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Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Piece of History

As Chris Matthews says, "I love history!" Did you know that more than one copy of the Declaration of Independence exists?

About 250 copies (known as "broadsides") were printed by Ezekiel Russell, a private printer in Salem, Massachusetts in 1776, although only 11 copies are known to still exist. After the Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, each of the colonial delegations was charged with informing its residents about the decision to separate from England. Russell's copies were distributed to towns throughout Massachusetts to be read by each local populace in those pre-Internet days. Maine was part of Massachusetts in colonial times.

One broadside ended up in the hands of Solomon Holbrook, the Wiscasset, Maine town clerk from 1885 until his death in 1929. Town clerks back then worked out of their homes, so apparently this 1776 copy of the Declaration of Independence was inherited by Holbrook's daughter with the rest of his household possessions. When she died in 1994, an estate auctioneer found it in a box of papers in her attic and sold it in 1995.

Ironically, the historic document declaring the colonies' independence from England next found a home with a London book dealer. He, in turn, sold it to an American, Richard Adams Jr. of Fairfax County, VA, in 2001 for $475,000.

The state of Maine claimed the rare copy of the Declaration of Independence belonged to the town of Wiscasset as a public record, and sought to recover it from Adams, who was also the founder of the first commercial Internet service provider, UUNet Technologies Inc. Adams filed an action in the Circuit Court of Fairfax County, VA to quiet title.

Justice Barbara Keenan of the Virginia Supreme Court opined with this unique opening: "This appeal concerns an action to quiet title to a copy of the Declaration of Independence (the Declaration) that was printed in July 1776." She continued: "We consider whether the circuit court erred in holding that a Virginia resident who purchased this document had superior title than that claimed by the State of Maine, which contended that the document was a public record owned by the Town of Wiscasset, Maine." The text of the opinion is here and I recommend it as fascinating reading to any student of history.

The Virginia court ruled that Adams, not the state of Maine, is the true owner of the broadside.

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