Lingenfelter & Declaration

Tom Lingenfelter is shown with his copy of the Declaration of Independence.

This year marks the 244th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Do you realize we are just six short years away from the United States Semiquincentennial? We will also hear it called the Sestercentennial or Quarter Millennial. Whatever tag you put on it, it will be the 250th anniversary of the July 4, 1776, establishment of the United States of America.

That seems like a long time, but in the course of world civilization it is just a fleeting second. It is a chill-bump experience to visit Independence Hall in Philadelphia and stand in the room where it was signed. If you want to see the document, well, it resides in Washington, D.C. That is another experience.

I have written about the History Channel programs and man’s eternal lust for gold. We have people looking for thousand-year-old gold, 600-year-old gold, Civil War gold, World War II gold, and “rusty gold.” Those guys on The Mystery of Skinwalker Ranch don’t know what they are looking for, but I do not think it’s gold. Gold does not always glitter, and sometimes gold is just a term used to reflect an item’s potential value.

One of my favorite movies is “National Treasure.” I enjoy it because I have been to most of the places in the movie, except the fictional ones. In the movie Nicholas Cage’s character is searching for the Templar treasure. The clues tell him a treasure map is on the back of the Declaration of Independence. The only way to see it is to steal it. We know that is not going to happen, but in the movie it does. It’s worth a watch if you have not seen it. “National Treasure 2” is good also.

Apparently, there are a lot of missing fortunes and misplaced treasure all around our great country. Like I said, it does not all glitter. I have some books on lost treasures that have been elusive for generations.

In 2018, a gentleman in Pennsylvania went to a barn sale and spied a nice re-enactor’s reproduction of a rare rifle for a nice cheap price of $250. When he got it home and cleaned it up, he realized it was not a reproduction. He started checking the numbers and the maker and found it was stolen in 1971 from Valley Forge Park. Nobody knew how the rifle was removed from the park, it just turned up missing from the display. Its current value is $95,000. The FBI got involved and the rifle was returned to its original rightful owner. They never figured out how it got from Valley Forge to the barn sale.

A few years ago, my friend Dave was at a flea market in Elizabethton when he spied a nice re-enactor’s long rifle. He talked with the guy and bought it for $250, knowing that was at least $2,500 less than what it was worth. We had an event at Sycamore Shoals that weekend and he brought it down so he could show off his nice bargain purchase. As soon as he entered the fort, people were asking what he was doing with “Bob’s rifle?” Sure enough, it was Bob’s rifle and Bob had not noticed it was gone. Apparently, the guy had visited the re-enactment, carried off the rifle, took it to the flea market and sold it to Dave. The guy had given Dave his address and phone number, but both were bogus. Bob’s rifle was retuned.

I remember hearing on the news a fellow buying a copy of the Declaration of Independence at a yard sale for $5. He just wanted the frame, but it turned out to be an early copy of the declaration worth $30,000. People started buying up copies of the Declaration of Independence at flea markets and yard sales. In fact, folks were taking old frames and putting copies of the declaration in them and asking four times what they were worth.

In 2013, Jan Rynerson invited Tom Lingenfelter to be a guest speaker at the Society of the Descendants of Washington’s Army at Valley Forge Encampment (annual meeting). Lingenfelter had been at a flea market when he saw a framed Declaration of Independence. The owner wanted $100 for it. When he tried to dicker the price down to $90 and then $95 without success, he figured the cracked frame was worth the $100. After all, he just wanted the frame. He said he realized the declaration was likely a nice copy from the 1876 centennial; he could tell it was old. His thinking was he could fix the frame and sell it for $150 and the declaration reproduction for $100 so it would be a profitable deal. Lingenfelter noticed the etching on the document about a decade after he bought it indicating that it was an “anastatic facsimile.”

Derived from the Greek word for resurrection, anastatic printing was developed in the 1840s when many were experimenting with how to reproduce documents quickly. At the time, copying documents meant tracing them or laborious engravings on copper plates.

Anastatic printing required the original work to be written in an oily ink. Acid would be applied to the paper, which was then pressed against a zinc plate. The acid would not adhere to the oily ink, leaving a reverse image on the zinc plate. The plate could then be inked and used to create copies, according to a 2009 article written by Edward Law in the Journal of Printing Historical Society. The big problem was the process damaged the original. The process caught the attention of some in the publishing world, including Edgar Allan Poe.

John Jay Smith, the librarian at the Library Co. of Philadelphia made copies of several historic documents, including the Declaration. The Declaration would have been a good marketing tool from which to showcase the marvels of anastatic printing. The popularity of the signatures of the Founding Fathers was rising in a time of patriotic nostalgia as many of the Revolutionary War generation had died off. All the founders were gone by this time, too.

Lingenfelter passionately advances an argument that Smith made his copy from the original, and that is why the Declaration of Independence is in such bad condition. The process removed ink from the original and placed it on the copy. The declaration is almost unreadable today. This copying process plus the fact it hung on a wall in direct sunlight for 30 years is also part of that equation.

This copy is one of only two such copies of the declaration known to exist. The other is displayed at Independence Hall. Robert Lucas, historical document and ephemera consultant, says, “This is a truly significant, historic find, especially since no one knew it existed. It answers the question of what happened to the original declaration, America’s national treasure. It certainly deserves to be described as priceless.” Dr. Jeffrey Ryan considers it to be “historically more important than the original. This is one of the only direct original copies of the declaration ever made. The fact that the resultant damage to the original made another copy amplifies its importance.”

I have been up close and personal with this declaration. The original is under six inches of glass and dimly lit. Lingerfelter did not seem to have any qualms about bringing it to show us. It was incredible to see. Oh yes, it was last valued at $100 million. Do not think that I do not take notice when I see a copy of the declaration at yard sales or flea markets.

The other item Lingerfelter brought and passed around the room was a drawing supposedly done by 10-year-old George Washington. He bought it on eBay for $500. The seller told him his father had bought it at an auction in 1950 and it might not be real.

He said he let it lie around for a few years and finally his curiosity got the best of him. He was struck by the sketch’s precise lines and artistic quality, demonstrating an astonishing level of proficiency for a 10-year-old boy. “It’s so early and it’s so good, I had the same reaction most people would have,” he said. However, he continued, 18th-century children mastered skills and assumed adult roles while still noticeably young. “At that age, it was pretty typical and expected.”

Washington inherited his boyhood home at 11 upon his father’s death. Unable to attend school in England as his older half-brothers had done, he trained with various tutors and secured his first job as a public surveyor in 1749. “He was doing advanced math by the time he was 14,” said Lingenfelter. “At 16, he was out being a full-fledged surveyor.” After serving in the French and Indian War in his early 20s, Washington famously supplemented his patchy education with books and independent study; unlike many of his fellow founding fathers, who received college degrees, America’s first commander-in-chief was largely self-taught.

But did Washington draw this picture? Experts said no, too much detail, too precise, and Washington would never have seen a deep draft sailing ship on the Potomac River.

Lingerfelter hired experts in period paper to test the paper, it was from the right period. Ink experts removed a tiny speck of ink, both determining it was from the period of time around 1742 when Washington would have been 10.

Next was the handwriting. Two different FBI handwriting experts were hired to examine the writing. They had to compare Washington’s hand at 16-20 and in adulthood to determine if this was the young hand that matured in his writing habits as well as his age. Both experts concluded that this was undoubtably young Washington’s handwriting and drawing. Other drawings turned up when Washington was 14 and 15, and he had drawn ships then, too.

The last hurdle was Washington’s drawing such a detailed deep draft sailing ship which he had never seen – or had he? Lingerfelter found British records indicating deep draft sailing ships sailed up the Potomac, offloaded goods from England, and returned laden with barrels of tobacco, chad, rum, and bales of cotton. The final piece of the puzzle was now found: young Washington would have seen and been able to draw seafaring ships. This is the oldest work associated with Washington before 1744, or at least the only one that has survived or been found.

The neat thing about this drawing is that it was passed around the room, Caroline Blanks got to hold it and examine it; I got to hold it and photograph it. I got to take a picture of the declaration document as well. Lingerfelter had other documents related to soldiers at Valley Forge he had picked up over the years. Pieces of paper picked up for $5 or $10 and valued at $1,500 or more. He passed those around, bringing a bit of the past up-close and personal.

We hear stories of people finding old trunks in long-abandoned attics. Then there are the old family pictures, jewelry and mementoes handed down for generations. Old photos, sometimes the only one of a great-great-grand-ancestor. One they went to great lengths to have made back in the day, so you might know what they looked like. Yes, gold doesn’t always glitter, and many times we don’t really know what we have.

Greene County historian Tim Massey is an award-winning writer for Civil War News with more than 40 photos featured on various magazine covers. He has served on various boards and held positions in several historic organizations. He can be reached at horses319@comcast.net.

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