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This weekend, at the Greensboro Historical Museum, an original copy of the Bill of Rights will be on display. I'm planning to go look at it Friday during lunch (and/or maybe after work) and/or Sunday afternoon.

This copy of the Bill of Rights appears to have a very interesting history.

It seems that in 1789, George Washington had federal clerks create 14 copies of the Bill of Rights -- one for each state and one for the federal government. North Carolina's copy lived in Raleigh until it was stolen by federal invaders under command of General Sherman in 1865. It was finally returned to North Carolina in 2004. In the 140 years that it was being held hostage, it was mostly out of the public eye. In the several times it did make appearances, it was seen hanging on the wall of an Indiana attorney or offered for sale and/or auction. It was finally returned to North Carolina as the result of a sting operation involving the FBI and US Marshals as well as other law enforcement agencies. Several legal questions remained about the ownership of the document, but those issues have now been resolved and the document is back in the hands of North Carolina.

I found a newsletter (link is to a 22 MB PDF file) from 2004 with some details about the story of North Carolina's copy of the Bill of Rights. It was very interesting reading -- the kind of thing that might make a good movie. That newsletter was written before all of the legal questions were settled, and I haven't found much other information online about the document. I'm really hoping that the exhibit at the Greensboro Historical Museum has more details about the document's history -- I'd love to learn more of the details about the legal issues regarding ownership that must have been resolved over the past few years as well as learning more details about the document's history while it was stolen property.

I also thought it was interesting that there were 14 original copies of the Bill of Rights. I had never really considered it before, but it makes sense. I've seen the copy that lives at the National Archives in Washington, DC several times. Of the other copies, the location of four of them are unknown: those belonging to Georgia, Maryland, New York, and Pennsylvania. Two of them are believed to have been destroyed in fires, and unidentified copies are housed in the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress.

North Carolina's copy is wrapping up a six-city tour in Greensboro, and I'm really excited that I'm going to have a chance to go see it. After it leaves Greensboro, it's going back to Raleigh, where it will be stored in a humidity- and temperature-controlled room.

If you can make it to the museum this weekend to check it out, drop me a line and I'll be happy to join you.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 28th, 2007 12:23 am (UTC)
Blah blah, constitutional rights, yeah whatever. What's on TV tonight?
Nov. 28th, 2007 12:36 am (UTC)
Tell me about it.
Nov. 28th, 2007 06:04 am (UTC)
Interesting that it's the Bill of Rights that was copied, and not the whole Constitution... suggests they had a special conception of the Bill's importance as a free-standing entity, one whose importance didn't come merely from modifying the Constitution itself.
Nov. 28th, 2007 12:44 pm (UTC)
Yeah. Well, it was a free-standing entity -- the Constitution was ratified in 1788 and the Bill of Rights wasn't added until 1791. I wonder how the states got their own copies of the original Constitution -- maybe it was printed for duplication instead of written out? Maybe he exhibit will have some information that answers those questions....
Nov. 30th, 2007 08:25 pm (UTC)
Hunh - I didn't know that. I thought I remembered something about states refusing to ratify until some of the amendments were added. Well, maybe they were satisfied once the amendments were in the pipeline, or maybe I'm thinking of holdout states that waited past 1788...
Nov. 30th, 2007 08:55 pm (UTC)
Well, maybe we're both right. I remember what you're saying, too, and the more I look at it, the more I see that's the case. Wikipedia to the rescue ('cause you know Wikipedia is never wrong). It looks like some states were holding out for the Bill of Rights before ratifying the Constitution, but they considered the Constitution ratified in 1788 when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify it. The final state to ratify the Constitution, Rhode Island, did so in 1790. The Bill of Rights was ratified between 1789 and 1791. So there was definitely some overlap.

I wonder what it was like in Rhode Island in 1789, when the rest of the country considered them to be part of the United States, but they hadn't yet ratified the Constitution. Argh! I don't have time to read and research questions like that!
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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