Original Bill of Rights copy was lost in the shuffle

November 27, 1990|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

The original handwritten copy of the Bill of Rights sent by President George Washington to Maryland for ratification disappeared long ago into that great shredder in the sky where all lost documents go -- along with the copies sent Pennsylvania, New York, North Carolina and Georgia.

The Maryland copy, presumably signed by Vice President John Adams and other notables, may have been sent back to Congress with the rest of the ratification documents after the General Assembly unanimously approved the document Dec. 19, 1789.

It may have wandered off into a private collection and eventually the rare document market, but Dr. Edward F. Papenfuse, the state archivist, thinks that's unlikely: It would have turned up by now. Papenfuse reacted yesterday to a report published Sunday that Pennsylvania can't find its copy, despite hopes that it would be the centerpiece of a Bill of Rights bicentennial celebration planned for Philadelphia next year. The Bill of Rights took effect Dec. 15, 1791.

Maryland's copy of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution may have been tossed out with the rest of the trash as just one more piece of paper from the federal government.

Papenfuse is not even sure it got here.

"We have no log of Gov. John Eager Howard showing he received it," Papenfuse said. "There is a letter of transmittal to the House of Delegates."

That's the last anybody really knows about any handwritten original. It wasn't actually the Bill of Rights anyway until the 13 original states ratified it. It was a kind of first draft.

Maryland, the second state to ratify the Bill of Rights, in fact voted for 12 amendments to the Constitution. The first two, dealing with election of representatives and pay of Congress, died during the ratification process.

Maryland does have the important Bill of Rights, Papenfuse says, which is the document signed by the governor, the speaker of the House, the Senate president and "engrossed" with the Great Seal of Maryland.

What Papenfuse would like to have had for the Maryland Archives is the cover letter from Washington that Papenfuse is sure came with the Bill of Rights. He thinks it may well have been a personal note from Washington to Howard, who was a wartime buddy in the Revolution.

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