The Bill of Rights: 14 Originals

December 15 is Bill of Rights Day, which commemorates the ratification of the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. For more information on events and resources at the National Archives, visit our Bill of Rights Day website.

On September 25, 1789, the First Federal Congress passed the first proposed amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Three days later, Speaker of the House Frederick Muhlenberg and Vice President John Adams signed the enrolled joint resolution proposing the amendments—the document we now call the Bill of Rights.

The Bill of Rights, September 25, 1789. (National Archives Identifier 1408042)

The final, signed copy contained 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 in Washington, DC, and was only removed briefly during the War of 1812 when the British burned the city.

The Department of State, responsible for safeguarding the federal government’s official records before the creation of the National Archives, kept the enrolled copy of the Bill of Rights until 1938. That year they transferred it to the National Archives along with other historic 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.

The Bill of Rights on display in the National Archives Rotunda, 2018. (Photo by Jeff Reed, 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 1938. 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. (National Archives Identifier 12237607)

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. The origins of the Library of Congress’s copy is unknown.

Several of the original copies of the Bill of Rights are on display in the various states. For example, you can visit Massachusetts copy at the Massachusetts Archives and Commonwealth Museum, which is located next to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. You can visit the original, enrolled version at the National Archives in Washington, DC, where it is on permanent display.

Learn more about the Bill of Rights in these posts:

3 thoughts on “The Bill of Rights: 14 Originals

  1. Very interesting… thank-you.

    “…Maryland is unsure of what happened to their copy.” Perhaps the dog ate it?

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