Declaration of Independence:A simple piece of paper

Posted: Wednesday, July 23, 2008

What is the greatest hidden or lost treasure in the United States, with a value of at least $100 million? It is not gold or silver. It is a simple piece of paper.

Let's begin on June 7, 1776, and with a belated salute to Independence Day, recall the resolution by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia in the Continental Congress meeting at Philadelphia.

"That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown ... ," seconded by John Adams.

In the next three weeks, Thomas Jefferson prepared several rough drafts. On July 2, Congress approved the first paragraph, officially separating us from England.

On the fateful Fourth of July, a "fair copy" of the entire Declaration of Independence, in Jefferson's words, was presented and approved by the Congress. John Hancock, the presiding officer, probably signed to make it official.

But this document is not the one displayed in a baroque case at the National Archives, where it is protected by bullet-proof glass, argon gas and a 55-ton underground vault, into which it is lowered every night. Our present declaration is a hand-written copy that the Congress ordered to be prepared later in the summer.

The document approved on July 4, 1776, is missing. It is almost beyond monetary value. As Ted Widmer, director of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University said in an article in the New York Times, "If this manuscript still exists, it is the holy grail of American freedom."

On that same day, July 4, Congress ordered its publication. About 200 broadsides were run off the press of John Dunlap that night. It is possible that Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams may have assisted. The papers were sent to the colonies-now newly created States. George Washington, commander of the army in Boston, ordered it read to his troops. A copy was sent to England.

There are about 25 copies in existence, mostly held in state libraries and museums. One recently discovered copy sold for $8.14 million at auction.

The Declaration was important not only for severing the ties to England, but also for the expression that "all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights."

President Lincoln in arguing against the institution of slavery said that the Declaration was part of our law and that it represented in the future the consummation of our republican government even if in the reality of revolutionary times, it fell short.

He spoke on July 4, 1863, at Gettysburg:

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

"Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure,

"We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom."

For a seeker of fame and fortune the discovery of the "fair copy" would be a glorious boon. So look carefully when you scan through some old book at your neighbor's next rummage sale to find tucked between the pages an item that will take your breath away.

• Lifelong Alaskan Elton Engstrom is a retired fish buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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