Alumnus Gives Bill of Rights Copy to UT Libraries

Donors and dignitaries

The University of Tennessee Libraries has received a certified reproduction of the United States Bill of Rights.

The document is a certified reproduction of the state of North Carolina’s original 1789 copy of the Bill of Rights. It is a gift to the library from UT alumnus Virgil Adams of Chattanooga.

A donation ceremony took place at 2 p.m., Thursday, May 14, in room 605 of the John C. Hodges Library, 1015 Volunteer Blvd.  Following the ceremony, the document was put on display in the sixth floor conference room of Hodges Library.

“UT Libraries is honored to host this document,” said Dean of Libraries Barbara Dewey. “One of the ways the library supports the teaching mission of the university is to put students in touch with their history. Now, with this full-size replica of the Bill of Rights, students visiting the library will have a vivid and tangible reminder of their inheritance as citizens.

Adams built frames for three certified reproductions of North Carolina’s copy of the Bill of Rights, and was the recipient of one of them. An alumnus and supporter of the University of Tennessee, Adams said he knew immediately that he would donate his copy to the university.

“I wanted this important piece of Tennessee’s history preserved and put on display where it could inspire students,” Adams said, “and UT’s Hodges Library was the logical place to exhibit the replica.”

Photo of Bill with placard in foregroundWhen the Bill of Rights (which would become the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution) was proposed, George Washington sent handwritten copies to each of the original 13 states for ratification. Some of these copies are now missing; some have survived; two are thought to have been destroyed in fires. North Carolina’s copy disappeared during the Civil War, resurfaced several times over the next century and a half, and was eventually recovered in an FBI sting operation in 2003.

At the time of the Bill of Rights’ ratification, what is now Tennessee was a part of the state of North Carolina. When Tennessee political activist June Griffin learned about North Carolina’s recovery of the document, she contacted the North Carolina state archivist and suggested that Tennessee was equally entitled to the document. Then Governor of North Carolina Mike Easley’s response: “Tennessee is well-known for making good whiskey; maybe she’s been drinking it.” And North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper suggested, “We’ll be glad to re-annex Tennessee if they’d like to become North Carolina citizens again. That’s the only way they can have our copy of the Bill of Rights.”

But Griffin’s persistence eventually induced North Carolina archivist Dick Lankford to certify the production of three replicas of North Carolina’s document. Griffin kept one copy for her family and donated one copy to the Tennessee State Museum and Archives in Nashville. Adams, who framed the reproductions and assisted Griffin in organizing the ceremonies at the Tennessee State Museum, was the recipient of the third copy.

The story does not end with the recovery of the document. There was still a court battle to resolve.

It might seem obvious that the state of North Carolina was the rightful owner of its own copy of the Bill of Rights and that the document never should have been in private hands. But in reality the presumptive private owners of the document had a strong claim based in part on the fact that North Carolina had denounced the Constitution by seceding from the Union and also due to a presidential order issued by Abraham Lincoln stating that all confiscated Confederate property belonged to the Union. In the end, North Carolina won its claim, and in 2005 its copy of the Bill of Rights was returned to the state capitol.

The full story of the document’s mysterious appearances, disappearances and eventual recovery is detailed on the North Carolina State Archives.

Pictured above, L-R: June Griffin, Dean of Libraries Barbara Dewey, President Emeritus Joe Johnson, Virgil Adams

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