Program Report: NC’s Copy of the Bill of Rights

Toby Barfield summed up what most of us were thinking. “This is the most fascinating program I think we’ve ever had,” he told N.C. Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby after a rapid-fire recitation of the saga of our state’s copy of the Bill of Rights.

Keith Burns, who we learned is this year’s winner of the state Bar Association’s Citizen Lawyer Award, introduced his friend the justice as a stand-up guy in addition to a brilliant legal mind. Justice Newby, mixing humor with an engrossing storytelling style, didn’t disappoint.

It’s impossible to capture all the twists and turns of the story in this space, but here’s a synopsis: A Union soldier helping occupy Raleigh made off with our copy of the Bill of Rights. (Newby noted that North Carolina has a singular relationship with that sacred document, as our leaders refused to ratify the Constitution until those positive affirmations of our most basic rights were made the law of the land. Who knew?) The soldier sold the document to an Indianapolis man, Charles Shotwell, for $5. When our attorney general wrote to the Indiana attorney general asking for the document to be returned, he essentially was told, “No. You seceded, you lost, you lose.”

Nothing more was heard on the matter until 1925, when another man who had acquired the document tried to sell it back to North Carolina. State officials refused, on the entirely reasonable grounds that they couldn’t spend taxpayer dollars on stolen property.

Fast forward to 1995, when another antiques dealer, Wayne Pratt, through his attorney, John Richardson, tried to sell the Bill of Rights back to North Carolina. Again, no sale. In 2002, the National Constitution Center was being built in Philadelphia. The museum said they’d been offered the chance to purchase North Carolina’s copy of the Bill of Rights. If we would allow the sale to go through, the document could be displayed one month out of the year in North Carolina. That didn’t fly either. But state officials, including Newby, who was an assistant federal prosecutor at the time, saw this as an opportunity. Gov. Mike Easley contacted the Pennsylvania governor and asked if he would see that negotiations of the sale between the museum and Richardson would continue. He agreed. Meanwhile, Newby drafted an affidavit declaring that the document was stolen and carried across state lines, a felony offense, and that it should be immediately seized if found and returned to North Carolina. The museum kept up the ruse and settled on a sale price of $4 million. Richardson went to a Philadelphia attorney’s office with the Bill of Rights copy in hand expecting to leave with a fat check. Instead he was handed the seizure warrant from an undercover FBI agent and told, “You are able to leave today, but I wouldn’t leave the country. You’ll be lucky to stay out of jail. Have a nice day.” The Bill of Rights is on display at the state archives in Raleigh. No one ever served jail time. Cue Law & Order “dun-dun” sound.

For more about Paul Newby click here.  For more info and pictures from the state archives click here.

Submitted by Matt Dees

Next week’s program is about the Dixie Classic and how Everett Case made basketball the sport it is in the south. See more information about the program by clicking here .



Speak Your Mind