Last Thursday night, a band of friendly cryptocurrency enthusiasts hopped on Zoom and decided they wanted to buy a first edition printing of the United States Constitution. By Monday afternoon, more than 2,300 people had collectively donated more than $5 million worth of ether to a project that promises to bid on the document at auction and then let the donors vote to decide what happens if they win.
When Sotheby's offers one of the few privately held copies of the first printing of the U.S. Constitution at auction on Thursday, one of the bidders will be this group of people. They call themselves the ConstitutionDAO, and they see their effort as an example of participatory democracy. Others see it as something far grander. "What's more American than permissionlessly pulling together We the People to buy one of our nation's foundational documents and own it together?" Packy McCormick, a major backer of the project, wrote in his Substack.
Sotheby's estimates that the document will sell for somewhere between $15 and $20 million, though it's impossible to know what the final bid may be — and ConstitutionDAO wants to raise enough funds to win no matter what. By Wednesday night, the group had blown past its $20 million goal and set a new cap at $30 million.
The Founding Fathers never had it this easy. In just over four days, the idea that a decentralized autonomous organization could purchase precious historical art at a Sotheby's auction went from a funny Twitter meme to a hilariously serious reality of a group of people with a Discord server and a formal business organization fully prepared to spend tens of millions of dollars. If and when they do, the DAO promises, contributors will get to see the treasure map on the back. And maybe help get Nic Cage involved. Never mind that "National Treasure" is actually about the Declaration of Independence.
(A DAO, by the way, is a group governed by a contract written in software, with decisions made by the votes of its members. Member voting power is typically proportional to the amount of money each member contributes to the DAO in the form of a token purchase. If this is confusing to you, think of shareholders in a public company voting on a merger proposal.)
The creators of the group (led by Julian Weisser, the co-founder of On Deck, and Alice Ma, an advocate for decentralized communities) say they hope that the DAO's members will vote to put the Constitution on a traveling exhibit to places that might not usually get to see it in a museum, or temporarily preserve or host it someplace safe, like the Smithsonian. (The National Archives Museum in Washington already has a copy on display, by the way.)
"It's a much more participatory way to interact with history. We are going beyond museums. Everyone can choose where and how the Constitution is displayed," Will Papper, one of the DAO's founding members and the co-founder of Syndicate Protocol, told Protocol.
If there are DAO experts, the mid-twenties Papper is one of the few. His group, Syndicate, also helped another organization formally purchase a 40-acre tract of land in Wyoming earlier this month, in what is believed to be the first-ever land purchase by a DAO. Safe to say buying one of the last surviving copies of the Constitution would be a DAO first as well.
The DAO's constitutional questions
The DAO trend emerged from the dark recesses of the crypto community around the same time that mainstream tech leaders (and sometimes mainstream trolls) like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg started talking publicly about cryptocurrency and the metaverse. The people who participate in them tend to be the same folks investing heavily in cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and evangelizing the idea that blockchain technology will wrest the power of the internet away from behemoths like Meta (formerly Facebook) and Google.
"The Metaverse is already here, and it's in things like ConstitutionDAO that you see it's just not neatly packaged and corporatized like Zuckerberg wants it to be. I don't ever think it really can be," said one ConstitutionDAO donor who goes by the username pseudotheos on the group's Discord chat.
Only two DAO groups have gone as far as publicly purchasing expensive physical objects, though. The CityDAO purchased those 40 acres in Wyoming last week and PleasrDAO purchased a rare Wu-Tang Clan album in late October.
ConstitutionDAO developed momentum as a real possibility all in the last 24 hours, according to Papper. "The originators of it called me and asked, 'Can you help us make this happen from a legal perspective? How do we make this happen from a tax perspective?" he said. "Over the past 24 hours, three things started happening simultaneously. There were like 200 people an hour joining the Discord last night. At Syndicate, we were setting up the legal entity and working with Sotheby's, and we realized we have everything in place to place this bid. Contributors were talking to a bunch of different crowdfunding tools, and we ultimately went to [crowdfunding site] Juicebox as the group to work with. Now we are at more than $3 million."
During the course of a 30-minute conversation with Papper, more than $100,000 worth of ether donations landed in the ConstitutionDAO's account. Hundreds of people joined the group's Discord server. The memes flowed faster in the general chat than any serious question, though an occasional donor would pop up to ask what happens to the donations if ConstitutionDAO doesn't win the bidding war (apparently the funds will be given back, though no one is making any legal promises), or how to participate without paying the high "gas" transaction fees that come with ether (there's no solution here). The serious questions would usually disappear in the flood of jokes about museums, people who don't get crypto, Barack Obama or chugging the Constitution (the Discord community feels very strongly that journalists must recognize the chugging jokes are, indeed, jokes).
The financial security questions are also quite real and not entirely resolved. Crypto project developers have taken token-sale money and run often enough that there's a name for it — "the rug pull" — and the Juicebox FAQ has a disclaimer that says that "due to their public nature, any exploits to the contracts may have irreversible consequences, including loss of funds. Please use Juicebox with caution."
But while the online energy radiates the vibes of a massive con, the value of the shared donor account has climbed to $5.1 million as of Tuesday morning. Sotheby's has agreed that the fund structure designed by Syndicate should allow the group to safely and legally participate in the auction. "Placing a competitive bid is at this point close to guaranteed," Papper said. As for the DAO's chances? "If you had asked me before we launched the fundraise, I would have said 30%. I would say it's probably more like 70% chance of winning it now."
And the donors participating in this project take it very seriously. "I've held ETH and been Web3 curious, but this project caused me to put it on a wallet and contribute," said Evan Branigan, a Colorado-based attorney who recently founded better.law, which attempts to make the legal system more accessible and understandable. He called the group his "gateway DAO."While there's no legally binding contract that will make the group's organizers abide by their promises, ConstitutionDAO does have a sort of Google doc constitution. Branigan sees the commitments in these virtual principles — like storing the Constitution at a trustworthy institution and refunding ether if the group loses the auction bid — like they are an actual covenant. "It's a bet. No one knows. What convinced me was the one-pager FAQ that kicked this project off. In a way, that's sort of like a binding commitment. It is a clear statement of the purpose of this DAO. The bet is whether the DAO can stick to that," he said. "It's plausible that this project goes south, but the values behind it are strong enough that give me confidence."
Update: This story has been updated to reflect ConstitutionDAO's fundraising totals. Updated Nov. 17.