Treasures of Carolina: Bill of Rights

[This blog post was written by Andrea Gabriel, Outreach and Development Coordinator for the State Archives of North Carolina.]

As the first in our series of exhibit teasers, this story is about North Carolina’s copy of the Bill of Rights. Because of its fragile condition, the Bill of Rights is rarely displayed, but it will be on view when the exhibit opens, October 24—October 27, and again as the exhibit closes June 15 – June 19, 2016.

North Carolina's copy of the Bill of Rights, 1789

North Carolina’s copy of the Bill of Rights, 1789. Part of the Vault Collection. Available online as part of the North Carolina Digital Collections.

Long before the State Archives of North Carolina existed, the Secretary of State kept important government documents in the State Capitol in Raleigh. Among them was North Carolina’s original copy of the Bill of Rights, drafted by federal clerks in 1789 and given to each of the original thirteen colonies for ratification.  The document remained in the State Capitol secure and safe for nearly eighty years.

In April 1865, Union troops occupying Raleigh were encamped around the State Capitol grounds and building. The Bill of Rights went missing, taken by a Union soldier returning home to Tippecanoe, Ohio. It was sold to Charles A. Shotwell who lived in the same county. Throughout the years, North Carolina tried to reclaim its property, maintaining that as a public record the document belonged to the state, but attempts to secure it were unsuccessful.

In 2003, Wayne Pratt, who had purchased the document from two of Shotwell’s descendants, offered it for sale.  In the meantime, several experts had authenticated the document as the state copy given to North Carolina. An institution in another state showed interest and North Carolina was alerted to the potential sale. Unbeknownst to the seller, his agents, and attorneys, the FBI and other federal agencies interceded on North Carolina’s behalf and orchestrated a sophisticated sting operation whereby the sale would proceed, with an asking price of $4 million. As all parties assembled, including the potential buyer for the manuscript, and the check “cleared” electronically, federal agents seized the document under a federal seizure warrant.  After a five-year court battle, during which time a federal judge ruled that the manuscript was indeed a public record belonging to the state, North Carolina’s copy of the Bill of Rights returned home.

The current Bill of Rights comprises the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The Bill of Rights as proposed in 1789 was comprised of twelve amendments.

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A selection of the state’s historic documents will be exhibited in Treasures of Carolina: Stories from the State Archives of North Carolina at the Museum of History, October 24, 2015–June 19, 2016. Documents from the Archives vault, unique letters, historic photographs, public records, and other media will illuminate the myriad of ways in which the holdings of the State Archives document the workings of our government, provide evidence of civil liberties, and preserve the history and culture of North Carolina. This exhibit is sponsored by the Friends of the Archives and runs through June 19, 2016. Additional funding was provided by the N.C. Bar Association Foundation, the Raleigh Times, and Wells Fargo.

While some materials will be available throughout the duration of the exhibit, some of the rarest items will be displayed only for a short time. On October 24 – October 27, North Carolina’s copy of the Bill of Rights will be on display.

To learn more about the exhibit, please see: https://ncarchives.wordpress.com/tag/treasures-of-carolina/

For a full list of documents that will be on display only a limited time, see: https://ncarchives.wordpress.com/2015/09/09/plan-to-visit-treasures-of-carolina/

See the State Archives Facebook calendar or Dept. of Cultural Resources events calendar for more upcoming events.

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