Solving the Mystery of the Bill of Rights

December 15 is Bill of Rights Day, which commemorates the ratification of the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. 

The National Archives received the original, engrossed first amendments to the Constitution, what we now call the Bill of Rights, in 1938 from the State Department. Until the National Archives was created in 1934, the State Department was in charge of safeguarding certain types of historical documents, including acts of Congress, Presidential proclamations, treaties—and constitutional amendments.

At the time of the transfer, the National Archives knew little about the original document, including how it had been stored, where it had been stored, and whose handwriting was on it. The National Archives did know that the document was engrossed between September 25 and 28, 1789, and it was signed at Federal Hall in New York City on September 28, 1789. But the rest was shrouded in mystery.

In 1966, as the 175th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights neared, the agency became curious about who penned the parchment document. After copious research by National Archives staff, they concluded that it was most likely in the hand of William Lambert, an engrossing clerk for the U.S. House of Representatives. 

But, they weren’t 100% sure. So they enlisted the help of handwriting experts at the FBI. The Bureau was able to compare a known sample of Lambert’s handwriting with that of the engrossed Bill of Rights. After comparing the two documents, the FBI document examiner concluded that Lambert had unquestionably penned the original Bill of Rights.

The National Archives didn’t immediately release the finding publicly. Instead, they held on to the information and used it as a publicity stunt to promote the opening of their big Bill of Rights exhibit. The Administrator of the General Services Administration (GSA), who oversaw that National Archives at that time, announced that at the opening of the exhibit on December 15, 1966—Bill of Rights Day—he would reveal the name of the penman who scribed the first amendments to the Constitution back in 1789.

At a ceremony commemorating the 175th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights, and the opening of the new exhibit, GSA Administrator Lawson Knott publicly announced that the National Archives was positive that it was William Lambert’s handwriting on the parchment Bill of Rights in the Rotunda. He also thanked the FBI for helping confirm Lambert’s role in our nation’s early history. 

Learn more about the Bill of Rights and the National Archives: 

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