Jefferson’s personal copy of Acts of Congress housed in IU’s Lilly Library

The news that George Washington’s personal copy of the Acts of Congress will soon be auctioned by Christie’s raises the question: Do other copies of the volume exist? And if so, where are they?

Jefferson is believed to have corrected his copy of the Acts of Congress, held by IU's Lilly Library.

One of them is right here on Indiana University’s Bloomington campus, in the Lilly Library. Thomas Jefferson’s personal copy of the book has been part of the library’s collection since the mid-1950s, when it was donated by Indianapolis resident and then-president of Eli Lilly and Co. J.K. Lilly Jr.

Lilly Library Associate Director Joel Silver shared a brief history of the rare book: Washington was elected the nation’s first president in 1789, and the first Congress met soon thereafter to consider establishing laws to govern the new country. Congress also forwarded to the states, for their consideration, a dozen amendments to the Constitution. Ten of those were eventually approved, becoming what is known as the Bill of Rights.

The Acts of Congress book includes the laws passed by Congress in that first session, Silver said, as well as those initial amendments.

At the time of Washington’s election, Jefferson was serving as ambassador to France. He returned to the U.S., assuming his new duties as secretary of state, in 1790. One week after stepping into his new role, he received his copy of the Acts of Congress from Washington.

Silver said Jefferson initialed the front of the book. In addition, there is also a manuscript correction thought to be in his own hand — changing the wording of one of the Constitutional amendments from “cruel or unusual imprisonments” to “cruel or unusual punishments.”

A third copy of the book made for Chief Justice John Jay is held by a private collector.

The Associated Press reports Washington’s copy is being sold by the Dietrich American Foundation, and its estimated presale value is $2 million to $3 million. The Christie’s auction is scheduled for June 22.

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