Travels of the Declaration of Independence

A Time Line

The locations given for the Declaration from 1776 to 1789 are based on the locations for meetings of the Continental and Confederation Congresses.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: August – December 1776

After the signing ceremony on August 2, 1776, the Declaration was most likely filed in Philadelphia in the office of Charles Thomson, who served as the Secretary of the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1789. On December 12, threatened by the British, Congress adjourned and reconvened eight days later in Baltimore.

The Declaration of Independence painting

Title: The Declaration of Independence, 1776. Copy of painting by John Trumbull, 1817-18., 1931-1932
Creator: George Washington Bicentennial Commission. (ca. 1924-ca. 12/31/1934) (Most Recent)
National Archives Identifier: 532924

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Baltimore, Maryland: December 1776 – March 1777

On January 18, 1777, while the Declaration was still in Baltimore, Congress, bolstered by military successes at Trenton and Princeton, ordered the second official printing of the document. The July 4 printing had included only the names of John Hancock and Charles Thomson, and even though the first printing had been promptly circulated to the states, the names of subsequent signers were kept secret for a time because of fear of British reprisals. By its order of January 19, however, Congress required that “an authentic copy of the Declaration of Independency, with the names of the members of Congress subscribing to the same, be sent to each of the United States, and that they be desired to have the same put upon record.” The “authentic copy” was duly printed, complete with signers’ names, by Mary Katherine Goddard in Baltimore.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: March – September 1777

Assuming that the Declaration moved with the Congress, it would have been back in Philadelphia from March to September 1777.

Lancaster, Pennsylvania: September 27, 1777

On September 27, the Declaration would have moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for one day only.

York, Pennsylvania: September 30, 1777 – June 1778

From September 30, 1777 through June 1778, the Declaration would have been kept in the courthouse at York, Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: July 1778 – June 1783

From July 1778 to June 1783, the Declaration would have had a long stay back in Philadelphia.

Exterior view of Independence Hall (circa 1770s)

Title: Exterior view of Independence Hall (circa 1770s)
Creator: Commission of Fine Arts. (1910-) (Most Recent)
National Archives Identifier: 518208

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Princeton, New Jersey: June – November 1783

In 1783, the Declaration would have been at Princeton, New Jersey, from June to November.

Annapolis, Maryland: November 1783 – October 1784

After the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the Declaration would have been moved to Annapolis, Maryland, where it stayed until October 1784.

Trenton, New Jersey: November – December 1784

For the months of November and December 1784, the Declaration would have been at Trenton, New Jersey.

New York, New York: 1785 – 1790

In 1785, when Congress met in New York, the Declaration was housed in the old New York City Hall, where it probably remained until 1790 (although when Pierre L’Enfant was remodeling the building for the convening of the First Federal Congress, it might have been temporarily removed).

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: 1790 - 1800

In July 1789, the First Congress under the new Constitution created the Department of Foreign Affairs and directed that its Secretary should have “the custody and charge of all records, books, and papers” kept by the department of the same name under the old government. On July 24, Charles Thomson retired as Secretary of the Congress and, upon the order of President George Washington, surrendered the Declaration to Roger Alden, Deputy Secretary of Foreign Affairs. In September 1789, the name of the department was changed to the Department of State. Thomas Jefferson, the drafter of the Declaration, returned from France to assume his duties as the first Secretary of State in March of 1790. Appropriately, those duties now included custody of the Declaration.

In July 1790 Congress provided for a permanent capital to be built among the woodlands and swamps bordering the Potomac River. Meanwhile, the temporary seat of government was to return to Philadelphia. The Declaration was back in Philadelphia by the close of 1790.

Washington, DC (three locations): 1800 – 1814

In 1800, by direction of President John Adams, the Declaration and other government records were moved from Philadelphia to the new federal capital now rising in the District of Columbia. To reach its new home, the Declaration traveled down the Delaware River and Bay, out into the ocean, into the Chesapeake Bay, and up the Potomac River to Washington, completing its longest water journey.

For about two months the Declaration was housed in buildings built for the use of the Treasury Department. For the next year it was housed in one of the “Seven Buildings” then standing at Nineteenth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. Its third home before 1814 was in the old War Office Building on Seventeenth Street.

In August 1814, the United States was again at war with Great Britain. Secretary of State James Monroe alerted a State Department clerk named Stephen Pleasonton of the imminent threat to the capital city and, of course, the government’s official records. Pleasonton “proceeded to purchase coarse linen, and cause it to be made into bags of convenient size, in which the gentlemen of the office” packed the precious books and records including the Declaration.

Leesburg, Virginia: August - September 1814

On August 24, the day of the British attack on Washington, the Declaration was on its way to Leesburg, VA. That evening, while the White House and other government buildings were burning, the Declaration remained safe at a private home 35 miles away in Leesburg where it remained for several weeks—in fact, until the British had withdrawn their troops from Washington and their fleet from the Chesapeake Bay.

Washington, DC (three locations): 1814 - 1841

In September 1814, the Declaration was returned to the national capital where it remained until May 1841. From 1814 to 1841, it was kept in three different locations as the State Department records were shifted about the growing city. The last of these locations was a brick building that, it was later observed, “offered no security against fire.” With the exception of a trip to Philadelphia for the Centennial and to Fort Knox during World War II, it has remained in Washington, DC ever since.

Washington, DC (Patent Office Building): 1841 - 1876

On June 11, 1841, Daniel Webster, who was Secretary of State wrote to Commissioner of Patents Henry L. Ellsworth, who was then occupying a new building (now the National Portrait Gallery), that “having learned that there is a new building appropriated to the Patent Office suitable accommodations for the safe-keeping, as well as the exhibition of the various articles now deposited in this Department, and usually, exhibited to visitors…I have directed them to be transmitted to you.” An inventory accompanied the letter. Item 6 was the Declaration.

The Declaration and George Washington’s commission as commander in chief were mounted together in a single frame and hung in a white painted hall opposite a window offering exposure to sunlight. They were to remain on exhibit for 35 years, even after the Patent Office separated from the State Department to become administratively a part of the Interior Department. This prolonged exposure to sunlight accelerated the deterioration of the ink and parchment of the Declaration, which was approaching 100 years of age toward the end of this period.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: May - November 1876

In 1876, the Declaration traveled to Philadelphia, where it was on exhibit for the Centennial National Exposition from May to October. Philadelphia’s Mayor William S. Stokley was entrusted by President Ulysses S. Grant with temporary custody of the Declaration. The Public Ledger for May 8, 1876, noted that it was in Independence Hall “framed and glazed for protection, and …deposited in a fireproof safe especially designed for both preservation and convenient display. [When the outer doors of the safe were opened, the parchment was visible behind a heavy plate-glass inner door; the doors were closed at night.]

Washington, DC (State, War, and Navy Building): 1877 - 1921

On March 3, 1877, the Declaration was moved to the new, fireproof building that the State Department shared with the War and Navy Departments (now the Eisenhower Executive Office Building). The Declaration was placed in a cabinet on the eastern side of the State Department library, where it was to be exhibited for 17 years. It may be noted that not only was smoking permitted in the library, but the room contained an open fireplace. Nevertheless this location turned out to be safer than the premises just vacated; much of the Patent Office was gutted in a fire that occurred a few months later.

Washington, DC (Library of Congress): 1921 - 1941

On September 29, 1921, President Warren G. Harding issued the Executive order authorizing the transfer of custody of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States from the State Department to the Library of Congress.

The Declaration was framed in gold-plated bronze doors and covered with double panes of plate glass with specially prepared gelatin films between the plates to exclude the harmful rays of light. On February 28, 1924, the shrine was dedicated in the presence of President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, and other distinguished guests. A 24-hour guard would provide protection.

Fort Knox, Kentucky*: 1941 - 1944

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Declaration and the Constitution were removed from the shrine at the Library of Congress on December 23, and placed between two sheets of acid-free manilla paper. The documents were then carefully wrapped in a container of all-rag neutral millboard and placed in a specially designed bronze container. The container was secured with padlocks on each side and then sealed with lead and packed in a heavy box. On December 26, the box, along with other boxes containing vital records, was taken by train to Louisville, Kentucky, where it was met by Secret Service agents and a cavalry troop of the 13th Armored Division and convoyed to the Bullion Depository at Fort Knox.

*Except that the document was displayed on April 13, 1943, at the dedication of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC.

Washington, DC (Library of Congress): 1944 - 1952

In 1944, military authorities assured the Library of Congress that all danger of enemy attack had passed. On September 19, the documents were withdrawn from Fort Knox. On Sunday, October 1, at 11:30 a.m. the doors of the Library were opened. The Declaration was back in its shrine.

In 1951 the Declaration was sealed in a thermopane enclosure filed with properly humidified helium. The exhibit case was equipped with a filter to screen out damaging light. The new enclosure also had the effect of preventing harm from air pollution, a growing peril.

Soon after, the Declaration was to make one more move, the one to its present home.

Washington, DC (National Archives): 1952 - present

On April 30, 1952, the Joint Committee on the Library of Congress ordered that the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution be transferred to the National Archives. Not only was the Archives the official depository of the government’s records, it was also, in the judgment of the committee, the most nearly bombproof building in Washington.

On December 13, 1952, the documents were formally delivered into the custody of Archivist of the United States Wayne Grover.

The formal enshrining ceremony took place on December 15, 1952, and was attended by officials of more than 100 national civic, patriotic, religious, veterans, educational, business, and labor groups. President Harry S. Truman, the featured speaker said:

“The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are now assembled in one place for display and safekeeping. . . . We are engaged here today in a symbolic act. We are enshrining these documents for future ages. . . . This magnificent hall has been constructed to exhibit them, and the vault beneath, that we have built to protect them, is as safe from destruction as anything that the wit of modern man can devise. All this is an honorable effort, based upon reverence for the great past, and our generation can take just pride in it.”

Dedication of the Shrine for the Charters of Freedom

Title: Photograph of President Truman and other dignitaries at the dedication of the new shrine at the National Archives for the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. 12/15/1952
Creator: Truman, Harry S., 1884-1972 (Most Recent)
National Archives Identifier: 200407

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