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Historic Annapolis unveils exhibit of rare founding American documents at Maryland State House

Three wood-paneled cases surround a fourth made of glass in the marble-floored foyer of the Maryland State House.

Contained within them are copies of arguably the three most important founding documents in early American history: the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They stand next to what some historians have called the fourth-most important document, a copy of the resignation speech of George Washington who resigned his military commission in the State House on Dec. 23, 1783.

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The documents, owned by billionaire philanthropist David Rubenstein, are part of a two-month-long exhibit organized by Historic Annapolis with assistance from the Maryland State Archives that opens to the public Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and will be open daily through Nov. 14. The exhibit is titled “Founding Freedoms: The Essential American Documents.”

In a speech at the Orlando Ridout V Memorial Lecture Thursday evening at the State House, Rubenstein, a Baltimore native, shared stories of acquiring and preserving historic documents like the Magna Carta, Emancipation Proclamation, 13th Amendment and other rare pieces. He also spoke to the importance of preserving them.

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“Those who don‘t remember history are condemned to relive it,” said Rubenstein, paraphrasing Spanish philosopher George Santayana.

“The reason we want to preserve these things is because it’s an experience,” he said. “The experience is one you will remember much more than just looking through pages of a book” or viewing them on the internet.

Robert Clark, President and CEO of Historic Annapolis, said he hopes people from all over Central Maryland come to view the rare documents in the State House where some of the signers once worked when Annapolis was the nation’s capital in the 1780s.

“I’m excited for school kids to see the documents and signatures,” he said, “and more importantly understand the context in which they were created.”

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The founding documents

Among the four copies of the Declaration of Independence on display is the second-earliest printing of the document published on July 6, 1776, by Benjamin Towne in the Pennsylvania Evening Post, a Philadelphia newspaper.

Two days prior, on July 4, representatives from the 13 independent British colonies had ratified the document declaring their independence from Britain whom they were at war with over their rights, ability to self-govern and legal representation.

Two other versions of the document are engraved on vellum, a kind of prepared animal skin.

One is a broadside — a large sheet of paper printed on one side only, often used as posters to announce events or proclamations — completed by Benjamin Owen Tyler from 1818. It is described as “the first printed facsimile of the Declaration of Independence to accurately depict the original” and features artistic embellishments of the signatures by Tyler.

The other vellum engraving was completed by William J. Stone in Washington, D.C. in 1823, one of 200 copies commissioned by John Quincy Adams, then the nation’s Secretary of State who later became the sixth U.S. president. Only about 50 copies of this version are known to exist.

“It is the most accurate representation of the signed version of the Declaration — in its faithfulness to the handwriting, size, and use of parchment (animal skin) — and thus it is the most renowned printing of it,” a description that accompanies the document reads.

A fourth version of the Declaration is an engraving on paper by John Binns in Philadelphia in 1819.

The copy of the U.S. Constitution on display ran in the Pennsylvania Packet, and Daily Advertiser, a daily broadsheet, on Sept. 19, 1787, the day after it was read aloud in the Philadelphia State House for the first time.

It was printed by partners John Dunlap and David C. Claypoole, who along with being newspapermen were also employed as printers by Congress. Dunlap was the first to print the Declaration of Independence 11 years earlier.

Lastly, is a copy of the Bill of Rights published on Sept. 23, 1789, by John Fenno of the Gazette of the United States newspaper.

The Bill of Rights began as a series of amendments to the newly ratified Constitution. Various partisan newspapers, including the Gazette, published versions of them to argue for or against their adoption.

This version includes 12 amendments approved by the House of Representatives, 10 of which were later adopted by Congress.

Future Historic Annapolis events

The exhibit kicks off several months of events for Historic Annapolis, Clark said.

In late September, the organization will unveil an exhibit at the William Paca House dedicated to the four signers of the Declaration of Independence who hailed from Maryland, Charles Carroll, Samuel Chase, William Paca, and Thomas Stone.

In November, a citywide guided tour of Colonial history will kick off featuring 11 locations throughout Annapolis, including 99 Main St., the Annapolis Maritime Museum and the William Paca House.

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