Stephen Puleo's American Treasures is a narrative history of America's secret efforts to hide its founding documents from Axis powers, and its national tradition of uniting to defend the definition of democracy.
A Boston Globe Bestseller
On December 26, 1941, Secret Service Agent Harry E. Neal stood on a platform at Washington's Union Station, watching a train chug off into the dark and feeling at once relieved and inexorably anxious. These were dire times: as Hitler's armies plowed across Europe, seizing or destroying the Continent's historic artifacts at will, Japan bristled to the East. The Axis was rapidly closing in.
So FDR set about hiding the country's valuables. On the train speeding away from Neal sat four plain-wrapped cases containing the documentary history of American democracy: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, and more, guarded by a battery of agents and bound for safekeeping in the nation's most impenetrable hiding place.
American Treasures charts the little-known journeys of these American crown jewels. From the risky and audacious adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to our modern Fourth of July celebrations, American Treasures shows how the ideas captured in these documents underscore the nation's strengths and hopes, and embody its fundamental values of liberty and equality. Stephen Puleo weaves in exciting stories of freedom under fire - from the Declaration and Constitution smuggled out of Washington days before the British burned the capital in 1814, to their covert relocation during WWII - crafting a sweeping history of a nation united to preserve its definition of democracy.
Puleo (The Caning: The Assault That Drove America to Civil War), a historian and former reporter, sets out to trace the creation of America's founding documents and the later efforts to protect and preserve them. But counter to the book's subtitle, he spends much of the time on the creation and significance of these historical documents, rather than on steps the government took to care for them as objects. The sections on the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address offer nothing new for readers versed in American history and do little to add to the self-evident case that these foundational writings of American democracy merit extraordinary protective measures. Most of the sections devoted to those efforts center on the 1941 decision, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, to evacuate select national treasures from the Library of Congress to a secure location away from Washington, D.C. Despite the high stakes and complex logistics, Puleo keeps sight of human fallibility, recounting, for example, the time that a journalist in Lexington, Va., nearly exposed the highly guarded efforts to transport the documents. More such details, and fewer about the Founding Fathers' debates, would have added up to a better book.