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FBI recovers original copy of Bill of Rights

From Terry Frieden
CNN Washington Bureau


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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The FBI has recovered a valuable copy of the Bill of Rights that had been missing for 138 years, officials said Wednesday.

The FBI estimated the document, one of 14 copies of the Bill of Rights commissioned by President George Washington, is worth $30 million, but experts said it is impossible to set a price on it.

"It's really irreplaceable. It's simply impossible to give it a monetary value," said Milton Gustafson, a senior archivist at the National Archives.

According to legend, it was stolen from North Carolina by a Union soldier at the end of the Civil War.

"A carpetbagger took it in 1865," said one official. "It's really priceless."

The document was recovered by the FBI in Philadelphia Tuesday in an undercover operation when an individual attempted to sell it, officials said.

The copy is believed to have been in North Carolina in recent years, but officials were uncertain where it had been for most of the past 138 years.

"It is anticipated that North Carolina's copy of the Bill of Rights will be coming home to the state by early next week," said U.S. Attorney Frank Whitney in Raleigh. Officials have scheduled a homecoming event for Tuesday at the federal courthouse in Raleigh.

The Bill of Rights is the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. It was demanded by many states as a condition to ratifying the Constitution. Congress approved the amendments in 1789 and they were ratified by the states in 1791.

The original copy -- the one Congress passed as a joint resolution in 1789 and written in longhand on parchment -- is at the National Archives.

President Washington in 1789 commissioned that more copies of it be handwritten and one be delivered to each of the 13 states, said Gustafson. Two of those are also at the National Archives. One is known to be Delaware's, because that state annotated its copy and returned it to Congress for some reason. It is not known which state the other is from.

Other copies are on display in seven states to which they were given: Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, South Carolina, Virginia, and Rhode Island. And one copy from an unknown state is at the New York Public Library.

With the recovery of the North Carolina copy, two are still unaccounted for. Those two and the two of unknown origin in Washington and New York are the ones from Georgia, Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania.

According to the U.S. attorney's office in Raleigh, state officials had hidden the North Carolina copy and other public documents near the end of the Civil War. After the armistice was signed on April 26, 1865, the documents were returned to the Capitol, which was occupied by federal troops throughout the summer.

"Sometime during the occupation, a soldier in Gen. William Sherman's army allegedly took North Carolina's copy of the Bill of Rights and carried it away. It has been missing from the State ever since," the attorney's office said in a written statement.

"Late last week the offices of Gov. Michael Easley and State Attorney General Roy Cooper provided federal officials with information, which had recently surfaced, concerning the document's whereabouts."

The U.S. Marshals Service and the FBI in Raleigh and Philadelphia "were able to verify the document's location and took possession of it during an undercover operation on March 18," it said. "The document will continue to be held ... pending the resolution of any civil and/or criminal claims."


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