NC’s original copy of the Bill of Rights on display at the Museum of History

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – North Carolina’s original handwritten copy of the Bill of Rights is an extraordinary document with an extraordinary tale.

“You see, this is how they used to write S’s. it looks like an F, so people get really confused with that,” said Andrea Gabriel with State Archives of North Carolina.

The story starts with North Carolina’s refusal to ratify the newly drafted constitution until individual rights were clearly established.

The North Carolina Museum of History’s Chief Curator Benjamin Filene explained: “North Carolina had actually been one of the holdouts, along with Rhode Island, (by) resisting approving the constitution until we had a bill of rights protecting individual liberties.”

It worked. If you look closely, you can see who signed it to make the copy official.

Stuart Deibel looked hard to find the faded signature.

“John Adams. How about that,” he said.

The Civil War broke out around half a century after it was written. Raleigh was occupied by the Union Army and the sheepskin document, John Adams’ signature and all, disappeared.

“In 1865 when General Sherman and the Union troops occupied Raleigh, a Union soldier took it. Took it home to Ohio,” said Filene.

For years, it just hung on an office wall. It changed hands and then Wayne Pratt, a collector known for being on PBS’s Antiques Road Show got a hold of it.

In 2003, Gov. Mike Easley learned that the precious document had been found and asked for the help of the FBI.

“When the $4 million offer was officially made, the FBI swooped in and eventually it ended up back here,” Filene said.

But, only after a five-year court battle over who rightfully owned it.

“It’s an amazing story, and it’s amazing that we recovered it and are able to tell the story to so many people,” said Gabriel.

These days, it usually sits locked up in a climate-controlled vault at the NC State Archives. But, on this rare occasion, it’s on display at the North Carolina Museum of History until July 7.

“I think it’s partly a study in the power of these ideas 230 years later. That even now, we’re trying to wrestle between how to balance the need for government to protect us, government to serve us, and the need for individuals to be able to have freedoms. The freedoms enshrined in that original document.

“It also shows you from the very beginning there were politics involved. Congress passed the Bill of Rights but, then they needed the approval of every state to make it a reality and there was a whole prolonged negotiation to get to that point. And that’s why each state has its own copy and we have ours. It just shows you things that we maybe take for granted as being documented and preserved forever are not necessarily preserved forever. It requires ongoing attention and vigilance,” said Filene.

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