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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Magna Carta Library Celebration: Feb. 3rd

Magna carta cum aliis antiquis statutis, London, 1540. 
Come join us in the Library lobby next Tuesday, February 3rd, to kick off the anniversary of Magna Carta! To start the 800th anniversary celebration there will be donuts, cookies, granola bars, chips, coffee and (English) tea, starting from 10am and until we run out.

We'll also have two contests for multiple prizes, ranging from Amazon gift cards to food and drink at Republic. Don't forget to pick up some Magna Carta swag as well.

Last but not least, see a historic Magna Carta from the Library's rare book collection.  

Next month, at the end of February, a new exhibit will open in the Riesenfeld Center, devoted to the history and reception of Magna Carta. "Magna Carta, 800 Years: Rights and the Rule of Law," will highlight the rich legacy of Magna Carta in England and America, as seen through the Riesenfeld Center's rare books collection. Stay tuned here for more...

   - Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections      

Friday, January 16, 2015

Our Earliest Copy of the Bill of Rights

Acts Passed at a Congress ... New York, 1789/90.
In preparing for our upcoming exhibit on Magna Carta, we had the good opportunity to comb through the Riesenfeld Center's terrific collection of colonial and early US law. Along with the enjoyment that comes in working with this material, the documents can offer up exciting discoveries. One occurred in looking at our earliest, and most significant, copy of the original amendments to the US Constitution, which largely became the Bill of Rights. Our copy, from 1789/90, is found at the end of the first US session laws, issued from the first session of the 1st Congress, held from March 4, 1789 through September. It was at this historic session that the first amendments to the Constitution were introduced, substantially by Madison, following demands for enumerated protections against a potentially overreaching federal government. Debate on the articles continued through the summer, and stirred deeply-held opinion. Twelve amendments were passed by Congress on September 25th. Ten of those amendments were then ratified by three-fourths of the states, and became the Bill of Rights.

Our copy of these extraordinary session laws includes the original twelve amendments, after congressional passage but before ratification by the states. The now neglected "Article the First," concerning proportional representation, sits near the head of the page, and "Article the Second," on congressional compensation, follows it. Unratified at the time, "Article the Second" finally entered the constitutional canon in 1992, as the Twenty-Seventh Amendment. Particularly important for our upcoming exhibit is the Fifth Amendment, which began its life here as the Seventh. This great Amendment has Magna Carta in its direct lineage, as it includes the famous prohibition on the loss of life, liberty or property without due process of law. The Fifth Amendment (and its later partner, the Fourteenth) are still among the most important, and most discussed, amendments in US constitutional law.

Although there were a few earlier printings of early forms of the US Bill of Rights (notably the Gazette of the United States and New York Daily Advertiser carried Madison's original nine proposals in June 1789), our copy of the twelve amendments is quite special and rare, and also interesting for signatures and marks that add to its historical value. One, written at the end of the proposed amendments, toward the bottom of the now dampstained page, is the name "Muhlenberg."  Above the signature is the printed name of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Frederick A. Muhlenberg, an interesting figure from Pennsylvania. The signature bears some similarities to an authentic autograph preserved online by the University of Pennsylvania. Another signature - that of a Jacob Frost of New York - can be found as well, along with the smaller, neater signature of William Frost. Perhaps Jacob was a son, or at least younger, since his unruly signature and marks look like practice writing.

Does our copy bear the signature of Frederick Muhlenberg, and if so, was he an owner or for some reason simply signed the copy? And who was the Frost family, who seemed to own this copy already in 1789 or 90, and perhaps left it "in the care" of a New York attorney, written as "___iel Sewall" on the back cover? What did this book mean to them, how did they come by it, and how did they use it?  The answers would require a researcher's attention, but they are exciting and challenging. They are also just a few of the questions that can come up when looking at historical books - whether extraordinary or more mundane - with an eye to their particular histories!

   - Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections