It was disaster enough. On August 24, 1814, British troops under the command of Gen. Robert Ross entered Washington, D.C., bent on revenge and destruction. American forces during the War of 1812 had burned government buildings in Canada earlier that year and the British now engaged in payback. They ransacked the town and torched numerous buildings, including the White House and the Capitol. Only a torrential downpour prevented the complete destruction of most of official Washington.
It also was a day that the original copy of the Declaration of Independence narrowly escaped being burned to ashes. Most government officials had fled from the invading British Army, terrified because of the drubbing U.S. forces received earlier that day. U.S. soldiers actually retreated in panic through the streets of Washington – part of the so-called “Bladensburg Races” – and the government (including President James Madison) soon followed. What was left in Washington was a handful of federal employees, First Lady Dolley Madison (who was hastily organizing the removal of state papers and historical treasures from the White House), and some of the most cherished documents from the early years of the United States, including the Declaration of Independence.
Normally, Secretary of State James Monroe would be responsible for gathering archival material to prevent its destruction. But Monroe, a veteran of the American Revolution, was busy in his attempts to organize some kind of defense against the British invasion. Stephen Pleasonton, a
senior clerk in the State Department, had already purchased coarse linen cloth and was hastily sewing bags that he would use to haul away books, documents, and state papers. He ordered the few clerks remaining his office to assist him in the work, which resulted in dozens of bags of documents being transported to the relative safety of a gristmill outside of nearby Georgetown. When the last load had left, Pleasonton took one final look at his empty office to see if anything had been left behind. In frame hanging on a wall in plain view was the engrossed copy of the Declaration – it had been overlooked by everyone. He hastily cut the document out of the frame, grabbed it along with a few remaining books and documents, and hightailed out of Washington just minutes before the British troops arrived to begin their rampage.
When the British arrived they still found plenty to burn. However, the Declaration was safe, hidden in a private home in Leesburg, Virginia, until after the British withdrew from Washington. In September 1814, government officials returned the Declaration to the national capital where it has remained for the last 195 years with only two exceptions: When in it was placed in Philadelphia during centennial celebrations in 1876 and when it was removed to Fort Knox, Kentucky, during World War II for safekeeping.
It was a close call. But thanks to a loyal government employee who understood the significance of the document, the Declaration of Independence is safe today as a national treasure, not ashes that would have literally been on their way to the dustbin of history.