The Fact And Fiction Of ‘National Treasure’ On The 10th Anniversary Of Its Release

Senior Writer
11.19.14 12 Comments
According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a “National Treasure” is defined as something that can “reflect our past while enriching our future.” It can be anything that people believe is worth saving, “from one-room schoolhouses to inspiring monuments, from ancient sites to modern masterpieces,” as the so-called value of a “treasure” far exceeds the ideas of immense wealth or pricelessness. By that very definition, we could all agree that almost all of Nicolas Cage’s movies qualify as national treasures. Perhaps even the actor himself should be preserved. Watching him perform is like watching Michelangelo paint a picture of Mozart composing music.

Ten years ago, on this very day, one of Cage’s most beloved performances debuted in theaters, as Disney’s National Treasure introduced the idea that there is a map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. The film wasn’t exactly met with the most flattering critical reviews, but it was, by definition, a box office blockbuster, and that had a lot to do with the fact that it was (and remains) a very fun film about adventure and intrigue. But it has also left me wondering just how much of this movie was fun and how much of it was treasure-packed fact. Inspired by the presence of a Burns in the official Gates Family Tree, I decided to put on my fanciest explorer hat and determine just how real this National Treasure is.

Buckle up, folks, because we’re about to take a ride through history that could very well make us all filthy rich by the time it’s over. And it all starts with one very important question…

No, I said a question, Nic. You nutjob.

1) Hey Jim Kouf, co-writer of the screenplay for National Treasure, is this movie for real or what?

“If we were laying it out as a true story, then I’d agree that we’re taking too many liberties,” he said. “But because it’s set out in an adventure mold like Indiana Jones, I think we’re OK. People know some of this stuff didn’t happen.”

Still, Kouf, who considers himself a “history nut,” said he tried to include as many references to U.S. history—and use as many real locations—as possible.

“Mostly we set out to have a rollicking good time,” he said. “But if it gets people to also look at history differently and pick up a book about the Founding Fathers, that’s great.” (Via National Geographic)

Oh no, I have to read a book?!?! Fortunately, the Internet has way more words than books do, so I can just cut to the chase and start hunting from my keyboard.

2) Fess up, government – Is there a map on the back of the Declaration of Independence?

You have to tell us. It’s called the Freedom of Information Act, which I don’t necessarily “know anything” about, but it means you have to tell us.

Yes, there is writing on the back of the original, signed Declaration of Independence. But it is not invisible, nor does it include a map, as the Disney feature film, National Treasure, suggests. The writing on the back reads “Original Declaration of Independence, dated 4th July 1776,” and it appears on the bottom of the document, upside down. To learn more, read the article, The Flip Side of History. Please note that the back of the Declaration of Independence is not on display in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom. (Via

You may not have realized it, but we’re already taking the first step on our adventure. “Yes, there is writing” is what historical investigators call an admittance of fact, so the next step is to check out The Flip Side of History. However, that was just a really boring article about how dead people wrote on the back of paper, so let’s get back to the inquisition. Intimidation begets more answers than effort.

They think we’re just going to take the government’s word on this like a bunch of suckers. Sounds like the keepers of history’s secret sensed Jon Turteltaub and Co. were getting close to something when they filmed at the National Archives.

The movie National Treasure was not filmed inside the National Archives Building. A reproduction of the Declaration of Independence was used in filming the movie.

Fine, the movie was filmed in fake locations. That happens all the times, even in movies that are considered to be actual “true stories.” Let’s focus on the ideas presented in National Treasure.

3) Which of the nation’s Founding Fathers were reportedly Freemasons?

In order to rediscover history, we first need to understand those who wrote it. Those of you who were hanging out in secret meetings doing sneaky stuff, please step forward.

Two of America’s earliest presidents, George Washington and James Monroe, were Freemasons, as were Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock and Paul Revere. But many leading figures in the American Revolution — including John and Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Thomas Paine — were not Masons.

Of the 56 figures who signed the Declaration of Independence, only nine were confirmed Masons, according to the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania; and of the 39 delegates of the Continental Congress who signed the draft of the new nation’s Constitution in 1787, only 13 (one-third) were Freemasons. (Via CBS News)

Hold on, let’s say for a second that I’m not a spectacular genius and world-renowned factfinder and treasure hunter. What’s a Freemason anyway?

Freemasonry, sometimes just called Masonry, is the world’s oldest and largest Fraternity. It aims to promote Friendship, Morality, and Brotherly Love among its members — men from every race, religion, opinion, and background — who are brought together as Brothers to develop and strengthen the bonds of friendship. (Via Ask a Freemason)

Oh, so it’s a frat? That’s pretty rad. Can I join and get in on the keggers and protecting all of the national treasures and secrets of the world?

Most men can become a Mason by simply asking.

Eh, I don’t know about that. I like my frats to be exclusive so I can talk down to people and pretend that being a member makes me a better person. I’m going to have to think about it. Unless, of course, you want to give me a clue regarding the location of the treasures from the Temple of Solomon…

… books like The Da Vinci Code and movies like National Treasure have brought up both new interest and renewed speculation about the nature of the Fraternity. Though these books and movies are a product more of a vivid imagination than fact, the real history of Masonry is perhaps the best story of all — one learned only by Asking — and becoming a Freemason.

There’s always a f*cking membership catch. Next thing you know, I’m paying for magazine subscriptions I don’t want and then I have to buy cookies from Darrell’s kids, even though Darrell never chips in when it comes time for the Freemason pizza party. Hey Darrell, that looks like a slice of pizza in your hands – F*CK YOU, DARRELL.

4) Jon Voight, could you shine a little light on the Masons for us?

Sometimes it helps to talk directly with the film’s stars to get the historical insight that we need.

Nope. Forget that, I’m more confused than ever. Let’s try No. 4 again.

4) What about their alleged connection to the Knights Templar and all that treasure?

If the Freemasons are just a frat, why are they so spooky and cool in movies like National Treasure? The previous definition doesn’t make it sound all that enticing.

The idea of an ancient treasure taken from Solomon’s temple has floated around for centuries, though few–if any–reputable historians buy it. As the story goes, the Knights Templar, a military group created by the Pope during the Crusades, stumbled upon fabulous riches in the ruins of Solomon’s temple. Keeping it secret, they smuggled it back into Europe and hid it.

But unfortunately for the Knights Templar, the Pope got peeved at them (long story) and sent the Spanish Inquisition after them, which effectively destroyed the order.

But did it? Some Masonic accounts (and this film) suggest the Knights Templar went underground, found refuge in Scotland, and eventually morphed into the Scottish Freemasons. Then, years before Columbus managed the trick, they sailed to the New World with their massive treasure. And buried it. In an island near Nova Scotia, to be precise.

Right. (Via History Professor Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., University of St. Francis)

If I’ve learned anything from watching fictional movies instead of doing actual reading and research, it’s that the first thing anyone does to protect a secret is pretend that it’s a lie. “Treasure? What treasure? There’s no treasure. Get a job and stop sleeping here, this is a mattress store, you loser.” I see right through the trickery.

5) Wasn’t Washington DC designed by a Mason?

Let’s say for a second that there’s not a map on the back of the Declaration, even though we’ve still seen no proof and yet I bought all these lemons and Q-tips. The whole city of Washington DC is a treasure map!

The Masons did NOT design Washington, DC and all the parts therein. DC’s designer, Pierre L’Enfant, has at times been identified as a Mason but without any apparent proof whatsoever. (Via Masonic Info)

Wait, a French guy designed the Nation’s Capital? My grandmother is NOT going to be happy about that. Again, this all just seems like a lot of denial for the sake of stopping a young, handsome adventurer like myself from making the discovery of a lifetime. I think it’s time that we start looking at the specific clues that Ben Gates, Abigail Chase and Riley Poole investigated in National Treasure.

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