In Disney’s adventure movie, National Treasure, Nicholas Cage peaks our curiosity about one of the country’s most valuable documents, the Declaration of Independence. In the film, Cage tries desperately to get his hands on the document to see, of all things, the back. Supposedly the back of the document contains a special treasure map that will unlock further secrets of American history. Is the adventuresome tale all a movie, or is there some truth behind the mystery?
According to the folks at the National Archives in Washington, DC, the building that houses the famed document, there is indeed visible writing on the back of the document.
Unfortunately, it’s nothing that will evoke a treasure hunt or national mystery.
On the back of the Declaration of Independence are the words, “Original Declaration of Independence, dated 4th July, 1776.” The writing is located on the bottom of the document and upside down.
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the backsides of government documents were occasionally endorsed by the recipient as a receipt of sorts. Although the back of the Declaration of Independence doesn’t bear a signature, it is wondered who wrote the text and why. It is believed by archivists at the National Archives that the notation was simply that; a labeling system while the document was rolled-up for storage purposes.
The document is made of parchment, an animal skin specially prepared with lime. The lettering is engrossed, or written in a large clear script, on the parchment. Timothy Matlack was most likely the engrosser of the document. He was an assisant to Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Congress. After the official signing ceremony on August 2, 1776, the document was most likely stored in Thomson’s office. The document measures 24.25″ x 29.75″.
For those adventure seekers who want to look at the document for themselves, The Declaration of Independence is on display in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom at the National Archives building in Washington D.C. It shares a display with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. All are encased in bullet-proof materials, including the glass and protected by armed guards. They are monitored by a computerized camera system that detects the slightest changes in the documents, including ink fading and flaking. At night, the documents are lowered into an underground vault.
If you go visit the national treasure, you will however notice, only the front of the document is on display, allowing curious minds to still wonder, what if…