Protecting our manifest heritage

Posted March 13, 2009, at 6:40 p.m.

In the world news recently was the outrage in India at the auction of the few personal effects of peace icon Mohandas Gandhi. His eyeglasses, plate and bowl, pocket watch and sandals sold for nearly $2 million. While most of us casually observe with bemused wonder the pandemonium around the buying and selling of historic artifacts, I have a lot of sympathy for India in this situation.

While the debate raged over Gandhi’s things, much less attention followed the decision of the Virginia Supreme Court on a lawsuit brought against the state of Maine over claims of ownership of an original broadside printing of the Declaration of Independence.

The story is pretty simple. After the Declaration was ratified, the Second Continental Congress sent notice that the document had to be sent out to the public. In the Massachusetts colony, a printer named Ezekiel Russell was commissioned to do the printing for the towns in the colony. The Pownalborough edition was read in church, then was transcribed into the town ledgers pursuant to the congressional directive, and then resolved to the care of the clerk of the town. In 1802, Pownalborough changed its name to Wiscasset.

The vagaries of small-town, rural government kicked in after that. Because clerks worked out of their homes, we believe that Wiscasset’s copy of the Declaration of Independence was passed from clerk to clerk, evading the care of the town office (built in 1967). When Wiscasset’s copy of the Declaration was found in a box of items gathered from an estate sale, rare-document dealers swooped in, and at length the copy of the Declaration was purchased by computer software magnate Richard Adams at a Sotheby’s auction for $475,000.

Maine law, however, states that public records are the property of the public and can never be sold. Adams brought suit against Maine to clear the title, claiming that the Wiscasset Declaration was not a public record at all, but rather a piece of “ephemera” with no permanent public value. But nonetheless worth almost half a million dollars. Go figure.

Like the gentleman auctioning off Gandhi’s things, the Virginia court didn’t really understand what all the fuss was about. They, and the lower circuit court, took the astonishing position that because the broadside wasn’t printed by a government entity — instead, contracted out to a private printer — it didn’t really fit the definition of a public record.

Further, they comically ruled that since Maine’s archive law was only enacted in 1965, no records generated before that date enjoy the law’s protection. This is the type of legal logic that, in ignoring the obvious context before it, justified the Dred Scott decision and the separate-but-equal laws.

In the end, the question isn’t who holds title to the Wiscasset copy of the Declaration of Independence, but what that document represented at the time.

That moment is what millionaire Adams wants as a collectible — and what the children of Wiscasset should never forget.

The Declaration of Independence isn’t just a predictable milestone in American history. In “Leaves of Grass,” Walt Whitman recounted the story of a Revolutionary War veteran’s experience with the Declaration under George Washington before the disastrous Battle of Brooklyn:

As I talk I remember it all, I remember the Declaration,

It was read here, the whole army paraded, it was read to us here,

By his staff surrounded the General stood in the middle, he held

Up his unsheath’d sword,

It glitter’d in the sun in full sight of the army.

’Twas a bold act then — the English warships had just arrived,

We could watch down the lower bay where they lay at anchor,

And the transports swarming with soldiers.

The reaction of the good citizens of Pownalborough to the news of the Declaration of Independence is not, to our knowledge, recorded anywhere. But the frightening specter of hard times and an uncertain fate that must certainly accompany the signal moment of the Declaration — and the resolve to bear those difficulties — is what makes the Wiscasset copy so important to Maine history.

But now it is gone, and will never be back. Instead it will reside as a trophy piece in a private collection, far from the eyes of the descendants of the hardy souls who shouldered the blood and suffering of the Revolution.

While all we can do legally now is congratulate Mr. Adams on his new acquisition and wish him well, our resolve will be to clarify our laws so that in the future the legal system in Virginia and elsewhere will be able to divine that in Maine, a public record belongs to the public, and the history that those documents represent is part of the manifest heritage of Maine, not a commodity for millionaires to house in private collections.

Matthew Dunlap is Maine’s secretary of state, and is constitutionally charged with the care of Maine’s state records.

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