Treasures of Carolina: Bill of Rights

The first Wednesday of each month features a document or item from the State Archives considered a treasure because of its significance to the history and culture of our state or because it is rare or unique. Sometimes the featured item just illustrates a good story. The items highlighted in this blog have been taken from the exhibit, “Treasures of Carolina: Stories from the State Archives” and its companion catalog.

Bill of Rights

Bill of Rights, 1989. Vault Collection

Long before the State Archives of North Carolina existed, the Secretary of State kept important government documents in the State Capitol building 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 Capitols secure and safe for more than eighty years.

In April 1865, Union troops occupying Raleigh were encamped around the State Capitol grounds and building. Against orders, Union soldiers looted whatever they wanted, one returning home to Tippecanoe, Ohio with the Bill of Rights in hand, selling it to Charles A. Shotwell who lived in the same Ohio county.

By 1897, North Carolina became aware of the theft through a Raleigh News and Observer article that had been picked up from the Indianapolis News, where Shotwell was living at the time. Through both secretaries of state, North Carolina tried to reclaim its property—as a public record the document belonged to the state—but Shotwell refused to give it up without payment and disappeared. Another attempt was made to recover the document in 1925 when it was offered for sale by a Pennsylvania attorney on behalf of a client who remained unidentified.

Wayne Pratt, Inc. purchased North Carolina’s copy of the Bill of Rights from two of Shotwell’s descendants in 2000 for $200,000. In the meantime, several experts had authenticated the document as the copy given to the state of North Carolina and Pratt was well aware of the findings. A couple of years later North Carolina was offered the opportunity to purchase the piece. Again, the state refused to buy its own property but later acquiesced. Unbeknownst to the seller, his agents, and attorneys, the FBI had orchestrated a sophisticated sting operation whereby North Carolina would go through the motions of offering $4 million for the manuscript. Once the check “cleared” electronically and the Bill of Rights was brought to the table, federal agencies seized the document and it remained in federal custody. After a two-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.