The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

David Rubenstein lends National Archives rare Bill of Rights imprint

A broadside printing of the Bill of Rights from the billionaire philanthropist may be one of two in existence

Billionaire philanthropist David Rubenstein gestures toward the rare imprint of the Bill of Rights. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
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When the billionaire philanthropist David Rubenstein was acquiring a 230-year-old broadside printing of the Bill of Rights, he called the head of the National Archives, David Ferriero, and asked: “Do you have this?”

“I don’t think so,” Ferriero said he replied. The Archives had the handwritten original Bill of Rights that proposed the first amendments to the Constitution. But a printed version in bold letters that was, perhaps, one of only two in existence? “Let me get back to you,” he said.

The Archives did not have such a document. It announced Friday that Rubenstein has bought it and lent it to the Archives for public display in its main building in Washington. The document now joins the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the faded original Bill of Rights on exhibit at the landmark Archives building.

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“It’s something that, even though we have the original, we don’t have the copies that were made to share with the states,” said Ferriero, who retired last month as archivist of the United States. “So it’s important that way.” Last month before he retired, he noted, “It’s the first printing of the Bill of Rights.” And it’s in almost pristine condition.

The Bill of Rights makes up the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution and was created to calm Constitution skeptics by guaranteeing specific rights, involving speech, religion and the press, Ferriero said.

The idea was to extend “the ground of public confidence in the Government” and “ensure the beneficent ends of its institution,” the document declares.

“It was created because of concerns about what wasn’t already listed in the Constitution,” Ferriero said. “It was to clarify exactly what we meant by rights.”

The 1790 imprint shows the original 12 amendments proposed by Congress, only 10 of which were ratified by the states in 1791, though an 11th would be ratified in 1992. There have so far been a total of 27 ratified amendments. On the imprint, the placement of the amendments is different from those in the final version.

The First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom of speech, the press and peaceful assembly, appears third on the imprint. The Second Amendment, “a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,” came fourth on the imprint. And the Fourth Amendment, which protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures, appears sixth on the imprint.

The document is a single sheet broadside, a format designed for the display of public proclamations, measuring 17 inches by 13 inches. It’s not clear if it was ever displayed in public or how it survived so unscathed for more than two centuries. It went on display at the Archives last month. “That’s what distinguishes David among collectors,” Ferriero said. “It’s important to him that whatever he owns is made available to the public.”

Rubenstein, the son of a Baltimore postal worker, is one of the founders of the Carlyle Group, a global investment firm based in Washington. He is an avid student of history and has made numerous large donations and document loans to historical sites in the Washington area. He said he is also an advocate of seeing documents and artifacts in person.

Rubenstein acquired the Bill of Rights broadside from the family of the late William Simon, who served as secretary of the treasury in the 1970s and was a collector of historic papers. Simon died in 2000. Rubenstein declined to say what he paid for it. The amount was “not insignificant,” he said in a recent interview. “The family was happy.”

The broadside was printed in Portsmouth, N.H., to provide the public details of the proposed measures, Rubenstein said. He said he called Ferriero “because I thought this was a document that should be seen by as many people as possible. And I thought, where do people go to see documents, more than the National Archives?”

“My general view is that people should know history, because we want to avoid the mistakes of the past,” he said. “I try to educate people about history.”

Rubenstein has donated tens of millions of dollars to refurbish the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument. He has also donated $10 million to Montpelier, the historic Virginia home of Founding Father James Madison, $5 million to the White House Visitor Center, and more than $12 million to Arlington House, the home of Robert E. Lee in Arlington National Cemetery.

In 2007, Rubenstein paid $21 million for a copy of the famous 1297 Magna Carta, a declaration of English rights that had been on loan to the Archives but was going up for sale. He returned it to the Archives on loan.

On Monday it was announced that he will donate $15 million to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to broaden and support its collection of artifacts related to the World War II murder of 6 million Jewish Europeans by the Nazis and their allies.

“I’m not solving global climate change,” he said last month. “I’m not ending war in Ukraine. I’m trying to do things that I can do.”