In a brand-new climate-controlled room with scalloped cherry-wood paneling sits a 228-year-old letter written the day America was born.
"I arrived in Congress (tho detained by Thunder and Rain) time Enough to give my Voice in the matter of Independence," wrote Caesar Rodney, a 48-year-old Delaware representative to the colonial legislature who left home at midnight and rode all night to Philadelphia to cast his vote for the Declaration of Independence on July 2, 1776. He wrote about it to his brother two days later.
The letter, whose flowery script has faded to burnt umber, is part of a collection of Declaration-related documents that opened Wednesday at the University of Virginia's new Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. The bi-level, 58,000-square-foot underground facility, which will house the university's collections of rare archival material, will open in phases over the next month.
The library is co-named for Albert H. Small, a Maryland real estate developer and University of Virginia alumnus who has been collecting Declaration-related material since the 1950s. He donated his 235-piece collection to the university five years ago, but it has not had a permanent exhibition space until now.
Although the library is below ground, it feels lofty and airy, with a grand spiral staircase and skylights that cast bars of sunlight across the ceiling. It boasts 12 miles of shelving, and digital cameras for photographing fragile documents. Above it, a new, two-story structure, the Mary and David Harrison Institute for American History, Literature and Culture, will provide space for related events. The project cost $10 million in state funds and $16 million in private donations.
The university's special collections include 300,000 rare books, 14 million manuscripts, 4,000 maps, and other artifacts, including Jorge Luis Borges' drawings and Walt Whitman's original manuscript of "Leaves of Grass."
But the center of attention Wednesday was the Declaration of Independence. At a ceremony attended by Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) and Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), a beaming Small described tense auctions in which he wrangled with other bidders to amass his collection.
"It's the thrill of the chase," he said. "It's in your blood."
Besides the famous "Thunder and Rain" letter, the exhibit includes a copy of the Declaration that might have belonged to George Washington, who was camped outside New York City that summer and is said to have ordered the Declaration read to his troops.
There is also a proclamation by Massachusetts's royal governor, Thomas Gage, written a few months before Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration, that offers amnesty to anyone involved in the rebellion against the British crown -- except Samuel Adams and John Hancock, whose activities Gage considered unforgivable.
The crown jewel of the collection is a rare first printing of the Declaration by John Dunlap on the evening of July 4, 1776, one of 25 known to survive.
Small said he preferred to donate his collection to the university, where the public could see it easily, rather than to the Library of Congress, where it would be "just in file drawers." "These 56 signers put their necks on the chopping block," he said. "After the Declaration was signed, the British went after them. They were hunted. Their houses were burned."
Young people especially do not realize the drama of the Declaration, he said.
But young Americans might soon get a shot of Declaration fever from the new movie "National Treasure," a fictional drama about a treasure map concealed on the back of the Declaration.
"Any hook that gets a student interested in history works for me," said Jim Percoco, a U.S. history teacher at West Springfield High School who said the National Archives are "gearing up big-time" for a rush of interest in the Declaration when the movie comes out this month.
Eric Foner, professor of history at Columbia University, said adults, too, should heed the Declaration's intent -- especially with the United States at war.
"What it is is the right of revolution," he said, adding that "the U.S. has become anti-revolutionary. We are frightened of disorder. We've kind of lost our belief in the right to overthrow our government, which is what the Declaration proclaims."
Foner, whose uncle Philip Foner wrote "We the Other People," about similar declarations by labor groups, black groups and women's groups, said a key element of the Declaration is that it lays out a justification for going to war "with a decent respect for the opinions of mankind."
"Today we have no interest in the opinions of mankind at all, or at least the leaders of our country don't," he said.
Richard Brookhiser, author of "Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution," said the Declaration can be construed differently by both sides of today's political divide.
"I think people who are against the war would probably say, 'Well, the people were not truly informed of the causes of the war and therefore it's illegitimate," he said.
"But the Bush administration . . . can say, 'Look, we are trying to accomplish in Iraq goals that are akin to the goals we had in 1776, that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant and that we want to give them control over their own destiny, akin to what we got in 1776."