A few years ago, author Stephen Puleo glanced at brief item in an American history magazine about how, just after Pearl Harbor, the Library of Congress moved the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address to Fort Knox for safekeeping. "I'd never heard of that before," Puleo said, "and I felt I knew a lot about World War II."
Curiosity engaged, Puleo dove into research; the result is his latest book, "American Treasures: The Secret Efforts to Save the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address," which chronicles the creation and subsequent adventures of three of our most important historical documents. "I once had a very perceptive editor say to me that America has no crown jewels, but if it did it would be these documents," Puleo added.
World War II wasn't the first time the Declaration and Constitution had to be rescued. In 1814 when the British burned Washington, Puleo said, the two were saved by "a State Department clerk who literally stuffs them into a linen sack, puts them on the back of a wagon, and drives the wagon 35 miles into the Virginia countryside."
The Declaration and Constitution are now housed in humidity-proof cases in the National Archive rotunda, protected from both theft and atmospheric threats — yet still displayed for public viewing. "About a million people file through that rotunda every year," said Puleo, who has joined his educator wife in chaperoning groups of eighth graders there on an annual trip. "There is something special about looking at an original document."
Both documents clearly continue to loom large in our national imagination. Puleo said he's pleased that interest in the Constitution has risen since the explosive success of "Hamilton" on Broadway. And the Declaration enjoyed a pop-culture moment in the movie "National Treasure" starring Nicholas Cage — but Puleo debunks its central mystery. Spoiler alert: "There are no secret maps on the back of the Declaration."
Puleo will read 7 p.m. Friday at Jabberwocky Bookshop, the Tannery, 50 Water St., Newburyport.
Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.