Artemy Lebedev

§ 113. The mystery of the Declaration of Independence

April 1, 2005

This story started in June last year, when the author 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 me 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.

Central State Archive of Foreign History of Ukraine: F 1301, INV 4, S 1

Housekeeping tip

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.

Even the reader gifted with the most lively fancy can’t possibly imagine how the researcher was amazed at the sight of the following words:

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”.

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.

The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America by John Trumball

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 Declaration of Independence: A History. NARA

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.

Timothy Matlack and His Engrossed Masterpiece

The author has visited Kiev several times this year, where in the State Archive of the Health Ministry he discovered a parish register with a record, according to which Matlakowski was born in the place named Zhmerinca (a city since 1903) not far from Vinnitsa.

State Archive of the Ukrainian Health Ministry: F 114, INV 122, ITEM 420, S 54

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 Declaration of Independence: A History. NARA

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

The Declaration of Independence. The image from the U.S. National Archives & Records Administration (NARA) website

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. Americans believe that the public’s extra attention to the historical blunder is needless.

Desktop wallpaper and screensaver from the film’s official website

Appendix. The story as viewed by observers

The finding instantly became news in narrow circles. It was decided to present the rarity to America. While the author was preoccupied with the issues of the heading’s origin (which were out of anybody’s field of interest), a diplomatic problem was coming to a head. The truth is Zhmerinca was ruled by Poland when the Declaration was signed, was subsequently annexed by Russia as part of the Polish province, and came to be part of Ukraine after the USSR’s dissolution.

Summit political scheming and plotting around who would eventually play the part of the donator began. The major candidate to hand over the original document was certainly Ukraine, but Poland and Russia also identified themselves as wannabes.

In summer 2004 a heated battle between Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovich for Ukrainian presidency was at its highest. Curiously, Yushchenko wanted to personally donate the Declaration to Bush, while Yanukovich said he would put the historical document on display in the Donetsk Regional Museum to entertain tourists. Putin backed Yanukovich out of certainty that after the presidential election he’d schmooze the newly elected Ukrainian President into surrendering the Declaration and thus get a chance to present it to Bush himself.

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma called off a meeting with Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski slated for October 25, 2004 in order not to bring up the question of Poland’s participation. On October 26 Vladimir Putin arrived in Ukraine, but it was made clear to him that Russia couldn’t count on having the opportunity to act as a donator. A month later Poland’s former President Lech Walensa arrived in Kiev for negotiations, but walked away none the wiser.

Chronicle of events on and

Lech Walesa is in Kiev…

Then in November, while on a trip to Chile, Putin made a sly and wacky move at a meeting with Bush by letting him in for the first time on the finding and pledging his word he’d soon present it to Bush in person. In early December Kuchma flew to Moscow and told Putin at the airport everything he felt about his lax behavior and, that done, flew right back to Ukraine.

Bush had an awkward meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin…

Kuchma and Putin call for a complete re-run of presidential election

On February 22, 2005 at a 7-minute meeting with Bush in Brussels Yushchenko reported to the American President that he had the Declaration and would bring it along when he went to the US in early April (it was reported the same day that a meeting with Putin two days later would be shortened substantially).

Bush tells Putin of his “concerns” about Russian democracy

Happy as the day is long, Bush called a press conference at which he compared Yushchenko with George Washington.

Bush meets new Ukrainian President

Back then, the public failed to do justice to the delicacy of the compliment.

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