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State, national archives give glimpse into nation's founding

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

The state and national archives, both housed in the area, may not have the original copy of the U.S. Constitution, or many other documents related to the founding of the United States, but they do offer several, important documents that provide insight into the making of America.

The Georgia Archives in Morrow, for example, is home to Georgia's official copy of the Declaration of Independence; transcripts from the state convention to ratify the Constitution, and military appointments from the American Revolution.

"We don't have a lot here, but what we do have is the really important stuff," said Greg Jarrell, an archivist at the Georgia Archives.

As the nation celebrates its 232nd birthday this weekend, a small sampling of its history is waiting to be viewed at the state archives.

And, at the National Archives, Southeast Region office next door, children can add their signatures to a digital copy of the Declaration of Independence.

The key piece to the Southern Crescent's link to U.S. history is housed at the state archives, however. Georgia's copy of the Declaration was copied by the hand of John Milton, Georgia's first secretary of state, in 1777. The copy was likely made in a military encampment because Georgia's capital at the time, Savannah, was under siege from British forces during the American Revolution, Jarrell said.

It's story includes hiding in South Carolina, and at a house in Maryland, during the Revolution, because anyone who was found to be in possession of a copy was accused of treason and executed without a trial.

In the 1820's, it was placed in a book entitled "military records, 1789-1827," and was quickly forgotten about. During the Civil War, Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman marched on Milledgeville, then the state capital, with plans to burn all records of the state's founding as he made his March to the Sea.

All of the records, including the hidden copy of the Declaration of Independence, were evacuated from the city beforehand and taken to Columbus.

For years, many people thought the document was lost in either the Revolution or the Civil War, though. It wasn't until Jarrell went looking through military records for someone in 2006 that the Declaration reappeared by accident.

Now it has become the centerpiece of thousands of documents which belong to the archives.

"The state's copy of the Declaration of Independence is the most important document we have," said Jarrell on Thursday, as he carefully browsed through the 231-year old document. "It's our birth certificate as both a state and a nation. We do have a copy of Georgia's Royal Charter, but that's our birth certificate as a colony. This is completely different."

The neighboring National Archives branch does not offer local residents a physical copy of the nation's founding documents to look at since the original documents are housed in Washington D.C., but local children can come to Morrow and add their "John Hancocks" next to the signatures of founding fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and... well, John Hancock.

A copy of the Declaration, with the child's signature is printed out by an archives staff member on a piece of parchment paper. It is then framed for the child.

"It's one of the most requested items we have," said Mary Evelyn Tomlin, public programs specialist at the National Archives in Morrow. "Children just love to do it, but sometimes they can be a little apprehensive about it," she added.

"I thought I was going to be a traitor if I signed it," exclaimed Joshua Abrahamian, 5, of Stockbridge.