History is an inter-active adventure, a quest to discover and be moved by great events, great men and women and great truths. And one of the most fascinating and alluring aspects of that quest is to discover unknown or long-lost documents – true national treasures – and bring the stories they tell to light. The search for these golden nuggets is never easy. We look through tens of thousands of documents each year, sifting, always sifting. And like any treasure hunt, there are blind alleys and false leads. Yet patience and diligence are oft rewarded, and we have likewise been fortunate.
Some treasures are hidden and some are in plain view. I'll give you a striking example of each. Looking through autographs on a website, I came across an official decision of the United States Supreme Court, signed by Chief Justice John Marshall. The case was dated 1816 and settled a question of Constitutional Law. Now, before 1836 these decisions were not sent to repose in the National Archives, but were sent to law reporters for publication and then disposed of. Only a few are known to have survived, yet there in front of me was one, signed and sealed, in plain view. We obtained it immediately, and research later showed it to be the only known Supreme Court decision in private hands.
But treasures can be well hidden too. Not long ago we looked at a collection that had been put together back when I was in high school in the Sixties and earlier. The collector was getting up in years, his children were not interested, and he had decided the time had come to sell the collection. Everything in it had been off the market for at least half a century, so even the documents that may have once been known were by now considered lost. We acquired the collection. In it, there was a financial document signed by John Hancock, one that to all intents and purposes seemed routine and nothing to get very excited about. Hard work and a trip to do some research showed that this document related to Hancock's part in fomenting the Boston Tea Party, and the efforts of his British bankers to teach their American clients a lesson for their rebelliousness. We had relocated an important, and well-known, piece of history.
This discovery process continues and daily addd to our knowledge of our nation's history. Hidden in countless homes around the nation is evidence of our country's great story. So we keep looking and history evolves.