Bill of Rights

by T. Mike Childs
NC Government & History Library, 2013.

View North Carolina's copy of the Bill of Rights:

North Carolina's original copy of the Bill of Rights, 2013. Image courtesy Mike Childs.North Carolina's original copy of the Bill of Rights, stolen in 1865, has had a long and checkered journey before it finally returned to the state in 2005.It was created in 1789, when Congress requested President George Washington send 13 handwritten copies to the 13 states for ratification. It was stored with the state’s other archival papers in the office of the Secretary of State located in the Capitol building. During the occupation of Raleigh by U.S. General William Sherman’s army during April and May of 1865, a Union soldier stole it as a souvenir along with other papers. This unknown soldier took it home to Tippecanoe, Ohio (now Tipp City), and in 1866 sold it for $5.00 to a Charles A. Shotwell of Troy, Ohio.

In 1897, N.C. Secretary of State Dr. Cyrus Thompson read a news story about Shotwell with a picture displaying the Bill of Rights on the wall of his Indianapolis, Indiana office. Thompson, working through the Indiana Secretary of State, tried and failed to persuade Shotwell to return the stolen document. In 1925, Charles I. Reid of Harrisburg, Penn., representing Shotwell, contacted the North Carolina Historical Commission to sell it back to North Carolina. Robert B. House, secretary of the commission, refused, responding emphatically that it was the rightful property of North Carolina: “title to it has never passed from… North Carolina to any individual."

The location of the document was then unknown for 70 years until Washington, D.C. attorney John L. Richardson, representing an unnamed person, offered to sell it to the state in 1995. North Carolina asserted again it was the rightful owner and would not pay for stolen property. It was later determined that the unnamed person was Connecticut antiques dealer Wayne Pratt, who had appeared on the popular PBS television series Antiques Roadshow. Pratt had bought the document from Shotwell's heirs in 2000. In early 2002, Pratt, again anonymously, tried to sell the Bill of Rights to the National Constitutional Center in Philadelphia. The Center subsequently authenticated the document as North Carolina’s copy. Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a member of the center’s board, learned of the pending sale, and informed North Carolina Governor Mike F. Easley, proposing each state share the cost of the purchase. Instead, North Carolina refused to participate in the sale, once again asserting its rightful claim to the document. Governor Easley had state Attorney General Roy Cooper work with the U.S. Attorney in Raleigh to obtain the stolen document. The Federal Bureau of Investigation set up a “sting” operation in Philadelphia where agents seized the document on March 18, 2003.

A lengthy, protracted legal battle then began. While Pratt relinquished his claims to the document in federal court in September of 2003 to avoid criminal charges, Pratt’s partner, businessman Robert V. Matthews, continued to claim co-ownership of the document and demanded compensation. On January 23, 2004, Chief Judge Terrence W. Boyle of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina ruled that the disputed document belonged to the state of North Carolina as a public record. However, he ordered the U.S. Marshals Service to keep custody of the document until the case was over.

On August 4, 2005, Judge Boyle awarded possession of the document to the state of North Carolina. Governor Mike. Easley accepted the document, which was conserved, framed, and placed in the vault of the State Archives. However, legal ownership of the document was still to be determined. Finally, on March 24, 2008, Wake County Superior Court Judge Henry W. Hight, Jr. issued a summary judgment order that ended all remaining claims to the document and declared that North Carolina owns its original copy of the Bill of Rights to the exclusion of all others.

In 2007, the document toured seven North Carolina cities: Wilmington, Fayetteville, Edenton, Greensboro, Charlotte, Asheville, and Raleigh.

On March 18, 2013, the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources gave a special program to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the recovery of North Carolina's copy of the Bill of Rights,

The program included remarks by Attorney General Roy Cooper, N.C. Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby, and Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest. It was also an opportunity for members of the public to view the rarely-seen document.

Educator Resources:

Grade 8: Bill of Rights. North Carolina Civic Education Consortium.


North Carolina Dept. of Cultural Resources. "Bill of Rights". (accessed April 24, 2014).

Easley, Michael F. "Historic Bill Of Rights Returns To North Carolina." Press release. North Carolina Office of the Governor. August 4, 2005. (accessed April 17, 2013).

Easley, Michael F. "Gov. Easley Announces Safe Recovery of N.C. Bill of Rights." Press release. North Carolina Office of the Governor March 19, 2003. (accessed April 17, 2013).

North Carolina Office of Archives and History. Biennial report of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History July 1, 2002-June 30, 2004. N.C. Dept. of Cultural Resources. 2005. (accessed April 17, 2013).

North Carolina Office of Archives and History. Biennial report of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History July 1, 2004-June 30, 2006. N.C. Dept. of Cultural Resources. 2007. (accessed April 17, 2013).

"The Bill of Rights Tours the State." Carolina Comments 55, no. 2 (April 2007). (accessed April 19, 2013).

"Court Declares the Bill of Rights Belongs to North Carolina." Carolina Comments 56, no. 3 (July 2008). (accessed April 19, 2013).

Additional Resources:

United States Congress (1st : 1789-1791). Bill of Rights. United States Constitution. 1789. (accessed May 2, 2013).

Easley, Mike. "Lost and Found: The Curious Journey of North Carolina's Looted Copy of the Bill of Rights." The North Carolina State Bar Journal. Spring 2009.,1.pdf (accessed April 19, 2013).

"Bill of Rights Returns Home." North Carolina Office of Archives and History, State Archives of North Carolina. 2005. (accessed September 25, 2013).

Howard, David. Lost Rights: The Misadventures of a Stolen American Relic. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. (accessed April 19, 2013).

"History - History in Custody: The U.S. Marshals Service Takes Possession of North Carolina's Copy of the Bill of Rights." U.S. Marshals Service. (accessed April 19, 2013).

Breed, Allen G./Associated Press. "Bill of Rights: North Carolina's original copy returns after long, strange odyssey." The Times-News [Hendersonville, N.C.]. August 14, 2005. (accessed April 19, 2013).

Image Credits:

North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. Celebrating North Carolina's Copy of the Bill of Rights. 5:09. YouTube video, posted March 19, 2013, by ncculture. (accessed May 2, 2013).

Childs, Mike. "IMG_1925.jpg." Photograph. Raleigh, N.C. March 18, 2013.

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