Thursday, July 5, 2012

Everything I Know I Learned from Stephen Pleasonton

The last hot dog has been eaten (yum!). The final fireworks have lit up the sky (oooh!).
The last BOOM has echoed though the night (wow!). And the dog has finally unstapled himself from my leg (It's OK, Willy!).

Fourth of July is over for another year. And yet I'm still thinking about it. Last week I was lucky enough to visit the birthplace of the Fourth. No, not Philadelphia. I went to Washington, to the National Archives, and stood in front of the Declaration of Independence, the document that started it all. It wasn't my first time, and God willing, it won't be my last. But seeing the Declaration of Independence never fails to make me weak in the knees.

Now, I admit, I'm a sucker for primary sources anyway. The very thought of something REAL that's been touched by so many heroes of history gets me in the throat. And in truth, there's really not much to see any more. The print is faded to near invisibilty, and pretty much the only name that's legible is John Hancock's.
And yet... And yet, there is something so special about the Declaration of Independence. What else can bring a group of antsy fifth graders to hushed reverence?

As I stood there elbow to elbow with the crowd of school kids, I couldn't help but give a silent prayer of thanks to another hero of history, Stephen Pleasonton. Don't know the name? Well, he's the reason we still have the Declaration of Independence to look at. He's the reason the Declaration--and other documents--were not reduced to ashes two hundred years ago. Let me tell you.

In the summer of 1814, all of Washington was in a panic. The war against the British had been going on for two years, but now it had arrived on the city's doorstep. Over four thousand British soldiers had landed at Benedict, Maryland, and were marching toward the capital. Their intent: to burn it to the ground.

In the midst of the panic, State Department clerk Stephen Pleasonton was ordered to safeguard the important papers of the department. He bought cloth and had it sewn into bags. Into the bags he stuffed all the documents of the State Department offices. And these were no ordinary documents. Among them were the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the letters of George Washington.

While he was busy, Secretary of War John Armstrong stopped by. He was well-known in Washington for refusing to believe that the city was in any danger. Baltimore, he was convinced, was the true target. He pretty much accused Pleasonton of overreacting, and told him to stop. The clerk refused. He spent the next few days searching for a place he felt was safe enough for such treasure. He finally hid the bags in an empty house in Leesburg, Virgina, locked the house, and gave the key to a trusted friend.

On the night of August 24, 1814, the British did indeed arrive in the capital.
They burned the White House, the Capitol, and other public buildings, including the offices of the State Department. The flames were visible as far away as Baltimore. But Stephen Pleasonton never saw them. He was so exhausted by the stress of his responsibility that he had checked into a hotel and gone right to bed.

Washington burned that night, but the Declaration of Independence and the other treasures of the nation were safe in their hiding place. Because a clerk named Stephen Pleasonton refused an order and saw what needed to be done.

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