On this Fourth of July, at the National Archives in Washington, thousands of citizens will strain to read the Declaration of Independence. The writing is so faint that many of the precious phrases are all but unreadable. It’s as if this charter of our freedom is fading away.
How can that be? No one disputes that the Declaration is a precious document that should be preserved and protected for future generations. Few Americans know, however, how poorly it was treated over the past two centuries.
Since 1776, the Declaration has been rolled and unrolled, used to prepare facsimile copies, and displayed in damaging sunlight. It is hard to imagine any document surviving such abuse.
Why was it treated in this manner? Simply put, the Declaration gradually became a national icon — the civic equivalent of stone tablets that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. Generations of Americans wanted to see the document and galvanize their sense of national identity. So for all to see the document, it was moved and displayed with little care.
That was not the original plan, of course. The final handwritten copy — the one that tens of millions have seen at the National Archives — was ratified on July 4. A rough copy was sent to John Dunlop for publication and distribution to the colonies. It would take another month before John Hancock and most of the other delegates could sign the now famous parchment copy.
And that was the end of the story for nearly half a century. The American people won a revolutionary war and built a nation, but no one gave much thought to the original document that gave sanction to their acts until the country approached its golden anniversary. And when the Declaration was examined in 1820, government officials feared that its ink was fading.
In an effort to save the image, a facsimile was made and used as a template for an engraved copy. The engraving was brilliant, but the process nearly destroyed the text. Compounding the damage was the decision in 1841 to put the Declaration on public display. For the next 43 years it was bleached by the sunlight and became less and less readable with each passing year.
What could be done to protect the document? The only practical way to stop the deterioration was to remove it from public display and store it in a dark place. Finally, in 1894, the Declaration was “carefully wrapped and placed in a flat steel case.” Many hoped that these measures would stop its further deterioration.
Of course this action only stoked the persistent desire of the American people to see and be inspired by the Declaration. Giving in to public and congressional pressure, the State Department sent the document to the Library of Congress in 1921. There it was displayed in an impressive bronze case. Covered with special glass to filter out harmful sunlight, it was still visible to the public.
This “shrine,” as the display case was called, was the government’s attempt to balance the need both to preserve and display this charter of freedom. After a sojourn to Fort Knox during World War II, the document returned to public display in 1944.
New efforts were made to protect the document in 1951, when it was sealed in a helium-filled case with new light filters. In 1952, the Declaration was installed in a new shrine in the rotunda of the National Archives Building.
But vigilance has been necessary. Concerned about the glass covering the Declaration in 2003, conservators removed the document from its old case, cleaned and repaired the parchment, and designed new gas-filled cases that provided further protection and enhanced the ability of millions of Americans to see it up close.
So, what is the current condition of the Declaration? Conservators and scientists continue to monitor the document using a computerized camera system designed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Tests indicate that further deterioration has been minimal.
The lines to see and read the Declaration are longest on Independence Day. Everyone is eager to see what science and technology did to maximize the legibility of the document. They look for the date, “July 4, 1776,” for John Hancock’s famous signature and for those famous words — 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.”
Although cynical about contemporary politicians, many Americans are inspired by the Founding Fathers and the document they created. Seeing the Declaration of Independence, and perhaps reading a few words, helps them to appreciate better the birth of this American nation. They are living testimony that the Declaration is worth much more than the parchment it is written on.
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• Timothy Walch is director emeritus of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and a member of the Iowa Historical Records Advisory Board.