How a Lowly Clerk Saved Almost All of U.S. History from Destruction

When Secretary of State James Monroe received information that the British were sailing to attack Washington D.C. in 1814, he panicked for multiple reasons. First, they had little time to act and virtually no defenses but the citizens themselves to fend off attackers. Secondly, he realized he was solely responsible for the protection of all the United States’ documents and he happened to be away from Washington. At this time, the serving Secretary of State was responsible for keeping track and care of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, George Washington’s journals, and all kinds of papers dealing with the foundation of the country. Monroe desperately sent a letter to President Madison to warn him of the attack, and another letter to the State Department, the location of these papers. In a postscript to his department, Monroe wrote “You had better remove the records”. By the time the messages reached Washington, only one person was there to take the message: a State Department clerk who worked under Monroe named Stephen Pleasonton.

An image of the British burning Washington D.C.
Illustration of the British burning Washington D.C.

The Clerk’s Unlikely Experience

When Stephen Pleasonton received his boss’s letter, he realized quite quickly that he would have to be the one who saved the papers. A young Virginian who moved to Washington in 1800, Pleasonton had little experience of known importance to this point, perhaps showing Monroe’s desperate need for anyone at all to do something. The clerk did not disappoint, leaping up and rushing out onto Pennsylvania Avenue after reading of the task he now faced. At this point, the city was turning to chaos as rumors of the pending British attack spread from building-to-building. Just as the President fled to Maryland, citizens everywhere began to rapidly pack what they could and get out of the city. Citizens took most of the horses, carts, and food with them, limiting the hero’s options. Pleasonton moved through a series of shops searching for a strong enough cloth that he could turn into bookbags. When he finally found some linen that would do the deed, a merchant and the clerk sat together, just before an impending siege, sewing bags. When enough bookbags were completed, he ran back to the State Department building, frantically filling them with the most important pieces of work in American history. During this process, he happened to run into Secretary of War John Armstrong, who told him he was wasting his time. Armstrong was convinced that the British would instead land in Baltimore instead of the capitol for strategic reasons. Pleasonton respectfully disagreed saying that they “were at a different belief” and continued saving everything he possibly could.

During all of this, others gathered as many horses and carts as they could, most already gone with those fleeing. According to an account from the Washington Post in 1883, just as he was about to leave the man noticed that he had left the Declaration of Independence and George Washington’s first Commission hanging in frames. Ironically, the prior of the two hung in Pleasonton’s office that he spent most of his days in. After breaking the glass and saving the last two pieces of history, the savior headed to a nearby mill to keep them in. He quickly realized that the mill’s location happened to be next to a military installment, and thinking that it could bring enemy troops his way, he smartly took his wagon 35 miles northwest to the town of Leesburg, Virginia. Here, the documents were locked into the basement of an abandoned house, where they stayed for weeks before they were brought back to the capital. In the end, the United States and its citizens owe Stephen Pleasonton respect and admiration for his completion of the dauntless task. His story reminds us of how fortunate we are that it is possible to view these documents today.

Image of Pleasonton, American War of 1812 hero.
A 19th century portrait of Pleasonton.

Works Cited

Kratz, Jessie “P.S. You Had Better Remove The Records” National Archives, 2020.

Pitch, Anthony. The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814. Naval Institute Press, 1998.

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