RALEIGH, N.C. North Carolina's copy of the Bill of Rights made a brief public appearance Monday in the old Capitol building as state officials, historians and schoolchildren observed the 10th anniversary of the sting operation that helped recover the once-stolen document.
A small parade that included Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, state cultural resources Secretary Margaret Kluttz and schoolchildren carrying U.S. flags ushered the wrapped 1789 document from in front of the Legislative Building to the 1840 Capitol. There it was displayed behind glass for several hours. There also was a reception for legislators and others and a short ceremony with Gov. Pat McCrory.
The General Assembly met later Monday in the old House and Senate chambers of the same building – where historians say a Union soldier likely took it as the Civil War was ending – to adopt a resolution highlighting the anniversary.
On March 18, 2003, federal authorities initiated a secret plan in Philadelphia to seize the priceless document, one of 13 copies of the Bill of Rights sent to each of the original colonies as inducement to urge them to ratify the Constitution. North Carolina and Rhode Island had refused to ratify the Constitution until certain individual rights were guaranteed.
FBI agents were waiting as part of the sting operation, started when people representing a Connecticut antiques dealer who had bought a share of the document in 2000 contacted the National Constitution Center about purchasing an original copy of the Bill of Rights. The center had alerted authorities.
“Everything fell into place,” said state Supreme Court Associate Justice Paul Newby, who 10 years ago was an assistant U.S. attorney in Raleigh and helped secure the document's transfer to the state. “All the little pieces had to fall into place for us to have a successful recovery and they did.”
North Carolina took custody of the document in 2005, but litigation lasted until 2008 before it was once and for all the state's property again. Historians say the document was taken from the Capitol as Union forces took over Raleigh in the Civil War's final days in April 1865. The document wound up in the hands of an Indianapolis family. It hung in a bank building, a library and a nursing home. North Carolina refused on at least two occasions to pay anything for its recovery.
“We made it very clear that we would never pay to have a public record come to North Carolina, and that's what put us in court all of those years,” said Jeffrey Crow, the recently retired deputy secretary of the state of the Office of Archives and History, who attended Monday's reception. Newby and Attorney General Roy Cooper spoke before the legislative session about details of the sting.
The faded writing on the document made from animal skin actually lists 12 amendments, but only 10 of them were ratified initially by the earliest colonies, including freedoms of speech, religion and the press. North Carolina also was the 12th state to join the union.
Visitors on Monday took non-flash photos of the wooden capsule containing the framed document in a dark section of the building's first floor. The document was last displayed publicly in 2007 during a seven-city tour and lecture series, but it may be longer before the next celebration with the authentic copy.
“It is so fragile, and it cannot be exposed to light,” Kluttz said, calling Monday a moving experience. “It probably will not come out again for 10 years.”