American Treasures: The Secret Efforts to Save the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address

In the early days of World War II, poet Archibald MacLeish, the director of the Library of Congress, worked with the Secret Service to move 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, Stephen Puleo (The Caning) 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 21st-century restoration and conservation techniques.

Puleo never loses track of the documents' dual nature as both artifacts and symbols. He describes their drafting and publication as well as the political debates that surrounded their creation, bringing new life to familiar stories in the process. He traces the documents' physical deterioration, attempts to preserve them and bureaucratic infighting over their control. In what is possibly the most fascinating section, Puleo compares the singlehanded 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. (Pleasonton hid them in an abandoned farmhouse. Not exactly Fort Knox.)

Ultimately, American Treasures is an engaging exploration of Archibald MacLeish's assessment that "they are not important as manuscripts, they are important as themselves." --Pamela Toler, blogging at History in the Margins

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