Rare copy of Bill of Rights could make stop in Pittsburgh

Matthew Santoni
| Wednesday, May 22, 2013, 11:57 p.m.

A rare copy of the original Bill of Rights — possibly the one George Washington sent to Pennsylvania for ratification in 1789 — will go on public display for the first time in decades in fall 2014 at Philadelphia's National Constitution Center.

One of 12 surviving copies of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, which guaranteed bedrock American rights such as the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, the right to bear arms and the right to a fair trial, will be put on display through 2017, the Constitution Center said on Wednesday.

“The Bill of Rights is something fundamental to all Americans,” said Andy Masich, president and CEO of the Heinz History Center and chairman of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which helped negotiate the agreement with the New York Public Library to share its copy.

“Most Americans, if you went and questioned them (about the Constitution) on the street today, would start by citing from the Bill of Rights, not the articles of the original Constitution.”

This copy of the Bill of Rights became part of the collection at the New York Public Library when donated by trustee John S. Kennedy in 1896, after he purchased it from collector Dr. Thomas Addis Emmet, according to Ann Thornton, head of research libraries for New York Public Libraries. It was last put on public display in the late 1980s, but its age and fragility meant only scholars have seen it up close since then, she said.

Some scholars believe the library's copy was the one Washington distributed to Pennsylvania for ratification, since Pennsylvania's copy disappeared in the late 1800s at about the time the library acquired a copy, Masich said.

“We're pretty sure it was Pennsylvania's copy; we just don't know how it walked off,” Masich said.

Thornton said the library's researchers did not reach that conclusion, noting that New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Georgia all lost track of original copies. Fire damaged New York's archives, but there weren't records that proved its copy of the Bill of Rights was destroyed and it could have been the copy that found its way to Emmet and Kennedy, she said.

One of the library's trustees donated $600,000 to build a special case to preserve the parchment from damage during display or moves, Thornton said.

Under the agreement, the Constitution Center can display the Bill of Rights for three years and the library will display it at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue as part of a “treasures gallery” opening.

Masich said the museum commission is negotiating to arrange a display of the Bill of Rights in Western Pennsylvania.

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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