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The Journeys of the Declaration of Independence

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The Declaration of Independence was ratified by the Continental Congress on 4 July, 1776. It was another month, however, before the document was actually signed, as it needed to be engrossed on parchment first.

Travels of the Declaration During the 18th Century

Soon after the signing, the British threatened to capture the rebel capital of Philadelphia. So, Congress fled to Baltimore taking along its important records, including the Declaration of Independence, in a baggage wagon.

Congress returned to Philadelphia in 1777, but they fled again that autumn, shortly before the British occupied the city.

Congress and the Declaration stayed briefly in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and then took Wright's Ferry across the Susquehanna River. They settled in York, which served as the capital for eight months.

When the British left Philadelphia, the Declaration was returned to Independence Hall, where it remained for the next five years.

In June 1783, it was not the British, but angry Revolutionary War veterans who were threatening Congress, over the issue of back pay owed them by the Pennsylvania government. To avoid trouble, Congress packed up the Declaration and fled to Princeton, New Jersey. Next they went to Annapolis, Maryland and Trenton, New Jersey before winding up in New York City in 1785.

When the Constitution was ratified in 1789, the President received custody of the document. George Washington turned it over to his Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, in New York City. A year later, Philadelphia again became the capital of the United States and Jefferson took the Declaration there for a 10-year stay while Washington DC, which was then known as Federal City, was being constructed.

Travels of the Declaration During the 19th Century

The federal government moved to Washington DC, in 1800 and the Declaration went along by ship. There it remained until the War of 1812. Secretary of State James Monroe ordered that his important papers be evacuated to Virginia. While the British burned Washington in 1814, the Declaration was safe in Leesburg.

Back in Washington, the Declaration moved whenever the State Department moved offices until 1841 when Secretary Daniel Webster put it on display in the Patent Office. For 35 years it hung there, unprotected from the Sun. In 1876, President Grant permitted it to be taken by train to the American Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. At that time, many people who saw the document were said to be appalled by its poor condition.

The Declaration was returned to Washington after the exposition and put on display in the new State, Army and Navy Building1. By 1894, the document was so badly deteriorated that President Grover Cleveland ordered it locked in a safe away from all light.

The Declaration in the 20th Century and Today

25 years later, the Declaration was transferred into an airtight frame and put on display in a dimly lit room in the Library of Congress. It was delivered there via mail truck in 1924.

At the start of World War II, the government moved the Declaration to Fort Knox in Kentucky for safekeeping. After the war it was returned to the Library of Congress while politicians debated who should look after the document.

Finally, on 13 December, 1952, it made its last trip to the bronze and marble showcase in the National Archives, where it stands slightly elevated, under armed guard, along with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Even today, however, the Declaration is ready to travel on a moment's notice in case of attack. It's housed on an elevator that can be lowered underground to a bomb shelter by its guards if the need would ever arise.

1This was a good thing because the Patent Office building, where it had been displayed, burned down a few days later!

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