The Bill of Rights: 14 Originals

Bill of Rights Day  is on December 15. The National Archives will celebrate on Friday with a naturalization ceremony. Today’s post comes from Jessie Kratz, the Historian of the National Archives.

On September 28, 1789, Speaker of the House Frederick Muhlenberg and Vice President John Adams signed the enrolled copy of the first proposed amendments to the new Constitution—the document later known as the Bill of Rights.

The final, signed copy contained the 12 constitutional amendments that Congress proposed to the states. Shortly after it was signed, clerks created 13 additional copies, which President George Washington sent to the 11 existing states and to Rhode Island and North Carolina—which had not yet adopted the Constitution.

The enrolled version of the amendments—the one signed on September 28, 1789—remained in New York until it was sent to Philadelphia when the seat of government moved there. In 1800 it came to the new capital of Washington, DC, and was only removed briefly during the War of 1812 when the British burned the capital.

The Department of State, previously responsible for safeguarding the Federal Government’s official records, kept the enrolled copy of the Bill of Rights until 1938, when they transferred it to the National Archives in 1938 along with other State Department records. The National Archives displayed the enrolled copy of the Bill of Rights several times until 1952, when the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were transferred to the National Archives from the Library of Congress. The three documents then went on permanent display in the Rotunda at the National Archives.

So, there were 13 additional copies of the “Bill of Rights”—what happened to them? Today, eight states still have their copies—Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. North Carolina’s copy was stolen during the Civil War but was recovered by an FBI raid in 2005 and returned to the state.

When most states ratified the Bill of Rights, they sent a separate letter noting approval or disapproval of each amendment. Delaware, however, simply signed and affixed a seal to their copy of the document and sent it back. Delaware’s copy then became a Federal record and had a similar journey to the enrolled Bill of Rights—it was kept in State Department custody and then came to the National Archives. In 2003 the National Archives agreed to loan the document to Delaware for periodic display.

Delaware's ratification of the Bill of Rights, 01/28/1790. (General Records of the U.S. Government, National Archives).
Delaware’s ratification of the Bill of Rights, 01/28/1790. (General Records of the U.S. Government, National Archives).

Some of the original 13 copies were destroyed or are missing. Georgia’s and New York’s copies were likely burned—Georgia’s during the Civil War and New York’s during a fire at the state capitol in 1911. Pennsylvania’s copy was likely stolen in the late 19th century, and Maryland is unsure of what happened to their copy.

However, two original copies have resurfaced—one in an 1896 gift to the New York Public Library and one in a 1945 gift to the Library of Congress. The New York Public Library’s copy is believed to be Pennsylvania’s missing copy. In 2003 the two states agreed to share custody of the document, which will go on public display in Pennsylvania in 2014. There is disagreement on the origins of the Library of Congress’s copy.

Several of the original copies of the Bill of Rights are on display in the various states. You can visit the original, enrolled version at the National Archives in Washington, DC, where it is on permanent display:

2 thoughts on “The Bill of Rights: 14 Originals

  1. Several years ago in a closing report for CBS News, Dan Rather mentioned a draft of Madison’s Rights Amendments was found tucked in a book of his now in possession of the Library of Congress. I believe there 24 or more Rights listed. I have only heard about this once; never read about the find. I would like to see what they were and a comparison of them with the 19 Amendments, 14 Amendments and 12 Amendments eventually settled on.

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