The following is a guest post by Susan Reyburn, writer-editor in the Library’s Publishing Office.
Seventy-five years ago this week, the Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta (1215) made its first visit to the Library of Congress, something that had not been on its itinerary when it arrived in New York in April 1939 for the World’s Fair. Several months later, the outbreak of World War II and the end of the fair’s first season left the document stranded in the United States. This happened as Lord Lothian, the British ambassador, put it, because “His Majesty’s Government feel[s] that it would not be proper for them to attempt to send Magna Carta back to England under existing conditions on the high seas.”
German U-boats, after all, were prowling those high seas.
In researching the Library’s unexpected custody of the document for the new book Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor (Thomson Reuters, 2014) and the exhibition of the same name, I came across lively correspondence in the Library’s central archives of British and American officials working to ensure both the visibility and the safety of the Great Charter. In shopping around for a high-profile sanctuary, Lord Lothian noted that his government had made certain guarantees to Lincoln Cathedral regarding Magna Carta’s safety, and “would feel an immense obligation to the Library if it could take charge of this precious document” during the war. Archibald MacLeish, the newly installed Librarian of Congress, was thrilled to help out, inviting the ambassador to the Library “to inspect the provisions made for the safeguarding here of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.”
On November 2, 1939, MacLeish wrote to then-president Franklin Roosevelt: “My dear Mr. President: I hate to fatten your mail, but a matter has come up which I’d like very much to tell you about. . . . I know your deep interest in the things Magna Carta symbolizes. . . .” Roosevelt was equally happy about the Great Charter finding refuge at the Library, gleefully telling MacLeish that “[t]here may a good many cartoons and ribald remarks in and out of the press about the surrender of the great British Magna Carta to the young stepchild that goes by the name of the United States.”
Magna Carta-related correspondence also covers efforts to send the document across the country on a proposed British war-relief campaign and a tour of American universities. (MacLeish nixed the first proposal because the Library, a government institution of an officially neutral nation, could not be involved in a “propaganda gesture”; Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau quashed the second out of travel and security concerns.) Several citizens wrote to the Library asking if it might purchase the Lincoln Magna Carta and thus keep it on permanent display. One even submitted a check for $1 to start a fund for that purpose. MacLeish replied that “Your project is altogether admirable” and thanked him for “the generosity that has prompted you to act,” but in returning his check, explained that the war made it difficult to discuss the issue with the charter’s owners. The Librarian closed by suggesting that “Perhaps when you are in or near Washington, you would be good enough to drop in to see me to talk about the whole matter.”
After the United States entered the war in December 1941, MacLeish, feeling the full burden of stewardship, sent the Library’s most valuable items to Fort Knox, repository of the nation’s gold reserves. Once the delivery was safely made, he wrote to Secretary Morgenthau of how the “responsibility had weighed heavily on me for many months, but never as heavily as the night when the shipment left the Library of Congress. . . . Here in one small group of containers was the documentary history of freedom in our world.” What was MacLeish was referring to? The list was impressive: Magna Carta, the Articles of Confederation, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, two copies of the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln’s hand, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, along with a Gutenberg Bible.
On October 1, 1944, these items returned from hiding and went back on display in the Library’s Great Hall. It was a remarkable but temporary assemblage. As MacLeish had once written to one of his correspondents, “I hope you will come up sometime when there isn’t a crowd around and look across the Gallery with the Magna Carta in front of you and the Constitution and Declaration of Independence on the other side. It gives you quite a thrill.”
The Library of Congress is commemorating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta with an exhibition – Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor, a symposium, and a series of talks starting this year. Running through January 19, 2015, the Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta, one of four remaining originals from 1215 is on display along with other rare materials from the Library’s rich collections to tell the story of 800 years of its influence on the history of political liberty. This post is adapted from an article in the November-December 2014 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, available online.