Presenting the Facts: National Treasure

Facts LogoIn this edition of "Presenting the Facts", we explore the 2004 blockbuster National Treasure. The story was written by Jim Kouf, Oren Aviv, and Charles Segars, and the screenplay was by Jim Kouf, Cormac Wibberley, and Marianne Wibberley. It was directed by Jon Turtletaub and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, who is known for other action films based in historical details, including Pearl Harbor and Black Hawk Down. To quote the Critics Consensus on Rotten Tomatoes, where the movie has a 44% rating, "National Treasure is no treasure, but it's a fun ride for those who can forgive its highly improbable plot." 

A brief note on names: Nicolas Cage's character, Ben Gates, has the full name Benjamin Franklin Gates, as revealed in the opening scene with his grandfather. In fact, Ben's father's full name is Patrick Henry Gates (played by Jon Voight), and his grandfather's full name is John Adams Gates (played by Christopher Plummer). But the allusion to the founders doesn't stop with the Gates family. Diane Kruger's character is named Abigail Chase, a combination of Abigail Adams and Samuel Chase. Sean Bean's character is called Ian Howe (though it is revealed that this may be an alias), and General William Howe and Admiral Richard Howe were both high-ranking British commanders and the King's Commissioners to restore peace during the Revolutionary War.

To get this out of the way, we'll start with the most obvious piece of fiction.

Fiction: There is a map on the back of the Declaration of Independence, leading to the treasure of the Knights Templar.

Back of the Declaration of Independence

(Fun) Fact: Independence Hall was not harmed in the making of this movie.

Many of the scenes set in Philadelphia were shot on location, in such landmarks as Reading Terminal Market and the Franklin Institute. But one notable exception is Independence Hall. Rather than filming in/on the real building, a National Historical Park, the filmmakers substituted the brick-for-brick replica of Independence Hall at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, California. Walter Knott had a love for American history, and his replica which was constructed between 1964-1966 was based on historical records, photographs, blueprints, and exact measurements. So, there was no need for Nicolas Cage to run on the roof of a real "national treasure" when a truly exact replica existed.

Independence Hall, Knott's Berry FarmIndependence Hall Interior, Knott's Berry Farm

Fact: Charles Carroll was the last living signer.

The last three living signers were Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Charles Carroll of Carrollton. But after both Jefferson and Adams died on July 4th, 1826, Carroll was the sole survivor. He died in Baltimore on November 14, 1832 at the age of 95.

Fact*: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Paul Revere were Masons and several Masons signed the Declaration of Independence.

Washington, Franklin, and Revere were all Masons. But when the conversation turns to signers of the Declaration of Independence, Ben says, "nine, for sure," were Masons, and we don't actually know that for sure. The exact count of the signers of the Declaration who were Masons differs from source to source. Eight signers, including Franklin, are recorded as being affiliated with specific Masonic lodges: Elbridge Gerry, John Hancock, William Hooper, Richard Stockton, Matthew Thornton, George Walton, and William Whipple. Several other signers visited a lodge, or had sons who became Masons, so there is a chance that more than eight signers were Masons. 

One signer who was definitely not a Mason was Charles Carroll. The connection between the Gates family and the treasure of the Knights Templar begins with Charles Carroll sharing with Thomas Gates that "The secret lies with Charlotte". The movie then claims that Carroll was a Mason. But Carroll was Catholic — the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, in fact — and in 1738, the Catholic Church prohibited membership in Masonic organizations.

Fiction* IconFiction*: "Fifty-five in iron pen"

When Ben discovers the meerschaum pipe clue in the Charlotte, a ship based on an actual ship named Charlotte which was reported as lost off Newfoundland in 1818, he uses blood as surrogate ink to reveal a message etched on the pipe's stem.

The legend writ
The stain effected
The key in Silence undetected
Fifty-five in iron pen
Mr. Matlack can't offend.

What follows is a sequence of thoughts that leads Ben to the conclusion that there is a map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. But before we get to that, we need to correct the clue. Fifty-six men signed the Declaration of Independence, not fifty-five. Since Thomas McKean signed sometime after January 1777 and possibly as late as 1781, it could be assumed that the map was aded to the parchment within this window, when only fifty-five men had signed. But, given how other numbers in the movie are just slightly off (see above and below: 9 Masons, 180 years of searching, 14 years old), this is more than likely a mistake.

Fact IconFact: Iron gall ink was the "primary writing medium of the time"

After centuries of use, by the late 18th century, iron gall ink was still the most popular ink in use, especially for an official document like the Declaration of Independence. Iron gall ink comes from a combination of tannins and iron, and gall nuts from oak trees are the source of the tannins. For more on iron gall ink, check out Yale University Library's Traveling Scriptorium.

Fact* IconFact*: Timothy Matlack was the scribe of the Declaration of Independence

It is true that Timothy Matlack is believed to have been the scribe of the Declaration of Independence (there is no concrete evidence to confirm this, but his handwriting is a match). He was not the "official" scribe of the Continental Congress, as Ben claims, because a number of scribes worked for Secretary of the Congress, Charles Thomson. That being said, Matlack was the scribe of two of the most important documents produced by the Congress: the Declaration of Independence (1776) and George Washington's Commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army (1775).

Fiction: Abigail is missing the 1789 Inaugural button

Most of the buttons in Abigail's collection could be referred to as "the 1789 Inaugural". Also, the button Ben ultimately sends Abigail is the Pater Patriae button, which was already shown to be in her collection. For more, see Mount Vernon's Material Culture of the Presidency.

Fact: "The only thing there is a notation that reads Original Declaration of Independence dated 4th July 1776"

After Ben begins to describe his theory, Abigail makes this claim, which Ben joins halfway through. And it's correct. This note, written at the bottom of the reverse, would have been visible when the engrossed parchment was rolled up; it's essentially a label. 

Detail, Declaration of Independence Reverse

Fiction: 180 years of searching

When Ben and Riley stand "three feet away" from the Declaration of Independence, Ben claims that his family has been searching for the treasure for 180 years, but it's actually closer to 170 years (or 172, to be precise). Given that Thomas Gates first heard about the treasure from Charles Carroll in 1832, for this statement to be true, the events of the movie would need to be set in 2012. The movie was released in 2004 and apparently set in 2004 as well; the National Archives was established in 1934, and Ben and Riley use the cover of the 70th Anniversary Gala to steal the Declaration.

Of course, this poignant moment leads to this iconic scene:

Steal the Declaration GIF

Fact*: When he was 14, Benjamin Franklin wrote letters to his brother, the editor of the New-England Courant, pretending to be a middle-aged widow named Silence Dogood.

Franklin was actually 16 years old when he began writing as Silence Dogood, but yes, he sent letters under the pseudonym to his brother, James Franklin, at the New-England Courant. Benjamin was working as an apprentice in his brother's print shop at the time. The letters, fourteen in total, were published in 1722. James later learned that it was his teenaged brother who had written the wildly popular letters, and it contributed to a growing rift between them, with Benjamin ultimately leaving his apprenticeship early, escaping to Philadelphia. 

A fiction worth noting: the historical record for the Silence Dogood letters comes from their publishes versions in the New-England Courant. No manuscript letters are known to exist.

Fact IconFact: "The house of Pass and Stow"

The bell now known as the Liberty Bell was commissioned from the London firm of Lester and Pack. It arrived in Philadelphia in 1752, but when the bell was struck to test the sound, its rim cracked. Authorities tried in vain to return the bell, so local founders John Pass and John Stow offered to recast it. Their first attempt didn't break when struck, but the sound was disappointing. So, Pass and Stow recast the bell again, and it was finally installed in the bell tower of the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall) in June 1753.

As Ian discovers, the Liberty Bell no longer hangs in Independence Hall. It has its own pavillion across the street, the Liberty Bell Center, which opened to the public in October 2003.

Liberty Bell Center, NPS

Fact*: On the back of the $100 bill, there is an etching of Independence Hall, and the time on the clock tower reads 2:22.

The clock on the back of the early-2000s $100 bill (below) was officially documented as reading 4:10, though it does look more like the hour hand is pointing to the two, suggesting a time of 2:22. When the $100 bill was redesigned in 2009, the time was changed to 10:30; this new bill entered circulation in 2013. There is no evidence that either of these times were chosen for a specific reason.

Reverse, $100 bill (pre-2009)$100 Bill Reverse, Detail

Ben also claims that the image of Independence Hall was based on an engraving done in the 1780s by a friend of Benjamin Franklin's. But, if an engraving of the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall) had been created in the 1780s, it would have looked quite different from what the building looked like in 1776 and what it looks like today. A friend of Franklin's, Charles Willson Peale, did produce a drawing of the State House in 1778, which was reproduced by multiple engravers, even through the centennial; however, this engraving shows a different angle of the building. It is also worth noting that the design for the back of the $100 bill didn't include Independence Hall until 1928.

Fun fact: the new $100 bills have added an image of the engrossed parchment and an inkwell and quill to the front of the bill. Combined with other security features, including a color-shifting Liberty Bell, these additions to the design make the bill more difficult to counterfeit.

Fact* IconFact*: Benjamin Franklin was the first person to suggest Daylight Savings.

Having just bested Ben and Abigail with his fact about Daylight Savings Time, Riley asks them, "Do you actually know who the first person to come up with the idea of daylight savings time was?" Ben and Abigail quickly respond "Benjamin Franklin" as they rush off to Independence Hall. Franklin did suggest a system of saving daylight, in a letter to the editor of the Journal of Paris in 1784. He reported the astonishing discovery of "an immense sum" that "the city of Paris might save every year, by the economy of using sunshine instead of candles." It was more of a witty joke than a real proposition, as the last sentence of the letter shows: "I say it is impossible that so sensible a people, under such circumstances, should have lived so long by the smoky, unwholesome, and enormously expensive light of candles, if they had really known, that they might have had as much pure light of the sun for nothing."

Riley GIF

Fact: The final expansion of the crack in the Liberty Bell occurred on George Washington's birthday in 1846, and the Centennial Bell replaced the Liberty Bell in 1876.

According to the National Park Service, the final expansion of the crack did occur in 1876, and the widening was actually an attempt to prevent futher cracking and restore the bell's tone. By order of the mayor, the bell rang on Washington's birthday (February 20th) and cracked beyond repair.

In anticipation of the centennial in 1876, a replica of the Liberty Bell was produced from four melted-down Revolutionary and Civil War cannons. The Centennial Bell was part of the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, later recast to improve the tone, and hung in the bell tower of Independence Hall, where it remains today. This engraving from The Illustrated London News, 1876, shows the Centennial Bell "In the Belfry, Independence Hall."

1876 Engraving of Centennial Bell, The Illustrated London News

Fact IconFact: Benjamin Franklin experimented with bifocals.

Franklin is credited with inventing bifocal glasses, and you can see a sketch in this 1785 letter to George Whatley, along with this description: "I imagine it will be found pretty generally true, that the same Convexity of Glass through which a Man sees clearest and best at the Distance proper for Reading, is not the best for greater Distances. I therefore had formerly two Pair of Spectacles, which I shifted occasionally, as in travelling I sometimes read and often wanted to regard the Prospects. Finding this Change troublesome and not always sufficiently ready, I had the Glasses cut, and half of each kind associated in the same Circle, thus By this means, as I wear my Spectacles constantly, I have only to move my Eyes up or down as I want to see distincly far or near, the proper glasses being always ready."

Fiction: "The last time this was here, it was being signed."

Though it makes for a dramatic moment, Ben, Abigail, and Riley's unfurling of the Declaration of Independence in the Assembly Room does not mark the document's first return to Independence Hall since the signing. In fact, the engrossed parchment was brought from Washington, D.C. to Philadelphia in 1876 and put on display in Independence Hall for the Centennial Exposition. 

A note on Ben, Abigail, and Riley's "Rocky Run" 

Reminiscent of Rocky Balboa's run through Philadelphia in Rocky II (and with some of the same locations!), when the trio splits up to evade Ian and his henchmen, they cover quite a bit of ground. Ben starts off heading toward 6th and Walnut, sprints through Washington Square Park, dodges bullets in the Old Pine Street Churchyard, passes Stamper Blackwell Way, and ends up in Head House Square. Abigail and Riley go for 6th and Chestnut, run up 6th, and suddenly find themselves in Reading Terminal Market before running to City Hall (coincidentally, passing the Masonic Temple). We mapped their respective runs using USATF's Map It, and you can learn more about the filming locations in this Curbed interactive map. Both runs are approximately one mile. What's astounding is that, after Abigail and Riley lose the Declaration to Ian, they head to Ben's location, Head House Square (though they turn around when they see Ben is being arrested by the FBI). Even assuming the most direct route from City Hall, that means that Abigail and Riley travelled at least two and a half miles in total!

Map of Ben's Route created with USATF Map It
Map of Abigail and Riley's Route created with USATF Map It
Abigail and Riley

Fact: Broadway was called de Heere Street by the Dutch.

Originally the Wickquasgeck Trail, Dutch settlers renamed the route traversing Manhattan Island from south to north de Heere Straat, which means the Gentlemen's Street. Much of modern day Broadway follows these original roads. Check out the New Netherland Institute's digital exhibition, A Tour of New Netherland, for more.

Fact* IconFact*: "One if by land, two if by sea"

Patrick tells Ian that "the lantern is the clue," because one lantern was hung in the steeple of Old North Church, and that's where the next clue must be located. This misdirection works, and Ian is eventually arrested in Boston. However, Patrick incorrectly states that Thomas Newton signaled Paul Revere; the men who hung lanterns in the steeple of Old North Church were actually Robert Newman (the church sexton) and Captain John Pulling; Thomas Bernard stood watch outside the church. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "Paul Revere's Ride" popularized the saying, though you have to continue reading the poem to know that "A second lamp in the belfry burns".

Paul Revere by Cyrus Edwin Dallin, with Old North Church in the background
Paul Revere by Cyrus Edin Dallin, 1940, with Old North Church in the background

Text Check

Ben: "Of all the ideas that became the United States, there's a line here that's at the heart of all the others. 'But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and provide new Guards for their future security.'"

"But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security." - Declaration of Independence (NARA Transcription)

By Emily Sneff