you’ve all seen National Treasure). It’s on display along with the Constitution and Bill of Rights under maximum security and with the latest preservation techniques.

But it hasn’t always been a part of the Archives, or so well protected. And it certainly hasn’t been all that stationary.

Festivities in front of the National Archives this July 4th. (Photo: HD)
Festivities in front of the National Archives this July 4th. (Photo: HD)

According to the Archives, the Declaration has had quite a number of homes since it was first drafted in 1776. It was a document on the run during the Revolutionary War, following the Continental Congress as they tried to stay a few steps ahead of the British army.

After we won the war, it came to New York City along with the Congress in 1785, and stayed there as the Big Apple became the first federal capital of the newly minted United States.

It was then put under the charge of the Department of State, with its protector being our first Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. As its principal author, we can imagine this was a responsibility he took close to heart.

The Declaration soon headed down to the next capital, its birthplace of Philadelphia. It traveled by boat, even going out to sea in the Chesapeake Bay before sailing up the Potomac. It would stay in Philadelphia until 1800, when President John Adams (one of the Declaration’s other drafters) ordered all government documents transported to the new, rough and tumble capital of Washington, D.C.

It bounced around to several buildings close to the newly built White House – including the early Treasury and War Department buildings – until August 1814. Two hundred years ago, the British were once again coming – this time to torch the White House and Capitol – and the Declaration was again on the move. It ended up in a private home in Leesburg, where it sat out the rest of the war.

When it returned to the District, it was housed in different buildings along with other State Department documents until 1841. That’s when it was transferred to the new and secure (and supposedly fire-proof) Patent Office building, which is today’s National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum.

Ironically, this is where the document suffered the most damage, hanging in direct sunlight for more than three decades.

The peripatetic parchment briefly traveled back up to Philadelphia for the country’s centennial in 1876. It was then transferred to the ostentatious new State, War, and Navy Building next to the White House (today’s Eisenhower Executive Office Building, formerly known as the Old Executive Office Building), narrowly missing a disastrous fire at the Patent Office.

Tired yet? We’re almost done…

Along with the Constitution, the Declaration was handed over to the Library of Congress in 1924, where it was guarded 24 hours a day in a dedicated new shrine.

It would hit the road one last time, when the U.S. joined World War II in December 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It was sent away from Washington that very same month to the safest and most impenetrable place one could imagine at the time: yes, Fort Knox.

It made a special reappearance in D.C. in 1943 for the dedication of the Jefferson Memorial, where the fragile document’s words would be carved in stone.

And then it was back in the District permanently the next year, where it would remain at the Library of Congress until 1952. That’s when it made its (presumably) final move to the National Archives.

And that’s where people line up from all over the country and the world to see it. Today it’s encased in titanium, preserved with argon gas, and protected by bulletproof glass.

The only movement it now makes is when it’s lowered into an impenetrable vault each night for a deserved rest.

Happy birthday, Declaration of Independence!

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