In the early days of World War II, poet Archibald MacLeish, then the reluctant director of the Library of Congress, worked with the Secret Service to relocate the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address and thousands of other precious documents to hiding places, including Fort Knox, where they would be safe in case of enemy bombing. In American Treasures:The Secret Efforts to Save the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address, Stephen Puleo uses the story of MacLeish’s undercover librarianship as a framing device for the documents’ history as a whole, from the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 through the development of twenty-first century restoration and conservation techniques.
Puelo never loses track of the dual nature of the documents as both artifacts and symbols. He describes the physical creation and publication of the documents as well as the political debates that surrounded their creation, bringing new life to familiar stories in the process. (I don’t know about you, but I never thought about what was involved in producing copies of the Declaration of Independence for distribution in 1776.) He traces the documents’ physical deterioration, attempts to preserve them, and bureaucratic infighting over their control. In what is possibly the most fascinating section of the book, he compares the single-handed efforts of Stephen Pleasonton, a senior clerk in the office of the Secretary of State, to save the documents when the British attacked Washington in 1814 with MacLeish’s carefully executed plan.*
Ultimately, American Treasures is an engaging exploration of Archibald MacLeish’s assessment that “They are not important as manuscripts, they are important as themselves.”
Who would have thought the story of some pieces of paper could be so enthralling?
*Pleasanton wrapped them in makeshift linen sacks**, drove them out of the city in borrowed wagons, and hid them in an abandoned farmhouse. Not exactly Fort Knox.
**Sewed together by Pleasanton and other government clerks, none of whom would have been experienced with a needle. (I picture a lot of sticking themselves and swearing.)
Most of this review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers.