When Germany declared war on the United States on December 8, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt worried about the nations treasures. England had been bombed by the Nazis and bombs had hit the British Museum destroying some of England’s priceless cultural treasures.

Roosevelt was determined not to let a similar thing happen in the United States.

In the early evening of December 26, 1941, a train left Union Station in Washington, DC headed for Fort Knox, Kentucky. Four Secret Service agents were assigned to guard the plain looking cargo placed in Car A-1. Unknown to the agents, and even most people in the government, the boxes contained the original Declaration of Independence, the  Constitution of the United States and the first and second drafts of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.


The US Constitution and Declaration of Independence on display at the Library of Congress in 1940. (Photo: Getty Images)

Roosevelt understood what the loss of the documents would do to American morale and the national consciousness as a whole. With German U-boats causing havoc off the East Coast, the fear of German attack by air was very real and the capabilities of the German Air Force were not fully known.

Before war came to America, Roosevelt had asked Archibald MacLeish, the head of the Library of Congress, to catalog America’s historical papers. MacLeish and some 700 Library of Congress staff had worked overtime without pay to catalog thousands of documents. They ranked them in order of their importance in case they needed to be evacuated.

During the War 5,000 manuscripts were removed from Washington, DC including an original Gutenberg Bible, James Madison’s handwritten notes on the Constitutional Convention, the Articles of Confederation, George Washington’s personal papers, the Lincoln Cathedral copy of the Magna Carta, and Walt Whitman’s notebooks.

Even with all the nation’s treasures cataloged, they could not all fit in Fort Knox where only 60 cubic feet of space was available. Archibald MacLeish considered sending the other artifacts to caves, tunnels and mines but worried about damage from water or animals. The papers were eventually sent to three different universities for safekeeping, the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Washington and Lee University and the Virginia Military Institute, both in Lexington. These locations were far enough away from the coast to be safe from air attack.

Although attempts were made at secrecy, the story soon leaked to the press. A reporter in Lexington learned of the several cartons marked “Property of the Library of Congress.” He found librarians from Washington and Lee University to talk to and ask what the cartons contained. The newsman’s investigation ended when MacLeish called to kill the story.

The value of America’s cultural and historical treasures was clear to Roosevelt, who evacuated them but also knew of their morale building ability. In 1943, he let the Declaration of Independence be displayed at the dedication of the Jefferson Memorial.

After the war, the documents were returned to Washington, except for two of Walt Whitman’s five notebooks. Both of them are still missing to this day.

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