Saving the Declaration of Independence

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Two hundred years ago on Aug. 24, the U.S. Capitol and the White House went up in flames. If not for the quick thinking of a State Department clerk, the Declaration of Independence, and many other documents dating to the founding, would have as well. 

On the morning of Aug. 20, 1814, Secretary of State James Monroe stood atop a bluff near Aquasco Mills, and gazed three miles south toward Benedict, a village on Maryland’s Patuxent River. Though he was without a spyglass, through squinted eyes Monroe spotted British ships coming up the river and their soldiers coming ashore. With that, he dashed off a note to President James Madison speculating that the ultimate destination of the invading army, though the timing was uncertain, was the young nation’s capital city. 

Two days later, riding ahead of the gathered U.S. forces, Monroe met with William Winder, the general charged with defending Baltimore and D.C., at Bellefields, the Georgian farmhouse of Benjamin Oden in Croom, 30 miles north of Benedict. From there they watched British Major General Robert Ross march his men toward the capital. This was enough to provoke Monroe to send another dispatch to the White House, warning “the enemy are in full march for Washington.”

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.   

Once the cargo departed, Pleasonton began to brood. Patterson’s mill, he realized, was just two miles from the foundry owned by Georgetown Mayor Henry Foxhall, which was contracted by the U.S. government to produce cannon, shells, gun carriages, and as such was a likely target for the British. With that in mind, he hurried across the Potomac, searched the Virginia countryside for wagons, 22 of which he collected and filled with the linen sacks. These were then dispatched to Leesburg, where they were safely locked in the home of Rev. John Littlejohn, the local Internal Revenue agent. 

With the documents out of danger, Pleasonton found his way to a nearby hotel where, “being fatigued with the ride, and securing the papers,” he collapsed into bed. When the sun shone the next morning, his fellow guests reported seeing a blaze in the direction of Washington the previous evening. He saw the damage wrought by those distant flames when he returned to the city on the 26th: The British had fled leaving the Capitol and White House, among other buildings, including the Old War Office building, in smoldering ruins. Thanks to Pleasonton, American’s founding documents did not suffer the same fate. 

Pleasonton shuttled back and forth between Washington and Leesburg during the following weeks to retrieve papers as needed for Monroe, as it was deemed unsafe for the entire collection to return until September. The Secretary of State summarized the rescue mission in his annual department report, submitted in November: “Every exertion was made, and every means employed, for the removal of the books and papers of this office, to a place of safety; and notwithstanding the extreme difficulty of obtaining the means of conveyance, it is believed that every paper and manuscript book of the office, of any importance.”

For his heroics, in 1817 Monroe, then president, made Pleasonton Fifth Auditor of the U.S. Treasury, and then in 1820, the head of the newly created Lighthouse Establishment, where he was renowned for his frugality in maritime matters. His sons, Alfred and Augustus later served as generals for the Union during the Civil War. 

In a fitting bit of historical symmetry, on July 16, 1849, Pleasonton served as a pallbearer in the funeral of Dolley Madison. The First Lady’s rescue of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington during the Burning of Washington is legendary. But the actions of this obscure State Department clerk were no less important. The White House and Capitol Building were rebuilt. The Declaration of Independence would not have been so easily replaced. 

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