FDR Secures the Declaration of Independence, May 13, 1942

by Stephen Puleo

May 13, 1942, Securing the Declaration of Independence at the U.S. Bullion Depository, Fort Knox, 3:30 p.m

Under the watchful eyes of Verner Clapp and two restoration experts from Harvard, guards carried the case containing the Declaration of Independence from the vault to the north room, which had been set up as a work area. Clapp inspected the case’s seals and locks and found them all intact.

Declaration of Independence

This image is a version of the 1823 William Stone facsimile — Stone may well have used a wet pressing process (that removed ink from the original document onto a contact sheet for the purpose of making the engraving). By original: w:Second Continental Congress; reproduction: William Stone. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division. Image is in the public domain via Wikimedia.com

For the next hour, parchment expert Dr. George L. Stout of Harvard, and his assistant, Evelyn Ehrlich, prepared to undertake restorative work on the Declaration of Independence. They had traveled to Kentucky, in secret and at Clapp’s request, in order to assess the impact of storage in Fort Knox on the document. Stout was one of the country’s foremost experts on art conservation and restoration—he would later become one of the famous Monuments Men who traveled to Europe to retrieve and protect art treasures stolen by the Nazis.

The restoration begins

Stout and Ehrlich spent the late afternoon opening the wooden case and preparing to open the bronze container that contained the Declaration of Independence. They unpacked their tools and supplies and laid them out carefully. Then they thoroughly vacuumed the room and recorded atmospheric
conditions. “The document was then taken from the container, and found to be in apparently the same condition as when packed, with no signs of mold, or obvious evidence of further cracking,” a relieved Clapp wrote.

Stout took a series of photo graphs of the entire document, and focused on those areas that were cracked and deteriorated. At about 5:30 p.m., the document was placed in the bronze container and returned to the vault for the night. Stout and Ehrlich would begin work in earnest the next day.

The following morning, a Thursday, Stout and Ehrlich entered the workroom by 9:00 a.m. to begin their delicate task— repairing and restoring the Declaration that Timothy Matlack had so carefully engrossed 166 years earlier.

Scotch tape holds the Declaration of Independence together

The first and most critical step was removing the Declaration of Independence from its mount, a heavy pulp board covered with paper, with a frame of green velvet glued to it. Atop the mount, a rectangular strip of tissue paper, about three- quarters of an inch wide, had been pasted— with an adhesive that consisted of part glue and part paste— the outer dimensions of which conformed to the dimensions of the Declaration. At one point, the Declaration of Independence had been pasted down at the margins on this strip, but, in 1940, it had been detached from the mount. Still, Clapp noted in his report, Stout and Ehrlich made it clear that the tissue had “re-adhered on the upper, side, and especially the lower margins, while in other places on these margins the tissue was left adherent to the document instead of the mount.”

Worse, along the upper margin, the document had in several places “been fixed firmly into place with copious glue in an effort to stop the extending cracks,” meaning that it would be more difficult to detach the Declaration of Independence from its mount. The restorers noted that “practically the whole of the detached upper right- hand corner had been glued down in this manner,” as had the portion of the document “surrounding the crack above the capital letter ‘S’ in ‘States’ in the heading.” Perhaps most disruptive of all, at one point— perhaps also in 1940— someone had made an attempt to “re unite” the detached upper right- hand corner of the document to the main mount by means of a strip of “scotch cellulose tape, which was still in place, discolored to a molasses color.”

Declaration of Independence; St. George Stout, U.S.N.R.

Lieutenant George Stout, U.S. First Army and U.S. Twelfth Army Group. Age: 47. From the Walter Hancock Collection courtesy of the Monuments Men Foundation. Image is in the public domain via LivesandLegaciesBlog.org

Surgical precision

Much to the restorers’ chagrin, “in the various mending efforts, glue had even been splattered in two places on the obverse of the document.” The risk of trying to restore the document was that it might be damaged further. Tearing could occur as restorers attempted to detach the Declaration of Independence from its mount or remove glue from the document’s face.

With the hands and eyes of a surgeon, Stout slowly freed the document from the mount when possible using a sharp, thin blade; when he could not accomplish this safely, he cut or sliced portions of the mount with the Declaration still adhering to it. “The whole upper right-hand corner, which had cracked away from the rest of the document and which itself contained multiple cracks, had to be thus sliced free,” observed Clapp, who watched Stout work.

Under the Declaration, at the lower left corner of the mount, Stout and Ehrlich uncovered two signatures and a date, written in pencil: “L. T. Anderson and Robt. L. Bier— January 22, 1924.” The two men, now deceased, had been employed by the Library of Congress respectively in the Manuscripts Division and the Prints Division repair shop; the date was mere days prior to the ceremony in which the Library of Congress enshrined the Declaration for public view. “ These names and dates appear to give a clue to the mounting of the document,” Clapp noted.

Advanced methods slowly begin to make headway

The hours passed and Stout and Ehrlich continued their efforts. They freed the Declaration of adherent glue, paste, and paper along the margins of the reverse side and on the entire detached upper right- hand corner. They did this by dry slicing and scraping, with the occasional use of toluene and ethyl alcohol to remove stubborn adhesive— acceptable methods even today. Also, because the Declaration had been rolled so often as a scroll from top to bottom, the area that was exposed when rolled— approximately eight inches of the lower portion of the reverse side— was badly soiled. Stout scraped this section clean as well. As they worked inside, rain fell outside, raising the humidity in the workroom and causing the Declaration parchment to “relax appreciably.”

Into the evening, after they had removed most of the adhesives, they reassembled the document, obverse side uppermost, on white blotting paper, drawing the cracks together with Scotch tape, as their predecessor had. They then placed a large sheet of glass on the Declaration of Independence, weighted it down with bags of sand, and returned it to the vault.

Twelve hours of painstaking work

For sixteen hours over the next two days— Friday and Saturday— Stout and Ehrlich labored on the Declaration of Independence at Fort Knox.

Working carefully from the back side, they applied sealing lute, made from Japanese tissue moistened with rice paste, to the document’s cracks. They patched two holes in the heading with vellum— one above the m in “America,” an original hole in the parchment; and one above the S in “States,” a hole resulting from a recent break. All the patches and repairs were tinted with watercolor to match the Declaration’s hue.

When they had finished, they dried the parchment, which had now relaxed due to humidity. The U.S. Army Signal Corps then came into the workroom to photo graph the Declaration of Independence. During this short period of illumination, Clapp noted in his report, it was clear that the document had shrunk “perhaps as much as an eighth of an inch laterally” thanks to the drying. He pointed out that the changes he noticed in the physical state of the Declaration during “relaxing” and “shrinking”— based on humidity— were worthwhile to observe, since they were “an indication of the conditions expected in storing and exhibiting the document.”

Declaration of Independence

Finally, Stout and Ehrlich mounted the Declaration of Independence to a rag board that had been warmed overnight and secured the document with small expanding or pleated hinges at several places along the upper margin and at the two lower corners.

The Constitution is in better shape

Before returning the Declaration of Independence to the vault, the two restorers examined the Constitution and found the document to be in good condition; the 1787 parchment had not suffered the same degradation as the Declaration since it was never displayed in direct sunlight or in rooms smoky from open fireplaces. Indeed, its size— five leaves, four for the document itself, plus the transmittal letter from George Washington— made it difficult to display and therefore had served to preserve the document for all these years. Stout and Ehrlich did remove the pulp board that had been used as filler in the case and replaced it with handmade Japanese blotting paper dabbed with a small amount of thymol dissolved in alcohol to aid preservation. The surfaces of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were protected with a layer of Japanese tissue.

At 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 16, the bronze case containing the two documents was returned to the vault, together with a hygrothermograph to record temperature and humidity. The compartment door was then securely closed “with the seal of the Chief Clerk in Charge, and of myself,” Clapp reported.

On May 20, 1942, Stout and Ehrlich submitted to the Library of Congress their “notes on examination and treatment” of the Declaration. Despite their work, they reported that the Declaration’s condition was “not much affected by treatment.” They believed that “near the mends” they had made to the document, the Declaration “ will buckle in time from changes in humidity.” But the Library of Congress was more optimistic in its annual report seven years later: “Frequent examinations have proved that the remedial measures were generally satisfactory.”

President Roosevelt was anxious for an update.

On October 6, he wrote a short note to MacLeish on White House stationery entitled “Memorandum for the Librarian of Congress.” Using his familiar salutation “Dear Archie,” the president’s memo was polite but pointed. “I have not talked to you for a long time in regard to the removal of valuable and irreplaceable books, manuscripts, etc. from the Library to places of safety in other parts of the country,” Roosevelt wrote. “Are you satisfied that we have taken all reasonable precautions in regard to this?”

For MacLeish, the key word in FDR’s memo was “reasonable.” Certainly, he believed that Library of Congress staffers had done everything they could to properly package and catalog the records, select the repositories, develop security protocols, and, throughout the summer of 1942, visit the university locations to ensure that the documents were being guarded and cared for— and that mold, mildew, and vermin had not compromised the condition of the records.

But the situation was far from ideal. “Your question,” MacLeish responded to Roosevelt in a secret memo on October 19, “goes to the heart of the matter which has concerned me, as I think you know, for about two years.” MacLeish summarized the library’s work to this point, including the transfer of the “principal treasures” to Fort Knox and Stout’s restorative work on the Declaration of Independence. He said he was satisfied that his team had done “everything it could do with the means at [their] disposal, and that [the library’s] most valuable materials are as safe as they can be without the construction of a properly located bombproof shelter.”

The priceless heart of the country’s greatest collection safe at Fort Knox
Declaration of Independence

Infantryman wearing Brodie helmet, kneeling in front of M3 Half-track, holds an M1 Garand rifle. Fort Knox, June 1942. By Alfred T. Palmer. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division. Image is in the public domain via Wikimedia.com

MacLeish stressed to Roosevelt that the Committee on the Conservation of Cultural Resources had expressed a desire for the construction of one or more bombproof structures, “ under adequate guard,” to protect the nation’s records. The relocation of records to inland repositories that were “fi reproof but non- bombproof” was adequate as a temporary measure but did not “provide the best protection which could be given.” Bombproof projects had reached the planning and discussion stage, but bureaucratic delays and other priorities had stalled construction. Prior to writing his response to Roosevelt, MacLeish had checked on the status of such projects with the Public Buildings Administration.

“I was informed . . . that the effort to construct bombproof shelters had been discontinued because of the situation as regards building materials and manpower,” MacLeish informed the president. Simply put, the nation’s efforts were focused on war priorities that were considered more pressing. “Whether or not this discontinuation will be made final, I am unable to say,” MacLeish added.

For now, MacLeish took some consolation that the library’s most valuable documents— “the priceless heart of the country’s greatest collection”— were safely ensconced at Fort Knox. He would continue to suffer anxiety about the security of the remaining 5,000 boxes now stored at universities in Virginia and Ohio.

STEPHEN PULEO is the author of several books, including Dark Tide (Beacon, 2003); Due to Enemy Action (Lyons Press, 2005); and The Caning (Westholme, 2012). Formerly an award-winning newspaper reporter, he is a contributor to American History magazine, among other publications. Stephen Puleo  holds a master’s degree in history and has taught history at Suffolk University in Boston. He resides in Massachusetts with his wife, Kate. He is the author of AMERICAN TREASURES: The Secret Efforts to Save the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address.

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