Rare copy of Declaration of Independence survived Civil War hidden behind wallpaper
By MICHAEL E. RUANE | The Washington Post | Published: February 18, 2018
During the Civil War, the precious document was hidden behind wallpaper in a home in Virginia to keep Union soldiers from finding it.
Later, it sat in a closet in Kentucky, in a broken frame, unappreciated and stored in a cardboard box.
And later still it was stuck behind a cabinet in the office of an energy executive outside Houston.
It was a rare parchment copy of the Declaration of Independence, made in Washington in the 1820s for founding father James Madison, and apparently unknown to the public for more than a century.
Now, the copy, one of 51 that scholars are aware of, has resurfaced via its purchase last month by billionaire philanthropist David M. Rubenstein.
It is one of the exquisite facsimiles made from the original handwritten calf skin document crafted in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776. Scholars say it bears the image of the Declaration that most people know, in part because the original is now so badly faded.
"This is the closest ... to the original Declaration, the way it looked when it was signed in August of 1776," said Seth Kaller, a New York rare document appraiser who assisted in the sale. "Without these ... copies you wouldn't even know what the original looked liked."
Two hundred of the facsimiles were ordered by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, a future president, who was concerned about the already-worn condition of the 40-year-old original.
Master engraver William Stone made the copies in his shop on Pennsylvania Avenue, and created an extra one for himself.
In 1824, the facsimiles were distributed to Congress, the White House, and various VIPs like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Madison. Each man got two copies.
In time, both of Madison's copies vanished from view, and it is only now that one has surfaced, Kaller said in a recent interview. "There was no idea that it had survived," he said.
The fate of the second Madison copy, and over 100 of the others, is not publicly known, he said.
When the Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, it sent a working manuscript, also now lost, to a local printer to set in type.
The printer produced several hundred printed copies for Congress and other officials the next day, Kaller wrote in a historical pamphlet.
On July 19, Congress ordered a handwritten, or "engrossed," copy made on calf skin, to be signed by the members.
The job went to Timothy Matlack, a congressional aide who was known for his superb penmanship.
This hallowed version now resides in the National Archives, so washed out that many signatures, including Thomas Jefferson's, are either gone or barely visible.
It is largely through the foresight of John Quincy Adams that excellent copies of the original - exact except for a few interesting tweaks - survive today.
Kaller wrote that by 1820, the original had been handled, rolled, unrolled and marred by the efforts of earlier engravers to make decorative copies. "Every one of the worst things that could have happened to the original" had happened, he said.
(A grimy hand print was added to the damage many years later.)
John Quincy Adams gave it to Stone, and the engraver worked on copying it for about two years.
Kaller said he believes Stone likely first traced the original with tracing paper. He then used the tracing to hand-engrave an image of the Declaration on a copper plate, from which the facsimiles were then made.
But Stone may have made some minute textual changes, possibly to distinguish his copies from the original, Kaller wrote.
The ornate "T" in the "The" of the "The unanimous Declaration ..." seems to have been slightly altered. In the Stone copies, a decorative diagonal line runs through the "T." The line does not appear to be in the original.
In the original, there seems to be a heart-shaped flourish where the T is crossed that's omitted in the Stone copy.
And Stone added a tiny imprint across the top of the page,"ENGRAVEDed by W.I. STONE, for the Dept. of State, by order of J.Q. ADAMS, Sect. of State, July 4th. 1823."
Before the newly resurfaced copy was found, it had been kept in a cracked frame, wrapped up inside a cardboard box in Michael O'Mara's office outside Houston.
It had been there for 10 years, and before that it had been in his parents' house in Louisville when he was growing up.
His family had once had it framed and put on the mantel piece. His parents knew it had been passed down through his family from Madison. But in the 1960s it was considered "worthless," O'Mara said.
When the frame cracked the document was taken down and stored in a bedroom closet.
"So for ... 35 years, it sat in a box, wrapped up, in a broken frame, in my mother's house," he said in a recent interview. "There was just not a lot of sentiment or value put on it. ... My mother couldn't have cared less about the family history."
The Declaration had been handed down to O'Mara's mother, Helen, who was the great-granddaughter of Col. Robert Lewis Madison Jr., a Civil War doctor who had served in the Confederate army and treated Robert E. Lee in the last years of Lee's life.
Research indicates that the physician had gotten the document from his father, Robert Lewis Madison Sr.
Madison Sr. was James Madison's favorite nephew, and had lived for a time in the White House when his uncle was president. He had likely received the document from President Madison.
Thus, the copy of the nation's founding declaration had passed through turbulent years of the country's evolution, including the war that almost destroyed the document's "united States of America."
O'Mara found in family papers a 1913 news article - the last known public mention of his Declaration - that told of its fate during the Civil War.
The family of Dr. Madison was then probably living in Lexington, Virginia, where the physician was a professor at the Virginia Military Institute before and during the war, according to VMI.
The clipping reported that the doctor's wife put the Declaration behind "the paper on the wall" to hide it from Union soldiers, should the house be searched.
In 1864, Union troops raided Lexington and burned VMI. But the Madison house apparently was unmolested, and the Declaration survived with only some moisture damage sustained while hidden.
O'Mara said that after his mother died in 2014, he began going through family papers. "I just happened to look over at this box, and I said, 'I've either got to put that in a frame and put it up in my office or I need to get rid of it if there's some historical value.'"
In 2016, his research led him to Rubenstein, who has purchased other historical documents, including Declaration copies. He emailed Rubenstein, who expressed interest.
The Declaration was authenticated, and then underwent conservation at the National Archives, O'Mara said.
"I agreed to buy it," Rubenstein said in a recent telephone interview, noting only that he had paid "seven figures" for it.
Madison, who was president from 1809 to 1817, had been a key player in the creation of the government. This was Madison's copy of the Declaration, and "when you look at it you can conjure up images of James Madison looking at it," Rubenstein said.
In 2014, Rubenstein announced the donation of $10 million to Montpelier, Madison's historic Orange, Virginia, home, for reconstruction, refurnishing and archaeology.
Madison's family occupied the plantation with its slaves for several generations, and he is buried there.
Co-founder of the Carlyle Group, a Washington-based global private-equity firm, Rubenstein said he now owns five of the William Stone Declaration copies.
Four have been lent out for display. This copy will be, too, he said, first to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
"Ultimately, they'll always be on display," he said.