Academic journal article Social Education

Letter from Archibald MacLeish about Relocating the Charters of Freedom during World War II: Protecting Our Founding Document in War and Peace

Academic journal article Social Education

Letter from Archibald MacLeish about Relocating the Charters of Freedom during World War II: Protecting Our Founding Document in War and Peace

Article excerpt

As tensions mounted, in Europe during the 1930s, the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, and other European countries formulated plans to protect their national artistic and cultural treasures. By the summer of 1939, these governments put their plans into motion. Museums such as the Louvre sent much of their collections to relatively safer locations in the countryside. In March 1941, the U.S. government began to make similar plans; three weeks and three days following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish, sent a heartfelt letter to the secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau. In that letter, which is featured in this article, MacLeish thanked Morgenthau and the U.S. Secret Service for their help in protecting the "documentary history of freedom in our world." He was referring to the successful transfer of the library's copy of the Magna Carta, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and other precious manuscripts from the Library of Congress to the Bullion Depository in Fort Knox, Kentucky.

Plans for the transfer had begun in March 1941, when the National Resources Planning Board, a New Deal agency that planned public works and coordinated federal planning regarding natural resources, created the Committee on the Conservation of Cultural Resources (CCRP). CCRP functions included establishing measures for the protection of books, manuscripts, records, works of art, museum objects, historic buildings, and other cultural resources from wartime damage. Among those serving on the Committee were David E. Finley, the director of the National Gallery of Art; Robert D. W. Connor, the archivist of the United States; and the librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish.

In April 1941, MacLeish contacted Morgenthau to ask if there was any space available in the newly constructed Fort Knox Bullion Depository for some of the Library's most precious items. Morgenthau replied that there was 60.3 cubic feet available within the Depository for "the priceless heart of the country's greatest collection of books and manuscripts." The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor eight months later testified to MacLeish's foresight and created a heightened sense of urgency to protect the nation's historical documents and other cultural treasures.

MacLeish quickly requested that the Secret Service transfer the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and selected other items to Fort Knox. "The transfer of the documents was deemed advisable," the Secret Service reported in 1943, "because of the war in which the United States is now engaged and because of the possibility that in Washington they might be destroyed or damaged in the event of air raids by the enemy." (1) In November of 1944, novelist Robert Penn Warren stated, "Though there was reason for hope, there was no reason for certainty, that the capital of this country would be spared the destruction already brought on the capitals of several of the European belligerents." (2)

According to a February 1945 article published in the Louisville Courier-Journal of Kentucky, Library of Congress staff removed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution from their shrine two days before Christmas 1941. The. documents were placed between sheets of acid-free paper, and then into a container reinforced with millboard. Library staff placed the package in a custom-made bronze container and padlocked it shut. On December 26, the Library received a statement from the attorney general saying that it had the legal right to transfer the documents. Staff also proceeded to pack the Gutenberg Bible (St. Blasius-St. Paul copy), Magna Carta (Lincoln Cathedral copy), the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln's first and second Inaugural Addresses, and the Articles of Confederation in copper-lined oak cases. The entire shipment consisted of four document cases.

The Secret Service then assumed responsibility for the documents' safe delivery to Fort Knox. …

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