There was a healthy turnout of American history buffs at the Mattapoisett Free Public Library on Sunday afternoon to hear author, historian, and teacher Stephen Puleo discuss his latest book, American Treasures: The Secret Efforts to Save the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address.
Puleo is the author of six narrative nonfiction books, including Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1819. Kathleen Damaskos of the Mattapoisett Historical Society introduced the author, saying, “Any fan of American history, often with a Boston or Massachusetts flavor, will want to read all of [Puleo’s books].”
Puleo lives in Weymouth with his wife, Kate, who couldn’t accompany him on Sunday as she often does. Having spoken at such venues as the National Archives in Washington D.C. and the National Constitution Museum, this was his first visit to Mattapoisett.
Puleo began his talk by sharing how the idea for the book, published roughly six months ago, first took shape in his mind.
“The book had its genesis … really about eight years ago,” Puleo said. He had read a small article in a history magazine about how the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the original Gettysburg Address had been moved from Washington D.C. to Fort Knox shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor due to “fears of German bombers or German sabotage.”
“I said, ‘Wow, I never heard of this…. This is really fascinating,’” he recalled. The article started him ruminating about why President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish felt “such a strong stewardship for these documents, why did they feel it was so necessary to protect them…. What’s behind it?”
In order to understand what made these documents so important to American morale and American national history, Puleo realized, “One of the things you had to do was go back to the creation of these documents and to go back to some ways in which these documents were protected and preserved over the period of American history.”
To do that, he constructed the book as a “braided narrative,” meaning it moves back and forth between “present day” (the World War II narrative) to other significant periods in American history.
The book looks at different times when these “precious documents” had to be protected, both from dramatic threats like the British burning of Washington D.C. in 1814, as well as from more mundane (but still very real) threats like humidity, fading, vermin, etc.
In December of 1952, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address were moved for the last time from the Library of Congress to the National Archives, where their protection continues to be of utmost importance.
“When you think about it, the history of these documents is really the history of the United States,” Puleo said.
The talk – co-sponsored by the historical societies of Freetown, Marion, Mattapoisett, Rochester, and Wareham – was followed by a question-and-answer period and book signing.
Puleo’s website, www.stephenpuleo.com, includes summaries and reviews of his books, a blog, and links to his Facebook and Twitter accounts.
By Deina Zartman