Across the Pond

Today’s post comes from James Zeender, Senior Registrar. 

Earlier this year, the National Archives signed an agreement with the British Library to allow the Delaware ratification of the Bill of Rights to be shown alongside four original Magna Carta parchments for the Great Charter’s 800th birthday. The exhibition opens March 13, 2015, and runs through September 1, 2015. This will be the first time this wonderful national treasure has traveled outside the United States.

Our own David M. Rubenstein Gallery in the National Archives Building features a 1297 copy of the Magna Carta in the Records of Rights exhibit, which opened last December.

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).

In September 1789, the First Congress passed 12 resolutions to amend the Constitution (collectively known as the Bill of Rights). Afterwards, a clerk in the House of Representatives prepared 14 copies on large sheets of parchment with iron gall ink. All were signed by Vice President John Adams, Speaker of the House Frederick Muhlenberg, Secretary of the Senate Samuel Otis, and Clerk of the House John Beckley.

President George Washington then sent copies to the 11 states which had ratified the Constitution as well as to North Carolina and Rhode Island, which had not yet done so. The President kept the 14th as the Federal Government’s record copy. This is the version that has been on display in the National Archives Rotunda in Washington, DC, since 1952 (except during the 2001–2003 renovation).

While most states notified the Federal Government of their ratifications of the amendments (or some of them) on a separate document, Delaware chose to apply its certificate of ratification and the state seal directly on the parchment they had received from the President, thereby making it a Federal record. The Delaware ratification was transferred to the National Archives in the 1930s from the State Department, along with other state ratifications.

In 2003, then-Archivist of the United States John Carlin signed a 25-year agreement with the Governor of Delaware that made possible the periodic display (subject to rigid lighting restrictions) of the Delaware ratification of the Bill of Rights at the Delaware State Archives in Dover. When the British Library approached us about its availability, Archivist of the United States David Ferriero made a call to Delaware State Archivist Steven Marz, who confirmed Delaware had no plans to exhibit the document in 2015, thus clearing the way for a loan to our British colleagues.

For more information about the British Library’s Magna Carta exhibition, see To read more about the 14 original copies of the Bill of Rights:

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