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'Lost Rights': Is the Library of Congress Harboring Stolen Bills of Rights?

07/22/2010 11:59 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Library of Congress is harboring a stolen artifact worth millions of dollars.

That's what a couple of prominent historians believe--and the only reasonable conclusion most people arrive at after they examine the artifact's backstory. And library officials ought to do something about it.

The object in question is an original manuscript of the Bill of Rights, and here's the backstory: In 1789, after Congress passed the all-important first ten amendments to the Constitution, three clerks penned fourteen original copies on large pieces of parchment--one for each state and one for the federal government. Over the centuries, several of these documents were lost or stolen. Four states--Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York and Georgia--are still missing their broadsheets.

Meanwhile, two of the originals turned up in unexpected places: the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress. Archivists and historians consider these documents priceless--they call them "holy relics"--but there is a quasi-legitimate marketplace for such treasures. As I explain in my book Lost Rights: The Misadventures of a Stolen American Relic, North Carolina's long-lost Bill of Rights nearly sold for $4 million in 2003 before the FBI intervened, seizing the parchment in a sting operation.

Kenneth Bowling and Charlene Bickford, two of the nation's leading documentary historians of that first federal Congress, set the sting in motion by identifying the manuscript as North Carolina's copy. They've done some poking around into the origins of the other alienated original manuscripts. Their logic then and now is simple: Since there are only 14, and none of the states in question willingly gave up their broadsheets, any Bill of Rights out of their official custody must, by definition, be stolen or destroyed. No other explanation is possible.

The Library of Congress acquired its Bill of Rights in 1943 from prominent rare-books dealer A.S.W. Rosenbach, who arranged for one of his major collectors to donate it. Those were murkier times when most governments at all levels in the United States had not yet fully adopted modern-day archival standards. No one bothered to ask how it was possible that Rosenbach had a Bill of Rights for sale--the dazzled library staff simply didn't care to know.

Present-day Library of Congress staffers say there is no proof of the document's provenance. Bowling believes the circumstantial evidence points to Maryland, but that may be impossible to prove. In any case, he doubts Maryland would take action against the Library to recover it, and believes the state would be satisfied to have it identified as "presumably Maryland's copy."

If so, you might ask, what's the point? Why not just leave it in the library? The point is, there is no point in the Library of Congress owning a Bill of Rights. The federal government already has its original, which it displays in the National Archives.

Furthermore, the Library of Congress rarely exhibits its Bill of Rights. The value of these remarkable government artifacts is in their ability to be seen and admired. They don't do any of us any good when they're hidden away, out of sight and mind.

People who have been around such totemic objects agree: When you get up close to that handwriting, you can imagine the clerks in 1789 sitting down, dipping pens in iron-gall ink, and slowly inscribing those remarkable words: "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of a religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." If you spend some time pondering that, you realize that it was people just like us who argued for those amendments and fought for those essential human liberties. Young people who grasp these facts while gazing at a Bill of Rights might come to believe that it's possible to accomplish important things, here and around the world.

So here's what I propose: The Library of Congress ought to arrange to share the alienated document with all four states missing their originals, on a rotating basis. The only stipulation should be that one of the states must display it annually. By rotating it among the four locations, the Bill of Rights will seem fresh and exciting each time it arrives and goes on display.

At a time of national political paralysis, this can only be a good thing. Maybe a little of the document's greatness will rub off on the nation's next James Madison. That's an opportunity we can't afford to miss.