The University of Tennessee Libraries has received a certified reproduction of the United States Bill of Rights, and invites the public to a ceremony celebrating the donation.
The document is actually a certified reproduction of the state of North Carolina’s original 1789 copy of the Bill of Rights. It is a gift to the library from UT alumnus Virgil Adams of Chattanooga.
A donation ceremony will take place at 2 p.m., Thursday, May 14, in room 605 of the John C. Hodges Library, 1015 Volunteer Boulevard. The public is invited. Parking is available in the nearby parking garage behind the Carolyn P. Brown University Center.
When the Bill of Rights (which would become the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution) was proposed, George Washington sent handwritten copies to each of the original thirteen states for ratification. Some of these copies are now missing; some have survived; two are thought to have been destroyed in fires. North Carolina’s copy has a particularly colorful history.
During the Civil War as Sherman’s army passed through Raleigh, North Carolina in pursuit of the retreating Confederates, an unidentified Union soldier took the parchment copy from the statehouse and carried his souvenir home to Ohio.
The document resurfaced several times over the next century and a half. In 1897 the Indianapolis News reported that one Charles Shotwell, who claimed to have bought the document directly from the Ohio soldier, was displaying it on the wall of his office. Learning of this report, the North Carolina Secretary of State attempted, unsuccessfully, to recover the document, and it disappeared from view for another quarter century.
Again in 1925 the Bill of Rights resurfaced. An agent apparently representing the same Charles Shotwell offered the document first to a private collector and then to the North Carolina Historical Commission. The Commission, refusing to buy stolen State property, rebuffed the offer and the document again disappeared.
In 1991, Shotwell’s descendants made another attempt to sell the Bill of Rights, but two auction houses approached by the family’s agent declined to handle an object of such dubious provenance. A similar offer in 1995 also was rejected. In 2000, two visitors accompanied by bodyguards visited the First Federal Congress Project at George Washington University and presented the document for authentication and appraisal. After being advised that they would have enormous difficulty selling their prize, they quickly departed without identifying themselves.
The eventual recovery of the Bill of Rights took place in 2003. Alerted to another attempted sale, the North Carolina Attorney General contacted the FBI, who seized the document in a sting operation. The fascinating story of the document’s mysterious appearances, disappearances, and eventual recovery is detailed on the North Carolina State Archives website at www.archives.ncdcr.gov/news/bill_of_rights1.htm.
Nor was recovery of the document the end of the story. There was still a court battle to resolve. It might seem obvious that the state of North Carolina was the rightful owner of its own copy of the Bill of Rights and that the document never should have been in private hands. But in reality the presumptive private owners of the document had a strong claim based in part on the fact that North Carolina had denounced the Constitution by seceding from the Union and also due to a presidential order issued by Abraham Lincoln stating that all confiscated Confederate property belonged to the Union. In the end North Carolina won its claim, and in 2005 its copy of the Bill of Rights was returned to the State Capitol amid much pomp and circumstance.
And the Tennessee connection? At the time of the Bill of Rights’ ratification, what is now Tennessee was a part of the state of North Carolina — a fact known to Tennessee political activist and sometime political candidate June Griffin. When Griffin learned about North Carolina’s recovery of the document, she thought Tennessee deserved a piece of the action. Griffin contacted the North Carolina state archivist and suggested that Tennessee was equally entitled to the document. Then Governor of North Carolina Mike Easley’s response: “Tennessee is well-known for making good whiskey; maybe she’s been drinking it.” And North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper suggested, “We’ll be glad to re-annex Tennessee if they’d like to become North Carolina citizens again. That’s the only way they can have our copy of the Bill of Rights.”
But Griffin’s persistence eventually induced North Carolina archivist Dick Lankford to certify the production of three replicas of North Carolina’s manuscript. Griffin kept one copy for her family and donated one copy to the Tennessee State Museum and Archives in Nashville. Virgil Adams, who framed the reproductions and assisted Griffin in organizing the ceremonies at the Tennessee State Museum, was the recipient of the third copy.
Adams knew immediately that he would donate his copy to the University of Tennessee. He is a loyal alumnus (Agriculture, 1954) and a long-time supporter of the university, having been a consistent donor for more than 45 years. Adams wanted this important piece of Tennessee’s history preserved and put on display where it could inspire students. The John C. Hodges Library, the main library on the Knoxville campus, was the logical place to exhibit the replica.