The Wild Amount Norman Lear Paid For A Copy Of The Declaration Of Independence

What does a renowned television producer responsible for some of the medium's most iconic characters do with his money? Does he carry on an ostentatious lifestyle? Invest his earnings back into his production company toward more lavish shows? If that producer is Norman Lear, it turns out that he buys a slice of American history.

Lear, who died in December 2023 at 101, was socially conscious even in his broadest work on television. His shows — "All in the Family" being the most famous of the lot — injected the hot-button issues of the 1970s deep into the American sitcom format. Lear's logic for doing so was simple. As he told NPR, "The more you get people to care when they laugh, they will laugh more. If you got them concerned or involved ... then you're funny."

Lear was dismissive of hyperbolic claims about his work's impact outside of television, and he never intended to be a contentious figure. But in the 1980s, to counter what he felt was an abuse of religion by right-wing evangelists, he founded the progressive nonprofit advocacy group People for the American Way (per AP, via ABC 7 Chicago). His personal fortune, estimated at north of $200 million at one time, was employed to support Democratic politicians. And in 2000, Lear put up big money to get his hands on an original copy of the Declaration of Independence — just to get it in front of the public.

Lear paid $8 million for the Declaration of Independence

According to CNN, after the ratification of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, it was sent to the printers in Philadelphia. As of 2000, only 25 copies from that first printing were known to still exist, and the majority were claimed by public institutions. Only four were in private hands. A pristine copy discovered in 1989, stuck behind a painting, was sold at auction to Donald Scheer for over $2 million in 1991. Nine years later, Scheer himself put the copy up for auction, and Norman Lear was ready.

Partnering with entrepreneur David Hayden, Lear put up $8.1 million for Scheer's copy of the Declaration on behalf of the Lear Family Foundation (per AP, via The Topeka Capital-Journal). It was quickly announced that the copy would be put on tour as part of a multimedia exhibit. "We don't have civics being taught in school very much," said Lear, lamenting the difference between children's contemporary experience with America's founding documents and his own. The touring exhibit — which reached museums in all 50 states according to PBS — put the Declaration of Independence within easy reach of Americans of all ages. The tour operated for the 10 years that Lear's family owned the copy.

In connection with the DOI Road Trip, as the exhibit was named, Lear established the voter initiative group Declare Yourself to encourage young people to register to vote. Between 2004 and 2008, it registered over 4 million new voters.