Pa. Constitution Center To Display Bill Of Rights
PHILADELPHIA (AP) – One of the 12 surviving copies of the Bill of Rights that may have been pilfered from Pennsylvania in the late 1800s will be on display in Philadelphia for three years, beginning with the 225th anniversary next year of the drafting of the country’s highest ideals.
The arrangement was reached under a 100-year joint custody agreement between The New York Public Library and Pennsylvania officials after more than four years of negotiations. The library owns the copy.
The document will be on display at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia then will return to the library for three years. After that, it will go back and forth between the two according to the terms of the agreement, officials said at a press conference Wednesday at the center.
A $600,000 high-tech protective case is being made for the fragile document to be safely moved and exhibited.
Constitution Center trustee and attorney Stephen Harmelin, who participated in a 2003 FBI sting to recover North Carolina’s original copy of the Bill of Rights that was missing since the Civil War, believes the New York library copy was somehow filched from Pennsylvania and sold. But after “lengthy and sometimes arduous negotiations,” he said Wednesday, he is pleased with the sharing agreement.
“We respectfully but very, very strongly disagree” with Harmelin’s conclusion, New York Public Library assistant preservation director Evelyn Frangakis said. “But our goal is to make this document more accessible and protect it for the future. Everybody wins.”
Both sides acknowledge it’s impossible to determine with absolute certainty that the library’s copy is the original from Pennsylvania. New York and Pennsylvania agreed not to get into a legal battle over ownership and instead struck the joint stewardship arrangement in what Constitution Center president Jeffrey Rosen called “the interest of the greater good.”
Ratified in 1791, when Philadelphia was the capital of the fledgling nation, the Bill of Rights comprises the first 10 amendments to the Constitution and outlines guaranteed protections including freedoms of speech, religion, assembly and due process. Of the 14 original handwritten copies, one for each of the 13 former colonies and one for the federal government, four are missing from their home states: Georgia, Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania.
New York’s and Georgia’s original copies are believed to have been destroyed in fires, said James Vaughan, head of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Among the 12 existing copies, the original ownership of two has not been identified _ the New York library’s copy and the Library of Congress’ copy.
The New York library acquired its current copy in 1896 as a donation from collector and library trustee John S. Kennedy. He purchased it from noted surgeon and collector Dr. Thomas Addis Emmet, who is believed to have visited Philadelphia to buy items for his collection. That’s where the trail goes cold.
For preservation reasons, the library has not displayed the document for decades.
Vaughan said the Bill of Rights is “exactly the sort of document that, if sold on the open market, would likely end up in the hands of some wealthy collector in a foreign country and be unavailable to the people of America.”
“This is an interesting story and it begins badly – a story of a really important document that went missing or was lost,” he said. “But it ends well _ preserved for the benefit of all and on exhibit in two of the states that are missing its copies.”