Stephen Puleo's American Treasures is a narrative history of America's secret efforts to hide its founding documents from Axis powers, and its national tradition of uniting to defend the definition of democracy.
A Boston Globe Bestseller
On December 26, 1941, Secret Service Agent Harry E. Neal stood on a platform at Washington's Union Station, watching a train chug off into the dark and feeling at once relieved and inexorably anxious. These were dire times: as Hitler's armies plowed across Europe, seizing or destroying the Continent's historic artifacts at will, Japan bristled to the East. The Axis was rapidly closing in.
So FDR set about hiding the country's valuables. On the train speeding away from Neal sat four plain-wrapped cases containing the documentary history of American democracy: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, and more, guarded by a battery of agents and bound for safekeeping in the nation's most impenetrable hiding place.
American Treasures charts the little-known journeys of these American crown jewels. From the risky and audacious adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to our modern Fourth of July celebrations, American Treasures shows how the ideas captured in these documents underscore the nation's strengths and hopes, and embody its fundamental values of liberty and equality. Stephen Puleo weaves in exciting stories of freedom under fire - from the Declaration and Constitution smuggled out of Washington days before the British burned the capital in 1814, to their covert relocation during WWII - crafting a sweeping history of a nation united to preserve its definition of democracy.
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About the Author
Stephen Puleo is a historian, teacher, public speaker, and the author of several books, including Voyage of Mercy, Dark Tide, American Treasures, and The Caning. A former award-winning newspaper reporter and contributor to American History magazine, the Boston Globe, and other publications, he holds a master's degree in history and has taught at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and Suffolk University. He and his wife, Kate, reside in the Boston area.
Read an Excerpt
The Secret Efforts to Save the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address
By Stephen Puleo
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Stephen Puleo
All rights reserved.
"It Is Natural That Men Should Value the Original Documents"
Washington, D.C., February 1941
Earlier that year, Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish, who had not slept well for nearly eighteen months, sifted through voluminous reports from his key staff members. The reports, which detailed the library's most precious collections, were the source of his insomnia.
Two years earlier he'd resigned his position at a Boston law firm to write poetry full-time, basking in the boldness of his decision and contemplating the full potential of his art. President Roosevelt had changed all that when he had convinced MacLeish to take on his current position.
Now, sitting alone in his office, MacLeish felt the crushing weight of a burden he had not asked for, but for which he would assume full responsibility.
The past six months had been almost surreal at the normally staid Library of Congress. The repeated and devastating Nazi bombings of London and its institutions during the blitz this past fall, including the bombing of Buckingham Palace and Downing Street in September 1940, and the German attacks on libraries and museums taking place throughout Europe, had raised alarms in Washington. It shocked MacLeish to read newspaper accounts describing the forced retreat of King George and Queen Elizabeth to an underground shelter as London rocked "in an inferno of exploding bombs and fierce anti-aircraft fire."
During that period, he'd experienced deep distress about the destructive power of incendiary bombs on his library's priceless collections. He also worried each day about the potential damage to irreplaceable documents — from water, humidity, mold, vermin, accidents, and incompetence — if he were forced to relocate them for safekeeping. The original Declaration of Independence was already in fragile condition; would removing it from the Library of Congress expose it to further deterioration?
The United States had not entered this war, and there was fierce resistance across the country to do so. Still, to MacLeish's way of thinking, the possibility of Axis bombing attacks or sabotage on Washington, and the potential destruction of the nation's most important records, no longer seemed as remote as it had one year earlier.
There were sober lessons to be learned from overseas.
* * *
IN 1938, A FULL year before Hitler's invasion of Poland, the British Museum had selected a disused mine in a remote corner of the United Kingdom to store its treasures, as well as valuables from other institutions, including the National Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Manuscripts, books, historic records, and perishable relics of Britain's past were collected in this underground repository. Shelves were hollowed out of solid rock, and steel racks were constructed for manuscript boxes and other containers. Atmospheric conditions — heat, air-conditioning, humidity — were so well controlled by a self-sufficient system that ordinary folding cardboard boxes sufficed to hold England's documents.
Still, it wasn't enough. In more than a dozen cases, British libraries that hadn't been prioritized had been hit by German incendiary bombs designed to set buildings ablaze with their intense heat rather than their explosive power; the white-hot flames they created were devastating to paper documents and books. Just two months ago, on Christmas Eve in 1940, the extensive library of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, England's oldest scientific society, had been destroyed by enemy attack. The collections of several eminent scientists were lost forever, including those of renowned meteorologist John Dalton. Three months earlier, an incendiary bomb fell on the east wing of the British Museum, damaging the King's Library Gallery and destroying many of the books collected by King George III. Some 1,500 rare volumes were severely damaged. Before war's end, England alone would see more than 1 million volumes destroyed in bombed-out libraries.
Other European countries took precautions, too. In the spring of 1939, intense saber-rattling from Germany convinced France to transfer many records of the French Foreign Office from Paris to a safer location. Thousands of masterpieces were moved from the Louvre to the French countryside, including Leonardo da Vinci's priceless Mona Lisa, swathed in layers of waterproof paper. In Budapest, areas within the Hungarian National Archives building were set aside for the preservation of valuable medieval documents and were protected by sandbags banked in the passages and against the windows. Yet even with these precautions, once fighting broke out, thousands of documents were lost or destroyed across Europe.
Fearful of war reaching North America's shores, MacLeish and others began questioning the best course of action to protect their collections. Harry McBride, administrator of the National Gallery of Art, wrote to librarians and museum executives urging that "common plans for protection" be undertaken by the National Archives, the National Museum, the Library of Congress, his own institution, and other federal repositories. He suggested that a "large subterranean shelter" be constructed, "to which the most precious part of the collections, at least, of these institutions might be conveyed in case of danger."
David C. Mearns, superintendent of the Library of Congress reading room, agreed that it would be "highly desirable" to have an underground bomb shelter but pointed out the time and expense of building something new. "Would it not be judicious for the Library to consider readapting (structurally) some of its present subterranean spaces for the purpose of safe-guarding its own rarities?" Mearns noted that currently the library's underground spaces would not be structurally strong enough to withstand direct bombing.
MacLeish had commissioned a report in November 1940 on the practicalities of the Library of Congress following the British relocation model. In reply, Lawrence Martin, the chief of the Division of Maps, addressed the possibility of storing documents in caves, mines, and the mile-long Southern Railway tunnel that began beneath Union Station, traversed under First Street right in front of the Library of Congress, and emerged at New Jersey Avenue between D and E streets SE.
Martin dismissed the possibility of using caves, since they were "generally damp, frequently wet, and often dripping." He had gone so far as to visit potential caves in New York, Wisconsin, and even central Mexico and found none suitable for storage. In addition, he pointed out that caves often have multiple entrances, "and we never dare say we know all the ways to get in from the back." Mines would be better than caves, but also presented problems with dampness, dust, rodents, insects, and access. Martin suggested that finding and modifying a natural habitat might be both financially and politically palatable. "On the side of a Kentucky gorge, for example, we could build a bomb-proof chamber," he wrote to MacLeish. To hide it from view, from the ground or the air, workers could "reinforce its concrete roof with much dirt, camouflage its new side, its ends, and its top, and have a safe place" to store documents. Such an arrangement had an added benefit: it "would not open us up to the possible ridicule that might arise over placing books in caves."
While mines and gorges were possibilities, there were two superior alternatives, Martin suggested. One was the Southern Railway tunnel, which could provide temporary shelter for the treasures of the Library of Congress and the National Archives. "They could be housed in water-proofed box cars," Martin wrote. "All passenger trains could be routed around the city on the freight line."
In his opinion, however, the safest and best location for the Library of Congress's most precious artifacts and documents was an impenetrable fortress far from Washington, D.C.
* * *
IN DECEMBER 1940, AFTER reading Martin's report, MacLeish spun into action.
He directed the chiefs of major Library of Congress divisions to prepare, "at the very earliest possible moment," detailed lists of documents and materials "which would be utterly irreplaceable" if they were destroyed, along with an estimate of how many cubic feet would be required to house them if the United States entered the war. They should select material "on the basis of irreplaceability and uniqueness" and give primary attention to those considered "most important for the history of democracy." They should divide the records into six groupings based on their intrinsic historical value, with the first including the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln's second inaugural, and the papers of Washington, Madison, Hamilton, and other founders.
"The fate of great libraries abroad, several of which have been completely and others partially destroyed in air raids, emphasize the importance of careful planning to meet any contingency which might arise," MacLeish stressed to his staff.
As he read those assessments now, MacLeish reflected on the breathtaking aggregate collection under his purview and for which he was responsible. In addition to the nation's preeminent founding documents, the Library of Congress also possessed a priceless Gutenberg Bible, and one of the original copies of the Magna Carta, the thirteenth-century document that first established the principal that kings must rule according to law and not mere monarchical mandate, and that citizens were guaranteed certain rights, including a fair trial.
In addition, the library held thousands of other critical documents: from the Division of Maps, there was Pierre Charles L'Enfant's original hand-drawn plan for the layout of Washington, D.C., complete with fading editorial annotations from Thomas Jefferson; from Rare Books, a richly illustrated 1340 edition of the Latin Bible, printed on vellum; and of course, from the Manuscript Division, a treasure trove of American history. Among these were the Journals of the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1776; George Washington's diaries, including the entries recording the British surrender at Yorktown; the works Dolley Madison had rescued from destruction when the British burned Washington in 1814, documents she later labored to publish — James Madison's Notes on Debates (two volumes) and Records and Essential Papers (two booklike boxes and one large portfolio volume) of the Constitutional Convention of 1787; and Abraham Lincoln's papers.
The Library of Congress also held Samuel Morse's first-ever telegraphic message from 1844 — "What Hath God Wrought?" — that marked history's transformation in communications. And from the Mary Todd Lincoln collection was the April 29, 1865, letter of condolence from Queen Victoria after learning of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Victoria, still grieving and "utterly broken-hearted" following the death four years earlier of her beloved husband, Prince Albert, told Lincoln's widow that she could not "remain silent when so terrible a calamity has fallen upon you & your country."
And on it went as MacLeish studied the reports filtering in from all sections: there were the original books donated by Thomas Jefferson to create the Library of Congress, original Stradivarius violins, aviation pioneer Octave Chanute's correspondence with Wilbur Wright, Mary Todd Lincoln's pearls, and thousands of other irreplaceable items.
MacLeish's staff had heeded his directive to be as thorough as possible.
While MacLeish had initially focused on Library of Congress records, President Roosevelt asked him to survey other agencies as well. He had heard back from several: the United States Patent Office, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Gallery of Art, and others, seeking more than 600,000 cubic feet of storage space for their documents and artifacts. Roosevelt then asked his National Resources Planning Board to assemble a Committee on Conservation of Cultural Resources to study the problem in a coordinated way. One day MacLeish would serve as a key member of the CCCR, which was made up of representatives of museums, archives, and historic sites, but for now he focused on the Library of Congress collection alone.
In early 1941, Archibald MacLeish was not sure the Library of Congress documents would ever have to be relocated for safekeeping, but he actually hoped they would. He believed America's entry into the war was the only way to halt rampaging totalitarianism in Europe.
* * *
WHILE FERVENT ISOLATIONISM WAS the majority feeling across the country in the late 1930s and into 1940, MacLeish had earned the scorn of his liberal friends and fellow intellectuals by vigorously advocating for U.S. military intervention against the scourge of fascism in Europe.
The country's indelible memory of the ghastly Great War a quarter century earlier, combined with the recent rawness of its decade-long Depression fatigue, had created in Americans an aversion to any cause beyond their own borders. Insularity became the nation's balm. Although Hitler's vow to conquer Europe had materialized with brutal swiftness, the overwhelming sentiment in the United States was to reinvigorate an ailing nation before getting involved elsewhere.
Even now, in the wake of Hitler's brutal invasions of Poland and the Low Countries, his shockingly swift conquest of France, and his relentless bombardment of England, there were protests coast to coast from political opponents and wary citizens alike over President Roosevelt's proposed Lend-Lease bill to supply the British with supplies and weapons in exchange for later payment. The House had numbered the bill HR 1776 to appeal to the nation's patriotism, but angry mothers across the country, sensing that it was only the first step in an interventionist strategy, rallied holding signs that said, KILL BILL 1776, NOT OUR SONS. Roosevelt expended enormous political capital on the lend-lease bill, which ultimately passed in March 1941, but even the president's staunchest supporters in Congress warned that they would venture no closer to the interventionist line. The United States was simply not interested in becoming involved in Europe's affairs.
MacLeish, in a series of speeches and columns, had tried to convince people that the European cause was also the American cause, especially after the fall of France in June 1940. Before the Battle of France, "we had thought ourselves spectators of a war in Europe," he told a crowd during a speech at Faneuil Hall in Boston in November 1940. "After it, we knew the war was not in Europe but nearer — in the darker and more vulnerable countries of men's hearts." He told the crowd: "Democracy in action is a cause for which the stones themselves will fight."
Time and again, in speeches and letters, MacLeish invoked the spirit of American liberty as envisioned by the founders, a spirit that required sacrifice and resoluteness to ensure the country's enduring success and ongoing freedom. No American could look at the dire situation in Europe, MacLeish said, "without asking himself with a new intensity, a new determination to be answered, how our own democracy can be preserved." MacLeish also began speaking and writing on the role of librarians in the face of the fascist threat. Describing the librarian's profession in 1940, he wrote: "In such a time as ours, when wars are made against the spirit and its works, the keeping of these records is itself a kind of warfare. The keepers, whether they so wish or not, cannot be neutral."
If armed conflict against Hitler meant war would come to the nation's shores — to Washington — MacLeish would be ready to do his part, just as so many Americans had done before him. With each day that passed, with each new assault of Nazi bombs on London, MacLeish thought it likely that he would find himself tasked with protecting America's critical documents, perhaps on a grander scale than his forebears could imagine.
* * *
ARCHIBALD MACLEISH RESPECTED, AND in many ways, loved the documents that fell under his stewardship. He knew their history, he knew of the risks taken and the bravery demonstrated by the men and women who had created and safeguarded them, and he knew the revered place they held in the hearts and spirits of Americans.
He had expressed his first public insights about the importance of cherished American documents when the Library of Congress took custody of the British Magna Carta during a moving ceremony on November 28, 1939, fewer than three months after Germany had invaded Poland to begin World War II. The so-called Lincoln Cathedral copy, from 1215, had been on display at the New York World's Fair, and, with war under way in Europe, the British ambassador had asked the United States to hold onto the document for safekeeping.
Excerpted from American Treasures by Stephen Puleo. Copyright © 2016 Stephen Puleo. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. “It Is Natural that Men Should Value the Original Documents”
2. “We Hold These Truths . . .”
3. “The Unanimous Declaration”
4. “The Preservation of National Morale”
5. “Suspended upon a Single Hair”
6. “Our Doors Will Be Shut”
7. “That a National Government Ought to Be Established”
8. “We Are Now at a Full Stop”
9. “The People Are the King”
10. “Approaching So Near to Perfection . . .”
11. “Tis Done! . . . We Have Become a Nation”
12. “A Place of Greater Safety”
13. “Take the Best Care of the Books and Papers . . .”
14. “Such Destruction—Such Confusion . . .”
15. “The Library of Congress Goes to War”
16. “I Had Flattered Myself that He Would Survive the Summer”
17. “No Government upon the Earth Is So Safe As Ours”
18. “Are You Satisfied We Have Taken All Reasonable Precautions?”
19. “He Loved Peace and He Loved Liberty”
20. “Four Score and Seven Years Ago . . .”
21. “Of the People, by the People, for the People . . .”
22. “The Instrument Has Suffered Very Seriously”
23. “Touch Any Aspect of the Address, and You Touch a Mystery”
24. “Nothing that Men Have Ever Made Surpasses Them”
25. “They Are Not Important As Manuscripts, They Are Important As THEMSELVES”
26. “The National Archives Will Not Forget”
27. “Symbols of Power that Can Move the World”