J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

This Declaration of Independence Not a Public Record

An anonymous Boston 1775 reader alerted me to this A.P. dispatch describing how a Virginia court just ruled on the ownership of a copy of the Declaration of Independence.

In the summer of 1776 the newly independent state of Massachusetts had this copy of the Declaration printed by Ezekiel Russell, then working in Salem, and sent it up to the town of Wiscasset, Maine. In November the town clerk copied the Continental Congress’s words into Wicasset’s official records.

The printed document was later found in the attic of Solomon Holbrook, Wiscasset’s town clerk from 1885 to 1929. His family put it on the market, and after passing through different hands it ended up with a Virginia collector a few years ago. Officials in Maine heard about the sale and sued to get the paper back, on the grounds that it remained an official public record.

The Virginia Supreme Court’s decision (here’s the P.D.F. download) holds that the official Wiscassit record of the Declaration is the version that the clerk copied in 1776—or at least that Maine couldn’t prove the printed document was still a government document.

If the printed Declaration had descended in the family of the 1776 town clerk, then I think it would be easy to accept that the town stopped treating it as government property once that clerk had used the text. But the fact that the paper was in Holbrook’s possession implies that it came to him in his role as clerk, and should have gone on to the next clerk. Holbrook died in office, so he wasn’t involved in that transfer of authority and papers. I suspect the Maine Supreme Court might have decided this case another way.

This story highlights how much public officials’ private and public papers were mixed together until the last century. Indeed, the question of whether U.S. Presidents owned their own presidential papers wasn’t settled until the nation had to preserve its historic record from tampering by Richard M. Nixon.

Back in the eighteenth century, many office-holders worked out of their homes. Very few towns had municipal buildings where officials could store papers. Even in Boston, which had Faneuil Hall, the Committee of Correspondence documents stayed with Samuel Adams’s personal papers, and are all now at the New York Public Library. Gen. Thomas Gage’s letters and files as royal governor of Massachusetts went home to England with him, and his descendants eventually sold those papers to the Clements Library in Ann Arbor.


Rob Velella said...

I remember reading about this controversy earlier this year. I'm surprised with the ruling. This irreplaceable treasure belongs to the town and should not be in private hands. But it does show that possession is 9/10ths of the law, doesn't it?

Anonymous said...

Excellent post...btw the anonymous tip off was from me. Keep up the good work, as I am just a regular social studies teacher learning more and more everyday from you're wonderful blog!