A 1776 copy of the Declaration of Independence.

Credit: AP

How One Copy Of The Declaration Of Independence Endured 200 Years

February 20, 2018

A rare copy of the Declaration of Independence has survived a wild ride, nearly 200 years in the making — from the hands of James Madison to being concealed from the Union army behind wallpaper, to being stuffed in a box for 40 years until it was rescued by a billionaire in 2016 who plans to lend it out to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Historian Nancy Koehn joined Jim Braude and Margery Eagan on "Boston Public Radio" to talk about the document's journey. She’s an historian at Harvard Business School where she holds the James E. Robison chair of Business Administration. Her latest book is “Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times.”

The following is an excerpt from the interview and has been edited for clarity. To hear the full segment, click on the audio player above.

Margery Eagan: Tell us about the original document.

Nancy Koehn: So the original document was a beautiful document on calfskin, a great scribe wrote it out. It fades really quickly, it turns out. So by the turn of the century, well into the early 19th century — this is from the 1700’s to the 1800’s — in about 1824, John Quincy Adams, who is then secretary of state from our great Commonwealth, says, ‘I’m worried! The original document is fading, [and] we need to get some fresh copies made and distributed.’

Jim Braude: There was one copy at that point?

NK: I’m sure there were more, but there was a limited number, and the one that was cast into national gravitas and care was fading.

ME: So the calfskin was in terrible shape.

NK: It was fading. It’s really faded now, for those of you who have been to Washington and seen it — it’s hard to read. So John Quincy Adams, entrepreneurial young man that he is, says, let’s get 200 copies printed. The printer does this, and they’re all inscribed with something like, 'To the order of J.Q. Adams.' This is 1824, so almost 50 years after the signing. He has these done, and he makes 200 copies, and they distribute them to every member of congress, the founding fathers ... and other dignitaries.

James Madison gets two copies. One of these copies works its way through James Madison’s nephew, who somehow ends up related to a doctor, who is caring for Robert E. Lee in the Civil War, who ends up with this copy. [Madison's nephew] is ultimately related, through ... many generations and a couple of twists and turns, to the gentleman who sold this in a box in Houston. His name, I believe, is Michael O’Mara.

He then gets this, Michael O'Mara, sees it, realizes it has been in the family for 40 years, it has been through wars, literally, the Civil War, where it was hidden behind wallpaper so if the Union soldiers find it they wouldn’t grab it and take it. All these different trials and tribulations of the document. He knows David Rubenstein from the Carlisle Group is interested .... and Rubenstein buys it for, he says, 'seven figures,' — that’s all he says.

That’s the story of this document which is legible, and in relatively good shape, given the odyssey it's been on since its printing in the 1820s.

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