Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Declaring Independence

When most people think about American historical documents, the original manuscript of the Declaration of Independence is what comes to mind. There have been historical analyses, literary studies, novels, and comic books written about this famous document. A movie, National Treasure, even featured the theft of the manuscript to discover a secret code leading to a fantastic trove of valuable relics.

Historian David Armitage provides an interpretation of the international influence of the Declaration in his The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), ISBN-13: 978-0-674-02282-9. Acknowledging that the Declaration has been thoroughly studied in regards to its “domestic legacy,” Armitage stresses that “What Americans and others interested in the fate of the Declaration have so far lacked is any systematic attempt to trace its afterlife in the world beyond the United States” (pp. 6-7). He endeavors to fill this gap.

Armitage’s study is not about the production of the original document or the preservation of the Declaration in manuscript format (we can find information about such matters in other sources). His book does provide interesting insights into how the Declaration became known, via printing, individuals, and assorted communication networks. Armitage states that he treats the “Declaration of Independence variously as an event, a document, and the beginning of a genre” (p. 13) or, from my vantage as an archivist, he provides the various contexts for understanding the document. He enumerates more than a hundred variations of declarations post-1776, and includes the full text of a group of representative examples in the book.

As I have indicated, Armitage is not focused on the archival aspects of the Declaration. However, he does make at least one interesting comment on the original manuscript. Making the point that the Declaration primarily introduced a new state and “inaugurated the very genre of a declaration of independence,” (pp. 21-22) Armitage plays with the idea of how the manuscript and printed versions highlighted the words UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, GENERAL CONGRESS, and FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES. In the manuscript, he notes, these words are in a “distinctive italic script” and continues: “So faded is this manuscript of the Declaration now on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.. that these are almost the only clearly legible parts of the text. That is only appropriate, for these words made up the central message of the Declaration as an assertion of sovereignty as independence” (p. 22). This is additional evidence that different perspectives provide different insights in the examination of an historical document.

As an archivist, I have always been fascinated by one of the grievances against the King in the Declaration – that the King “has called together Legislative Bodies at Places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the Depository of their public Records, for the sole Purpose of fatiguing them into Compliance with his Measures” (p. 167) – and with Armitage’s inclusion of other, later, declarations I wondered if this sentiment was repeated. And, as far as I can discern, no other declarations include explicit references to the issue of access to government records.

I have long thought that a thorough history of the Declaration of Independence as document, a history encompassing its creation through the elaborate efforts to preserve it as an artifact to the allusions to it in popular literature, movies, and the media, could make for an interesting window into the societal perception of archives and their importance. Armitage’s book is another piece of the story.