CMU's Posner Center offers rare chance to view original copy of Bill of Rights

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Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Dr. Gloriana St. Clair, dean of libraries at Carnegie Mellon University, at the Posner Center with one of the only four copies known to exist of the first edition of the Bill of Rights.
Click photo for larger image.
Highlights of the Posner Collection

A printed copy of Christopher Columbus' letter (in Latin, 1495) to the Treasurer of Spain describing his first voyage to America.

An illustrated copy of the Haggadah, in Hebrew and English (1939).

"Harmonicus Mundi" (1619) by Johannes Kepler, the founder of modern astronomy.

"The Rubiyt of Omar Khayym," in a binding (1912) with snakeskin and rubies.

Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations" (1776), a foundation of modern economic thought.

"Synopsis of Comets" (1705) by Edmond Halley, predicting "his" comet's appearance in 1758.

Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," a bejeweled and highly illustrated 1931 edition.

A glorious facsimile on vellum of the Gutenberg Bible, hand-colored and illuminated (1914).

Dickens' "Bleak House" (1852-53), in its suspenseful original serial installments.

The "Nuremberg Chronicle" (1493), with woodcut illustrations and contemporary city views.

"Narrative of the Mutiny" (1790), an extraordinary naval account by William Bligh.

A rare intact edition of the Third Folio of Shakespeare (1663).

The Posner Memorial Collection is available to the public in the Posner Center from 1 to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. For more information, call 412-268-7680.


On March 1, 1792, then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson drafted a letter to the governors of the 14 states in the fledgling union briefly explaining that he was sending along copies of three pieces of legislation of national interest.

Foremost was a proposed law governing fishermen. Next, Jefferson wrote, was legislation to establish the U.S. Postal Service.

Finally, and with no fanfare, Jefferson wrote that he had enclosed "ratifications by three fourths of the legislatures of the several States, of certain articles in addition to & amendment of the Constitution of the United States, proposed by Congress to the said legislatures."

The language aside, Jefferson was sending the states the first printing of the Bill of Rights ratified just 10 weeks earlier in Philadelphia, then the country's seat of government. The first printing of the document included the legislation's text as originally proposed, with 12 amendments to the Constitution, 10 of which -- numbers 3-12 -- had been ratified. (The first two amendments, dealing with congressional size and pay, were not endorsed because of their administrative nature.)

Of the original 28 copies of the legislation -- two for each state -- only four are known to exist, one of which is at Carnegie Mellon University. The others are held by a private collector, the American Antiquarian Society and, of course, the Library of Congress.

In honor of Independence Day, the document is on display to the public at the CMU's Posner Center, which houses the Posner Memorial Collection.

"The premier piece in this collection is the Bill of Rights, an original from the first printing," said Gloriana St. Clair, dean of the Carnegie Mellon libraries.

Although American history and personal freedom "is not the major theme of the collection," St. Clair said, "it is a minor theme."

For example, the collection also includes an eight-page pamphlet that's survived 200 years titled "The French Declaration of the Rights of Man."

"These are the documents that establish the rights of the common people," St. Clair said. "And the Bill of Rights is very much in play now because of Guantanamo Bay."

Civil libertarians have become increasingly critical of the U.S. government's treatment of 520 enemy combatants at the military base in Cuba, many of whom have been held without trial since the center opened in January 2002.

CMU's possession of one of the original printed versions of the Bill of Rights dates back to 1977, but the story of how it got there began in 1905, when a young Henry Posner, an immigrant from Poland, arrived in Boston and began working his way westward in jobs ranging from teaching to surveying.

By 1912 he was living in Pittsburgh and enrolled in what was then Carnegie Tech. He would leave college before graduation to start Alpha Claude Neon Corporation, which later became Pittsburgh Outdoor Advertising.

"As he worked through his career, he got into the advertising business, specifically the outdoor advertising business," St. Clair said. "He was one of the first people to use neon."

As his fortunes grew, Posner became an avid book collector. From fine rare books, his interest grew in printing, literature and binding. Over the course of 50 years, he and his wife, Ida, built a collection that contained one-quarter of the most important science texts ever written, letters from such people as Christopher Columbus, and Shakespeare's Third Folio. They also collected objets d'art in glass, ivory, jade and other minerals acquired during their travels in Asia and Europe.

"The collection combines the left-brain ideas of arts and beauty with the right-brain ideas of innovation and technology," St. Clair said.

Posner purchased the Bill of Rights from New York book dealer H.P. Kraus in 1963.

Fifteen years later, after the death of Henry Posner Sr., the couple's son Henry Jr. lent the family collection to CMU, and since then, it's been part of the rare book collection at Hunt Library on campus. Access to the collection -- 1,000 pieces including the books, maps, newspapers, manuscripts and photos -- was not restricted, but other than students and scholars, few knew of its existence or contents.

Three years ago, librarians began digitizing the collection, meaning that each book, document and manuscript is now available to a worldwide audience with a few computer keystrokes. And last year, the Posner Center was opened, giving the collection a new and accessible home.

"We would really love for people to come in just to see the Bill of Rights," St. Clair said. "It really gives you a feeling of your heritage. The Bill of Rights never really goes away."

The Bill of Rights will be on display at the Posner Center on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University in Oakland from 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays through July 8, with the exception of July 4. The document, along with every item in the collection, also can be accessed online at posner.library.cmu.edu/Posner.


Johnna A. Pro can be reached at 412-263-1574 or jpro@post-gazette.com .


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