Speak Your Piece: The Bill of Wrongs

An early draft of the Bill of Rights gets written in stone, literally, in two North Carolina public monuments. The result is a confusing mixture of 12 proposed amendments that enshrine both the hallmarks of American liberties and historical footnotes. But don't fear. The public discussion about the error is protected by the Third … errr ….First Amendment.

Share This:

This is the Second Amendment:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

And this isn’t:

“Article the second… No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.”

Carved in stone, a “Charters of Freedom” display was dedicated September 17 in the heart of Murphy, North Carolina, a mountain town of 1,601 that’s the seat of Cherokee County, population 27,218. 

Formidable waist-high stone monuments by a granite company in Minnesota have the texts of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.  A third monument is labeled with the words “Bill of Rights.” While the text of the "bill" is carved in stone, those words are actually more of a rough draft. Instead of the familiar 10-amendment Bill of Rights, the monument contains a 1789 joint resolution of Congress proposing 12 amendments to the U.S. Constitution.   

Out of order and in a kind of raw form before a lot of editing occurred are the familiar pillars of American law we recognize in the first 10 amendments, such as:

  • The freedoms of religion, speech and press;
  • The right to keep and bear arms; and
  • Protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.   

So how did the first draft of the Bill of Rights out of date since at least 1791 get enshrined in granite in 2014?

Go to the National Archive website, and you’ll see that the National Archives and Records Administration prefers to display the 1789 resolution rather than the final Bill of Rights. Of the 12 amendments proposed in the 1789 resolution, two did not pass. (The failed amendments dealt with proposals for the number of constituents per representative and congressional compensation.) The remaining 10 amendments were approved by the states and became enshrined as the Bill of Rights – and have been taught as such ever since to American school children.

But in North Carolina, a two-time candidate for Congress didn’t pick up on this nuance. So two towns now have hundreds of pounds monuments dedicated a first draft of the Bill of Rights. They at least entail a hunt-and-peck to find the familiar phrases.   

‘Maximus Boomus’

Vance Patterson of Morganton, North Carolina, is a 64-year-old co-owner of a North Carolina fireworks-show company, Patterson Pyrotechnics, with the slogan Maximus Boomus.   He also is the owner of firms in South Carolina that make barbecue equipment and T-shirts and import coffee beans from Brazil.

With a "Tea Party Cheer" on the Internet, Patterson lost congressional races for the Republican nomination for the N.C. 10th U.S. House seat in 2010 and, after redistricting, lost for the party’s nomination for the N.C. 11th U.S. House seat in 2012.

He told the Cherokee County board of commissioners in February that he and his wife Mary Jo decided to donate the monuments because this is “a place he frequented and loved while campaigning for Congress,” according to the approved minutes. 

 Patterson told the city of Morganton (where he has an identical “Charters of Freedom” display dedicated July 2), that he got the idea to donate while attending a prayer breakfast. This spurred in him and his wife fond memories of their having visited the documents at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. once he had decided to run for Congress.

Photo via the city of Morganton
Visitors check out the new Charters of Freedom monuments.

Too late, Patterson realized that the “Bill of Rights” text on one of the monuments is actually the 1789 proposals. “That’s why I wrote what I did on the back of the monument,” he told me in a telephone interview.

On one side of the stone, and not at the back, is a brief text closely tracking the National Archives’ explanation.  If students can locate this text on a monument, maybe they’ll begin to gather how the 1789 suggestions ultimately led to a 1791 enumeration settled on by the states. This got us the rights that had been missing in the 1781-89 Articles of Confederation, which the federal Constitution superseded.

Tuesday is Election Day. A small-town civics curve ball of sorts in North Carolina illustrates how, no matter how vocal some Americans may be about aspects such as gun rights, some of us still struggle with the hard details of the Bill of Rights.  

‘We borrow against our house’

For the monuments in the town of Murphy alone, Vance and Mary Jo Patterson incurred a debt of $72,000, Vance said in a telephone interview. 

Patterson agrees in an April 24 letter of intent to Coldspring Granite Co. of Minnesota to pay $60,865 for monuments. Now consider that the cost of trucking a 12-foot centerpiece with the Constitution and two four-footers with the Declaration and any Bill of Rights iteration can’t have been cheap.  Finally, a successful local bid from Barnett Construction of Marble, North Carolina to install the monuments was $2,876.

A grateful Cherokee County board of commissioners voted unanimously February 3, on a motion by Chairman C.B. McKinnon, to accept Patterson’s donation. None of the five commissioners walked across the room to inspect up-close a replica that Patterson had with him as he spoke.

Mayor Bill Hughes of the town Murphy wrote a letter to Patterson three days later expressing gratitude for the donation.

In a February 25 e-mail to County Manager Randy Wiggins, Patterson promised he would “have the prints available for viewing later this week.” To me this means a text of the monuments’ proposed content.  However, when I asked Patterson in a telephone interview whether he provided the county and town leaders, he replied, “No.”

This vigorous and athletic-looking man who “wrestled a little” as a student at Butler University in Indianapolis told me he’s started 16 companies. That could mean he has deep pockets. Yet when I asked if installing National Archives replicas in 11th Congressional District towns is spending of his leftover political-campaign war chest, he replied: “No, when my wife and I do something like this, we borrow against our house.”

Tom Bennett is a retired Atlanta newsman. He was founding board secretary of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, which teaches Georgian about open government.

 

Topics: Cool Places
x

News Briefs