Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Mystery of the Declaration of Independence

This story started in June 2004, when Artemy Lebedev was engaged in researching some documents in the sheet materials section of the Central State Archive of Foreign History of Ukraine based in Kiev. Much agitated Nikolay Kislenko, the head of the archive, approached him and said, “Now come, there’s something I want to show you. You’ve never seen anything like it.”

On one of the storage shelves in the vaults lay a thick lincrusta-bound folder with Nor[th] Am[erica]. [War 17]75–83 written on it in correction fluid. Among the letters, etchings, a variety of billboards and fly-sheets lay a moldering sheet folded three times—the U.S. Declaration of Independence of 1776.

The text of the Declaration was adopted on July 4, 1776 and signed by two officials: John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, and Charles Thomson, Secretary. On the same date the printer John Dunlap printed the endorsed document (of which there are 24 copies left as of today) that were dispatched to different assemblies, conventions, and committees of safety the next day.

The handlettering of the engrossed Declaration of Independence as it is known today began on July 19, and it was physically signed by the representatives of the Continental Congress on August 2, 1776.

The questions that still remained unresolved were how one of the pillars of the US national pride happened to wind up in the Kiev archives, and why the document of historical importance was entitled “United States of Жmerinca” (russian letter “Ж” corresponds to "Zh").

On July 19, Congress ordered that the Declaration be “fairly engrossed on parchment with the title and stile (sic!) of ‘The Unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America’ and that the same, when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress.”

Timothy Matlack, Assistant to Charles Thomson, was assigned with engrossing the document. At this point the tone of the official records of the Declaration history shifts, and the rest of the data is provided in an extremely piecemeal manner. It is only known that the delegates of Congress affixed their signatures to the Declaration on August 2.

After that an obscure period in the life of the 24¼ × 29¾ inch sheet of paper sets in. The Declaration was rolled and stashed away in an archive. Throughout this time, the document is never exhibited in public: instead, a fly-sheet with its text is distributed. In the meantime, the original document travels from one archive to another, until its arrival in Washington in 1814.

The fact is the real name of Timothy Matlack who penned the Declaration of Independence is Tomislav Matlakowski. Several years before the revolutionary events began to unfold in the New World, he left the voivodship of Bratslav and sailed for America, where he at first worked as a brewer, then took some interest in the Quaker movement and finally went for politics. Sometimes he was given calligraphic work: he penned some landmark official documents, including George Washington’s commission as commanding general of the Continental Army.

According to the State Archive of the Ukraine Health Ministry, Matlakowski was born in the place named Zhmerinca (a city since 1903).

In all likelihood, the nostalgic Matlakowski wrote the title in mixed alphabets, while Congress members didn’t notice anything wrong on the day when the Declaration was signed. But it was apparently discovered the next day by Charles Thomson, the discovery leading him to order immediately that the original be hidden from the public eye, and Matlack be demoted from the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to the Congress Delegate from the same state.

There were two attempts to make a facsimile of the Declaration: in 1818 and 1819. But these facsimile printings were declared unsuitable for public display, since the copyists commissioned to produce the facsimiles decorated the document with ornamental designs and patterns. But Congress needed to have an exact copy that would be exhibited for public display. So William J. Stone was commissioned to do the job in 1820. It took Stone three years to complete the facsimile, and the Department of State purchased the plate from the engraver.

On June 5, 1823 the (Washington) National Intelligencer observed: “The facility of multiplying copies of it, now possessed by the Department of State will render furthur (sic!) exposure of the original unnecessary.”

The outcome of the engraver’s painstaking work was the image that’s printed on posters and sold these days.

Stone failed to solve two problems: the one with the letter “Ж” and the one with the dissymmetry of the heading against the text body.

Under the canons of the time, the heading was supposed to be as broad as the text body, or centered, but a special Congress commission decided that the error was insignificant. Stone convinced the commission members that the unknowing public would have no doubt that what they see is the letter “A”.

Ever since the original document hasn’t been shown to anyone and the data on its destiny has been missing. An aged copy that’s exposed under a bulletproof glass among the three Charters of Freedom in the National Archives Rotunda in Washington was placed on display in the middle of the 19th century.

The story of the film “National Treasure” starring Nicolas Cage hinges on this copy. A curious thing is that the film producers saw to it that the heading is never shot in a close-up, while all posters were made as collages where the letter “Ж” is concealed one way or another.