December 11, 2007
Who Owns The Declaration of Independence
Thanks to University of Hawaii Professor Carl Christensen for calling Abbey Goodnough's article " A Tug of War Over a Declaration of Independence" from today's New York Times to our attention. The article is about the efforts of the state of Maine to recover one of very few surviving copies of the Declaration of Independence. As near as anyone can tell, the copy seems to have been read by a minister in Wiscasset, Maine, then given by the minister to the town. And somewhere along the line, the town's records were stored in Anna Plumstead's attic.
After Ms. Plumstead died in 1994, the document was sold at an estate auction. It changed hands several times, ending up with a private collector in Virginia who paid $475,000 for it in 2001. Now Maine is seeking to reclaim it, citing a state statute that says a public document remains public until explicitly relinquished by the government.
Now that sounds like the makings of a final exam question for property!
Endnote: I'd like to use the New York Times' image of the document, printed in 1776 in Salem. Alas, I suspect that image is copyrighted. (And here at propertyprof we're appropriately cautious about using other people's images.) There's something unnerving about a copyright on the Declaration of Independence, it seems to me. And this takes me back to a debate in Philadelphia my senior year in college about charging admission to Independence National Park in downtown Philly. Fortunately, that proposal was defeated. So instead I'm using an image of George Washington's personal copy of the Declaration, from our friends at the Library of Congress.
Alfred L. Brophy
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There was a similar occurrence a few years ago with North Carolina's copy of the Bill of Rights, I believe. Stolen during the Civil War, surfacing in 2003 or so and offered for sale.... If I remember, NC got the copy back.
Posted by: Jeremy A. Blumenthal | Dec 11, 2007 10:18:00 AM