HANSON — For historian Stephen Puleo, the story format is key in relating the events of our past.
“You try to put sources together to build your narrative,” he said after a Hanson resident remarked his books read like novels. “I take that as a compliment. I think that’s how history should be written and taught. The second part of that word, history, is ‘story.’ It’s people we are writing about, and they have fears and they have families.”
His narrative style — honed in his previous five books on the history of Boston, its Italian community and Great Molasses Flood, the caning of Sen. Charles Sumner on the floor of the U.S. Senate in the lead-up to the Civil War and U.S. Navy heroism during the 1940s Battle of the Atlantic — has lately brought to life the work to safeguard America’s founding documents during World War II.
“I want you to learn history despite yourself, because you’re so engrossed in the story,” he said during Sunday, Feb. 19, talk at Hanson Public Library on that new book, “American Treasures: The Secret Effort to Save the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address,” [2016, St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 400 pages, $28.99].
The talk, sponsored by the Hanson Library Foundation, was originally planned for Feb. 12, but had been postponed due to a snowstorm. A question and answer period and book signing followed Puleo’s talk.
“These documents were not a foregone conclusion,” he said of the “American Treasures.” “They were not predestined, they were not preordained. They were hard to come by.”
The American Revolution was only favored outright by a third of colonists, the Constitution was the product of careful negotiation and compromise, and Lincoln almost passed up the invitation to speak at the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg on Nov. 19, 1863.
“They’re certainly artifacts,” he said. “They’re also symbols, very important symbols. … The lights are low [in the National Archives rotunda today]. The guards are there. You can hear footfalls walking around. Even kids recognize the symbolic shrine of this place.”
“American Treasures’” 2016 publication coincided with the 240th anniversary year of the Declaration of Independence and this year marks the 230th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution, which, as Puleo puts it, is with us every single day.
“When you think about it, the history of these documents is really the history of the United States of America,” he said. “Ours is the first constitutional republic that can trace its founding back to a single document — the Declaration of Independence.”
Puleo’s narrative intertwines the narratives of the largest relocation of historic documents in U.S. history with the origins of the book’s three featured documents.
“To do that right, I needed to go back into time and look at a couple things — one was the creation of these documents and the ideas embodied in them, and two, a couple of the efforts that were made throughout our history to preserve and save these documents,” Puleo said of the reason for safeguarding the documents during WWII.
From December 1941 to about April 1942, federal officials moved 5,000 boxes of precious documents out of Washington, D.C., to secret locations out of concern over possible German bombing or sabotage. The Magna Carta, which had been on display at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, was also stored with the three American Treasures at the Fort Knox, Ky., federal gold depository for the duration of the war at the request of the British government.
The remaining works were identified as irreplaceable and essential to American democracy, triaged into six categories, cataloged, packed up and stored at the Virginia Military Institute; the University of Virginia at Charlottesville; Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., and Dennison University in Granville, Ohio.
“It would be devastating if they were lost,” he said of the founding documents. “We were doing this to preserve our national morale. They started to think about this in the fall of 1940, about a year before Pearl Harbor.”
England had already lost millions of documents to firestorms caused by incendiary bombs dropped by the Germans during the Battle of Britain. German troops also destroyed millions of books and artifacts across Europe.
“We were watching this,” Puleo said.
Germany’s wolf packs of submarines were also patrolling with impunity off the east coast of the United States in the early years of the war.
By 1943, however, things were going well enough to bring the Declaration out of hiding long enough for the dedication of the Jefferson Memorial. But when it was over, back it went.
The current political climate prompted a question after the talk of Puleo’s opinion, as a historian, whether he views the situation with any trepidation regarding the future of the Constitution.
“I’m very much the optimist on this,” he said. “One of the things about studying history is it does give you a little perspective — a way to be at arm’s length sometimes. If you look through American history … it’s often like this and that’s sometimes the way that democracy goes. The things that have held us together, in my view, are those documents. That’s where I take my optimism.”
He said there have been several periods in American history that have been far worse.
A Boston-area resident, Puleo has also been a teacher as well as a newspaper reporter, public speaker and communications professional. He has also taught at Suffolk University. A portion of his book proceeds benefit the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.