Lawyer Stephen Harmelin leaned over the large encased sheaf of parchment with the pale writing.

Next to him, Gov. Corbett did the same.

One of the original copies of the Bill of Rights sent by President George Washington to the states in 1789 had seized their attention Monday.

In the dim light of a new exhibition at the National Constitution Center, the unassuming visual presence of this rare document held both men for a moment with a kind of mesmerizing diffidence.

"You know," Harmelin said to the governor, "if we were a religious society this would be the Ark of the Covenant."

"Oh, yeah," said Corbett, who worked both as attorney general and as governor to bring the document to Pennsylvania. "Oh, yeah."

It was a small moment of civic reverence, largely unnoticed, shared between two powerful men who spent more than six years negotiating an agreement with New York officials that will see the document shared between the states over the next century.

Harmelin, a Constitution Center board member and attorney, has been involved in a quest for the Bill of Rights for years. Back in 2003, he thought he was close to acquiring one, but instead joined the FBI to ensnare the sellers in a sting.

The copy now on display on Independence Mall, various officials believe, was probably stolen from Pennsylvania in the late 19th century. It was subsequently donated to the New York Public Library, which has rarely shown it publicly.

The Bill of Rights - the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, seeking largely to guarantee individual rights and liberties - will be on display at the Constitution Center for three years. It is being shown along with a first-edition stone engraving of the Declaration of Independence and a copy from the first public printing of the Constitution.

Its display will be augmented by substantial programming aimed at students and teachers. A $75,000 grant from Citizens Bank will allow free center admission for about 1,400 Philadelphia-area students.

Students from Constitution High School and Claritas Classical Academy started Monday's events, which marked the day in 1791 when the Bill of Rights was ratified, with a reading of the bill.

215-854-5594

@SPSalisbury