Share This Article

Lost Rights: The Misadventures of a Stolen Relic

by David Howard; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

In 1865 a Union soldier swiped a well-preserved copy of the Bill of Rights, our government’s most powerful promises to its citizenry, after the capture of the North Carolina Statehouse. An original rendition of the founding document, beautifully inscribed on parchment in black iron-gall ink, had been ceremonially delivered to the individual states in 1789. Three clerks handlettered 14 copies: one for the federal government, 11 for the states in the Union, and one each for North Carolina and Rhode Island, which hadn’t yet ratified the Constitution.

What happened to North Carolina’s copy during the next 138 years is David Howard’s subject. It is a riveting tale, masterfully told, which probes the quicksilver ways of people around money and power while transporting readers on an engrossing historical journey that culminates in an FBI sting.

Howard couldn’t have a better story to work with if he wrote fiction, and throughout he reveals how archival treasures, from founding documents to more mundane government records, have been treated in a far more casual manner than we might care to imagine. The Union soldier sold the Bill of Rights for $5 to Charles Shotwell, a grain broker in Ohio. Shotwell refused to return “his” Bill of Rights when North Carolina learned of his find, and his family cared for the relic until deciding to sell in 1990. By then, the market for historic American documents was hot: A first-printing copy of the Declaration of Independence, found tucked behind a nondescript painting, sold for $2.42 million. The Shotwells’ agent contacted celebrities like Michael Jordan, Steve Forbes and even Oprah’s representatives, looking for a buyer. But were the Shotwells the rightful owners of North Carolina’s Bill of Rights?

Over the next decade, the drama’s cast of characters included governors, a shady real estate dealer, a museum CEO, a document hunter, plus the requisite lawyers and history experts. One central figure is Wayne Pratt, a theatrical antiques dealer who regularly appraised treasures on Antiques Roadshow. Following years of negotiations that sometimes winked at legality, Pratt finally bought the Bill of Rights after driving down the asking price. He hoped to sell it for $5 million. But his labyrinthine plans triggered a federal investigation and the parchment ultimately ended up back in the North Carolina archives.

Howard combines a sophisticated understanding of his characters with an eye for telling detail and a voice that makes him fine company. He knows how to put a narrative together, breaking from the story at strategic moments to provide background and heighten the suspense. The final chapter provides extensive notes on his interviews and source material.

But Lost Rights is not only a tale of past intrigue. Georgia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and New York are missing their copies of the Bill of Rights. New York’s may have burned in a fire, and Georgia’s may be lost in the state archives. Yet two copies are currently housed at the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress. Who really owns them?


Originally published in the October 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here