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February 27, 2009

Va. High Court: Copy of Declaration of Independence Created in 1776 is Not a Public Record

The decision was issued this morning (PDF). It really is an extraordinary story.

In July 1776, after the Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, each of the colonial delegations was charged with informing its residents about the colonies’ decision to separate from England. The Massachusetts Executive Council (the Executive Council), an entity that shared governing responsibility with the Massachusetts legislature, issued an order directing that copies of the Declaration be printed and delivered to the ministers of all churches in Massachusetts so that the document could be read to the ministers’ congregations....Such copies of documents intended for widespread distribution were commonly referred to as “broadsides.”

...The broadsides also included the Executive Council’s additional order requiring that the ministers, after reading aloud the Declaration, deliver the broadsides to the town clerks. The order directed the town clerks to record the Declaration’s text in their respective town record books “to remain as a perpetual Memorial thereof.” Neither the Executive Council’s order nor any other law directed the town clerks regarding the proper disposition of the broadsides after their contents were transcribed in the town record books.

So the broadside in question simply disappeared for over two hundred years. Eventually it was discovered in the papers of the deceased town clerk of Wiscasset, Maine (formerly Pownalborough, Massachusetts) by an auctioneer hired by the clerk's daughter's estate. It then passed through a few hands until Richard Adams, a Virginia resident and the defendant in this case, purchased the the broadside for $475,000.

Somehow the State of Maine got wind of the transaction and the provenance of the broadside and sued Adams for its return. They said it was a public record owned by the town. Adams, of course, resisted.

What do you think? Should Adams keep it or does it go back to the state?


Well, the Supreme Court of Virginia held that the broadside was not a public record because it was not created by a public officer (it was created by a private printer at the direction of the Massachusetts Executive Council) and it wasn't maintained like a public record (because the town clerk had copied the text into the town records book "as a perpetual Memorial thereof”).

Adams gets to keep the broadside.

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posted by Gabriel Malor at 10:44 PM

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