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Monday, August 25, 2014

Saving the Declaration

As British troops approached Washington in August 1814, Secretary of State James Monroe wanted to secure key US documents.  At RealClearHistory, Ryan Cole writes:
He had also sent a memo to the State Department, then housed in the Old War Office Building on 17th Street, addressed to Stephen Pleasonton and John Graham. In it, Monroe advised the men, both department clerks, to take “the best care of the books and papers of the office.” These included the Declaration of Independence, the journals of Congress, George Washington’s commission and correspondence, and many other documents chronicling the business of the young republic.

It was Pleasonton, a methodical middle-aged Delawarean, who received the note and carried out Monroe’s request on the 24th. While the capital erupted in panic and the British, who had actually turned away from Washington, and then headed back toward the city, approached, Pleasanton went to work. He quickly purchased large quantities of linen, which were then fashioned into sacks and filled with the precious papers.

As Pleasonton labored, Secretary of War John Armstrong, walking to his office, cornered the clerk and chided him for his alarm. Armstrong, Pleasonton recalled years later, “did not think the British were serious in their intentions of coming to Washington.” Pleasonton politely disagreed, reasoning that “let their intention be what they might, it was the part of prudence to preserve the valuable papers.”

Once the materials were packed, Pleasonton took one last glance around the State Department rooms and noticed, to his chagrin, the Declaration of Independence still hanging on a wall, which he promptly cut from its frame and placed in one of the gathered carts, which were then dispatched for a mill owned by Edgar Patterson, two miles from Georgetown, on the Virginia side of the Potomac River.