Author, historian visits Mattapoisett Library
Mattapoisett — Ever wonder if there might really be a hidden treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence? Unfortunately, the answer is no, said author and historian Stephen Puleo at a talk at the Mattapoisett Library on Sunday afternoon.
Puleo spoke to a packed room about his newest book “American Treasures,” the story of the United States government’s secret efforts to save the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Gettysburg Address and other priceless documents from damage during World War II.
The book bounces around throughout time, treating the WWII era as the “present,” while also visiting the birth of these documents and their importance through the years.
Puleo said he got the idea after reading a little article in a magazine about the U.S. moving documents to Fort Knox for safe-keeping because of a fear of German sabotage in the wake of Pearl Harbor and a German declaration of war shortly thereafter.
After doing more research, Puleo said he found that the Library of Congress had actually moved 5,000 boxes of important documents, categorized by importance. The most precious of documents – the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Gettysburg Address and England's Magna Carta – were stored in Fort Knox, thought to be the safest and most impenetrable place in the continental U.S. The other documents were stored at three different universities: the University of Virginia, Washington and Lee University and Denison University.
The big question that Puleo then aimed to answer was "why"? Why had President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Library of Congress librarian Archibald MacLeish thought that preserving these documents were so important for American morale?
Puleo explored the genesis of these documents, emphasizing how monumental, controversial and risky signing the Declaration of Independence was for the American colonies.
“They [signed the declaration] in an era of strong, oppressive monarchies,” he said. “The notion that people were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and that the government derives its power from the people was unheard of. It was revolutionary.”
Puleo also pointed out that the people who signed the Declaration of Independence did so knowing that if the colonies lost the Revolutionary War, they would undoubtedly be hanged for treason.
“What went into signing these documents was what FDR and MacLeish had in mind when they wanted to save and protect these documents,” Puleo said. “For both the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, wars still had to be won for those to be worth anything."
And despite the old age of the documents, they still provide the very foundation of political discourse in present day.
“Those are the blueprints of how we govern today. Those concepts are part of every debate we have,” he said. “And that is what FDR and MacLeish were thinking about.”