Here at the Library of Congress, we take in more than 10,000 items a working day – books, films, music, photographs. Many are the basic stuff of everyday research; some are rare items, especially beautiful, unusual or unique; and some are major treasures of the world, to be held and preserved for the knowledge and benefit of future generations.
On October 23, 1991, we let one of those Really Big Treasures slip from our grasp – and were happy to do that, because we were sending it home in loving hands.
On that date, Vaclav Havel, then-president of Czechoslovakia (who died earlier this week) visited the U.S. Capitol to receive the 1918 first draft of the Czechoslovak Declaration of Independence, in the handwriting of the man who might be termed the Czech Thomas Jefferson — Thomas G. Masaryk, the first president of the Czechoslovak federation created at the close of World War I. In a ceremony attended by the bipartisan leaders of the U.S. House and Senate, Havel was given the document to repatriate to his country.
It had been given to the Library of Congress to keep safe in 1951 after Czechoslovakia came under Communist rule, by Masaryk’s former private secretary, Jaroslav Cisar. At that time, Cisar stated that “it would, in proper time, be transferred to its final resting place in the Archives of the National Museum in Prague.”
But in 1980, Cisar wrote to the Library and made an outright gift of the document, despairing of seeing his nation return to its earlier form of governance: “My hopes of seeing Masaryk’s name restored to its rightful place in the official accounts of the foundation of the first formative era of our new state have, alas, proved to be overoptimistic,” he said.
Cisar said he felt the document would be safer at the Library of Congress. And so it was, until the day came — following the bloodless 1989 “Velvet Revolution” that brought playwright and anti-Communist Havel to his nation’s executive mansion – when it could return home safely. Havel served as president of the republic of Czechoslovakia for 2-1/2 years, and later served two terms as president of the Czech Republic that followed.
Dr. James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, noted that “This document … rightfully belongs to the people who have, after so many years, realized Thomas Masaryk’s ambitions.”
Then-House Speaker Thomas Foley noted, “Once the Library of Congress takes possession of a document, it seldom, if ever, gives it up … This is a major exception and only presented because it is a foundation document of a nation.”
Havel said the care it had received at the Library of Congress “is better than it would have gotten on some shelf of the Communist Party.”
“This deed is part of history,” Havel said as he received the document, which he termed “the birth certificate of our nation … I cannot but be deeply moved.”
Here’s a webcast of a human-rights lecture Havel delivered in the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium on May 24, 2005, titled “The Emperor Has No Clothes,” when he was the holder of the Kluge Chair for Modern Culture at the Library’s John W. Kluge Center. You can also view a discussion Havel led at the Kluge Center on Feb. 20, 2007, titled “Dissidents and Freedom.”