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A 19th-Century Fed Gets His Due

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A little-known federal functionary from the War of 1812 was honored on Tuesday morning at the unlikely site of a creekside path near the Chain Bridge, which connects Washington and Arlington, Va.

Stephen Pleasonton was a State Department clerk who heroically carried out panicked instructions from Secretary of State James Monroe just as hostile British troops approached the outskirts of Washington in 1814. Pleasanton gathered up the original Declaration of Independence, some laws and some secret documents from the First Continental Congress, placed them in linen sacks and horse-carted them into what is now Arlington. He hid them in what at the time was a grist mill (long gone) on the eve of the burning of the capital's government buildings. The precious cargo was then moved to Leesburg, Va., for safekeeping.

With officials from the American Foreign Service Association and Arlington County looking on under the noisy George Washington Parkway, a plaque explaining the little-known drama was ceremoniously unveiled (it had actually been installed in August) by historical activist Steve Dryden, cheered on by a dozen onlookers, many of them environmentalists and enthusiasts for the nearby Potomac Heritage Trail.

Pleasonton's account of the document rescue, Dryden explained, comes from his own letter written decades later, and included a claim that the clerk, at a time when State had just a handful of employees, defied his direct supervisors to make the move.

Charlie Clark joined Government Executive in the fall of 2009. He has been on staff at The Washington Post, Congressional Quarterly, National Journal, Time-Life Books, Tax Analysts, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and the National Center on Education and the Economy. He has written or edited online news, daily news stories, long features, wire copy, magazines, books and organizational media strategies.

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