08/17/1987 at 01:00 AM EDT
At first glance the handwritten notes appear to be no more significant than those of any old attic find. The paper is ordinary rag stock, slightly mildewed. But the words, scrawled in unfaded brown ink, have a portentous ring. "The people have certain natural rights...of religion; of acquiring property, and of pursuing happiness & Safety; of Speaking, writing and publishing their Sentiments with decency and freedom; of peaceably assembling to consult their common good..."
Written by Congressman Roger Sherman of Connecticut in July 1789 (though whether as author or secretary is unclear), the document is the only working draft of the Bill of Rights known to exist. Last month Library of Congress archivist James Hutson, 50, announced he had discovered Sherman's work pasted unceremoniously in the back of one of the library's 40 million historical manuscripts.
Sherman, a businessman, politician and judge, was the only Founding Father to sign all three key documents that created a framework for the United States government: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. He also sat on the House select committee, led by James Madison of Virginia, that hammered out the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution. Though the final Bill of Rights puts more emphasis on the judicial process and drops some provisions, such as the banning of monopolies, it is substantially similar to Sherman's draft.
The discovery underscores the scantiness of our documentation of the Constitution-writers' work. Some congressional speeches on the Bill of Rights were recorded by a drunken stenographer who spiced up his notes with nude sketches, Hutson observes, so "there is often no way to determine what the Founding Fathers said" as they debated the Constitution's language. Across two centuries Roger Sherman's notes remind us that we have to interpret the Constitution for ourselves.