Wednesday, September 11, 2013 —
Subscribers of Pfeiffer University’s Events Plus gathered on the university campus recently to hear the story behind the return of one of the state’s most important documents 140 years after its disappearance.
The evening’s presentation, “The Return of North Carolina’s Original Copy of the Bill of Rights,” was given by North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby.
The Asheboro native received his B.A. degree in Public Policy Studies from Duke University and law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law.
Newby has served on the Supreme Court of North Carolina since 2004 and is an adjunct professor of law at Campbell University. In 2011, Newby was honored with The North Carolina Bar Association’s Citizen Lawyer Award and in 2012 he received the John McNeill Smith Jr. Award, recognizing his work in the area of constitutional rights and responsibilities.
During the start of his presentation, Newby recounted how in 1865 North Carolina’s copy of the Bill of Rights was removed from the state capitol by an unknown Union soldier from Ohio, who later sold the document to Charles A. Shotwell for a $5 gold piece. Shotwell later displayed the document in his office in Indianapolis.
“Eventually, word made it down to North Carolina that somebody in Indiana had an original copy of our Bill of Rights,” Newby said.
North Carolina Secretary of State Cyrus Thompson wrote to Indiana’s Secretary of State, William D. Owen, asking for the return of the document. Shotwell, however, refused to part with it.
“Around 1910 to 1915, Mr. Shopwell wanted to cash in on the document,” Newby said, adding that Shopwell hired a lawyer to write a letter to the North Carolina Secretary of State in an attempt to receive a finder’s fee for the Bill of Rights. North Carolina, however, considered the property to be stolen and the document once again disappeared.
Shopwell eventually passed the Bill of Rights on to his children and in 1990 his daughters attempted to sell it through Sotheby’s Auction House.
“At this time there were four copies of the Bill of Rights that were missing,” Newby said, adding that the missing documents were from the states of Georgia, New York, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
“Sotheby’s said they couldn’t sell it.”
In 1995, antique dealer Wayne Pratt learned of the document and eventually purchased the copy from the Shotwell heirs for $200,000.
Newby spoke of how Pratt and his attorney, John Richardson, attempted to sell the Bill of Rights for $10 million and cautioned that if anyone tried to find out where the copy was or who was in possession of it, it would be destroyed.
Several years later, North Carolina Gov. Michael Easley received a call from Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who explained the state was opening the National Constitution Center and wanted to build a museum centerpiece around the original copy of the Bill of Rights which had reappeared for sale at an asking price of $5 million.
“They offered to pay and would let North Carolina display it for one month out of the year,” Newby said.
Refusing to purchase an item the state considered to be stolen, Easley returned Rendell’s call and asked him to negotiate with the seller and act like they would close the deal. In the meantime, the FBI became involved and set up a sting operation to recover the Bill of Rights.
“John Richardson shows up and does not have the document,” Newby said, adding that Richardson wanted to see the check for $4 million before proceeding with the deal.
“They produce the check, and he gets on his cell phone and calls the courier to say it’s OK to bring the document up.”
After examiners on the premise verified the document was indeed North Carolina’s original copy of the Bill of Rights, a seizure warrant was produced and the manuscript was returned to the state archives.
“We’re so blessed to have gotten it back,” Newby said, adding that considering all it had been through, the document is in good condition.
“To be as old as it is, it’s in remarkable shape.”
The manuscript, Newby said, is important to the state of North Carolina because of the specific role the state played in the creation of the Bill of Rights.
In 1787, state delegates convened in Philadelphia to draft the U.S. Constitution, which would be submitted to the states for ratification. North Carolina, Newby said, chose not to ratify the constitution unless there was a Bill of RIghts.
“North Carolina was the only state to ever vote down the U.S. Constitution,” Newby said.
In 1789, a second convention was conducted in Fayetteville. This time, a Bill of Rights had been added to the U.S. Constitution. Satisfied, North Carolina voted to ratify the document on Nov. 21.
“Our state is the reason there is a Bill of Rights,” Newby said.
This presentation was the first event in the 2013-2014 Events Plus Subscriber Series on Pfeiffer University’s Misenheimer Campus.
Upcoming events in the series include:
6 p.m. Nov. 17 - “Tales for a Winter Evening” with Mark Stephenson and Dr. Heather Ross Miller.
6 p.m. Feb. 23 - “A Pfeiffer Musical Variety Show” with Joe Judge, Dr. Ann Benson Crutchfield, Paula Morris, Mark and Caroline Stephenson, Steve Harrill & the Blue Grass Ensemble.
6 p.m. April 27 - “Adapting in the Digital Age” with Elizabeth Hudson, editor in chief, Our State magazine.
Events Plus Steering Committee member Vicki Coggins explained how the organization came to be nine years ago.
“It started as a means of bringing the various components of the community together on the Pfeiffer Campus to better understand, and ultimately support, Pfeiffer and its mission,” Coggins said.
Over the years, the Events Plus Subscriber Series has provided an opportunity for members of the community to see what the university is about through participation in various forms of entertainment and guest speakers speaking on a variety of intellectual topics.
“The subscriber series has been wonderful,” Coggins said, adding that Events Plus is made up of an advisory board.
“We are always looking for new subscribers. It’s always nice to see new faces.”
The cost for the four-part series is $100 per person and includes a meal and reception.
Contact Pfeiffer University at (800) 338-2060.
Erica Benjamin is a freelance contributor for The Stanly News & Press.