Give me your John Hancock - preserving the Declaration of Independence
7/4/2009 by: Darleen Hartley
Protecting and preserving the 233 year old document that established the United States of America has been complex. Shuffled around the infant country, copied, hidden, displayed, analyzed, and digitized the Declaration of Independence has endured.
It finally rests in the National Archives in a ballistically tested glass and plastic laminate case with ultraviolet-light filters. At night it is stored in an underground vault. A $3 million camera and computerized system monitors the condition of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights. The Jet Propulsion Lab designed the Charters Monitoring System to detect any changes in readability due to ink flaking, off-setting of ink to glass, changes in document dimensions, and ink fading. The system is capable of recording in very fine detail 1-inch square areas. Getting to this point has been an arduous journey.
The political philosophy of one of the most precious documents of the United States was not new. John Locke and Continental philosophers had already posed the idea of individual liberty. Thomas Jefferson stated that those ideals were self-evident truths. The 1776 Declaration listed grievances against the King of England, which he had ignored, and justified the colonies rendering their relationship with the mother country asunder.
Church bells rang in Philadelphia when the Declaration was officially adopted. John Dunlap, official printer to Congress, immediately whipped out copies, now known as the Dunlap broadside. Broadsides were large sheets of paper, a popular 18th century means for rapidly distributing important information. They were distributed to members of Congress and commanders in the colonial military. Only 24 known copies remain.
The Declaration of Independence - digital scan
Later, the official copy was prepared by engrossing, a process of preparing an official document in a large, clear hand. That hand belonged to Timothy Matlack. John Hancock, the President of the Congress, was the first to sign the completed document. Thus, giving someone your “John Hancock” refers to you signing something important.
Acid in the iron gall ink Matlack used allowed the ink to "bite" into the surface of the parchment, helping to sustain its life, but parchment documents were stored in a rolled format. Opening and flattening them harmed both the ink and the parchment by abrasion and flexing. Preservation methods were unsophisticated, and the Declaration traveled as the Continental Congress moved about during the Revolutionary War fought America fought on its own soil against Great Britain.
Reproductions were made, possibly by taking press copies, whereby a damp sheet of thin paper is pressed on a manuscript causing a transfer of some of the ink. That ink is reimposed on a copper plate, which is then etched and used for printing new copies. One reporter observed in 1820 that the original paper “which ought to be immortal and imperishable” was saved from further damaging handling by using the new copies. However, for 35 years the Declaration was exhibited in the Patent Office, where aging, sunlight, fluctuating temperature and relative humidity did their own damage, as ink and signatures faded.
In 1921, the Declaration was transferred to the Library of Congress and placed in a gold-plated frame under double panes of plate glass with specially prepared gelatin films between the plates to exclude harmful rays of light. It was also protected from theft by a 24-hour guard.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, both the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution were placed between two sheets of acid-free manila paper, wrapped in a container of all-rag neutral millboard, placed in a specially designed bronze container and sequestered at Fort Knox for safekeeping.
At war’s end, the documents were transferred to the Library of Congress. In 1951, the Declaration was sealed in a thermopane enclosure filled with properly humidified helium. The exhibit case was equipped with a filter to screen out damaging light, and a new problem, air pollution.
You can read the entire history of the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives website and marvel at the stylish writing of Thomas Jefferson who studied rhythm, accent, timing, and cadence in discourse. Read the document he composed for the ear as well as for the eye, the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government,…
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.”
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