Revolutionary War exhibit
'Rebels With a Cause' historical documents feature rare copy of Declaration of Independence
Thursday, July 01, 1999 - By Bill Schackner, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Staff Writer
He helped bankroll the American Revolution, risked death by signing the Declaration of Independence and became one of 40 signers of the U.S. Constitution. There's even a college in Moon named after him.
So how in the world did a stand-up guy like Robert Morris end up in prison?
Turns out, the famous Philadelphian went on to make some poor land deals in this part of the state and in Virginia -- frontiers considered back then to be the rough and tumble "West."
They certainly were rough for Morris.
He paid for his insolvency with a 3 1/2-year stint in a debtors' prison in Philadelphia starting in 1798. Not even his friendship with George Washington helped. What ultimately freed him was passage of bankruptcy laws and the fact that Morris was finally able to show a judge various promissory notes proving he was broke.
One of those signed notes, yellowed but intact, can be found in a sizable collection of documents from the Revolutionary War era that will be displayed at the Carnegie Library for two months beginning Saturday, the start of the Independence Day weekend.
The 70 documents contained in the exhibit, "Rebels With a Cause: Historical Documents of Freedom," include a rare copy of the Declaration of Independence. They are on loan from collector Stan Klos, a history enthusiast who, along with his wife, Marie Ann, is regional owner of RE/MAX of Pennsylvania, a real estate firm.
Klos had displayed a few of the documents at the library in February, but this exhibit is much larger and more wide-ranging.
The image of Morris languishing in a prison cell may not be the loftiest remembrance of one of the nation's founding heroes. "But it's a great piece of history," said Carnegie Library Director Herb Elish.
The same is true about the rest of the framed, glass-enclosed artifacts from America's founding. The personal letters and official documents belonging to the RE/MAX collection will be paired with a dozen holdings from the library's rare book collection, including a 1776 first edition of "Common Sense" by Thomas Paine.
Some of the figures whose signatures can be found in the exhibit are household names, like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Others are footnotes to the era, like Nathaniel Peabody, the first soldier to resign from the British Army to join the Colonial Army.
The documents those men signed provide glimpses into the war, the government that later emerged from it and their own lives.
"This is an amazing collection," said library archivist Gregory Priore. "This could be in the Smithsonian. This could be anywhere."
Klos, a history enthusiast, said he's been collecting and restoring remnants of the Revolutionary era for years, in part as a way to educate his eight children, all of whom are under age 15.
"They've got their heroes like Michael Jordan and whoever they listen to on the radio," he said. "But I really think they need to know about guys like George Washington and Robert Morris and William Penn. These are real people. This isn't just in a book."
He's been looking for venues to share the collection with the public and figured the library would be a perfect spot.
"The whole point of this is to get people to read," he said.
Ever wonder why Pennsylvania has no Indian gambling casinos?
The answer stretches back farther than you might think, Klos said.
As far back as the days of Pennsylvania founder William Penn, the colony acquired Indian land by negotiation instead of force, a practice that helped the state avoid having to set up reservations to compensate tribes for seizures of their original land.
His collection includes three Indian deeds signed between 1784 and 1789 involving the Commonwealth's purchase of land near the Ohio border and Erie.
"Penn was a devout Quaker. He believed that you should not shoot the Indians and take their land. He believed you should have treaties," Klos said.
"They went to great lengths to find what tribes owned what. Then they would get all the chiefs to sign off so that the land would be transferred in a legal manner."
Another part of the collection reveals that George Washington did indeed have it in for a kind of tree -- only it's not the way the famous story goes.
The notion that he chopped down a cherry tree is widely known to be myth, Klos said. What people don't know is that Washington was so broke after leaving the presidency that, upon his return to Mount Vernon, he gave permission to cut down something else -- walnut trees.
Klos has signed proof. It's a 1798 letter Washington wrote to nephew Robert Lewis, authorizing him to sweeten the deal for a prospective tenant on Virginia land that Washington needed to rent. The offer was that if the tenant would lease the property, he could earn extra money by harvesting a grove of walnut trees on the property and selling the wood.
"Here we have the father of our country in dire financial straits giving instructions on how to kill a grove of walnut trees," Klos said. "You know the old saying truth is stranger than fiction? Well, truth is also more interesting than fiction."
Klos said Washington was broke because he did something that Oval Office occupants today would never have to do. He used money from his own pocket to keep the fledgling office running.
"He was the first president," Klos said. The government "just didn't have the money."
Another item in the exhibit is a 1790 letter from Thomas Jefferson, then secretary of state, to the governor of New York. Jefferson informed him that the newly created Congress had passed federal laws that from then on would affect each state. One involved the first census, a second set the rules for accepting immigrants, and a third was the first budget in support of the federal government.
The collection includes documents, manuscripts and personal insights into 18 men who risked death by signing the Declaration of Independence, among them Morris. Also on display are documents signed by Revolutionary War generals whose forces added brawn to the bravado of 1776.
In one such note, Brig. Gen. NathanaelGreene instructs a deputy to remove valuable supplies from Morristown to Succasunna in central New Jersey to protect them from the advancing British troops.
Currency from the Colonial period will be displayed. So will what Klos considers the jewel of his collection -- one of only 12 remaining privately held copies of the Declaration of Independence. They are among 201 copies that the government ordered to be created in 1820 after it became clear the 44-year-old original was beginning to show signs of its age.
The exhibit will be housed through Aug. 31 in the Gillespie Room on the library's first floor. It is free to the public and will be open during the library's regular summer hours, Mondays through Thursdays, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Fridays and Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The library will be closed Monday for the Independence Day holiday and is closed regularly during the summer on Sundays.
Klos began his document pursuit two decades ago while acquiring and restoring revolutionary taverns, old vaudeville theaters, mansions and other historic buildings.. "What I kept finding when I would buy these buildings were historic documents, like in the attic. I just started setting them aside. I thought, 'Wouldn't it be neat to collect, preserve and restore them?' "
Klos said he's long since gotten his fill of historic restorations that involve leaking roofs and broken pipes.
But it was clear during a walk-through of his document collection that Klos' passion for history hasn't faded. Bounding from one framed piece to the next with boyish enthusiasm, he launched into yet another story-behind-the-story. "That's really neat," he said at one point, pausing to savor a piece of trivia. "I mean, how many people know that?"
|Stan Klos lecturing at the Republican National Convention's PoliticalFest 2000 Rebels With A Vision Exhibit in Philadelphia's Convention Hall|
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