Jan. 18: An Important Family Archive of Letters and Manuscripts by and about Alexander Hamilton
- by Thomas C. McKinney
Items from Sotheby's sale of Alexander Hamilton: An Important Family Archive of Letters and Manuscripts
Sotheby’s bears no need for introduction, and their reputation often garners the attention of consigners with incredible material. While many auction houses can claim decades of auctioneer experience, few can say they’ve been in business for centuries. Sotheby’s is one of those few (founded in 1744). So it is not in the least bit surprising that when the owner of a family archive of letters and manuscripts by and about Alexander Hamilton weighed their options about which house to consign the material to, they chose Sotheby’s, one of the few houses today that actually existed during Hamilton’s lifetime. January 18th marks the date of their sale of Alexander Hamilton: An Important Family Archive of Letters and Manuscripts. With 77 lots, the sale is hyper focused on the singular subject of Hamilton, a figure who has enjoyed a marked increase in fame in recent years. Recognition of the man is indeed warranted, with a mind-boggling array of accomplishments and roles : “mercantile clerk, college student, poet, artillery captain, adjutant to General Washington during the Revolutionary War, congressman, abolitionist, founder of the Bank of New York, New York state assemblyman, member of the Constitutional Convention and the New York Ratifying Convention, essayist responsible for the majority of the Federalist Papers and all of the Pacificus Papers, first Secretary of the Treasury, founder of the New York Post, major general in the army, a titanic force in the country’s first four presidential elections—and the father of eight” (Sotheby’s). Hamilton material is high in demand, and therefore much of it does not come cheaply. A full forty-two of the 77 lots bear estimates of at least five figures, with three items reaching six.
Topping the multitude of rare Hamilton documents is lot 1039 (of a sale beginning with 1001). An item estimated between $300,000 and $500,000 demands some background. Sotheby’s specialists do a better job than I would:
In April 1793, President Washington issued a Proclamation of Neutrality in the nascent war between Revolutionary France and other European powers: “Whereas it appears that a state of war exists between Austria, Prussia, Sardinia, Great Britain, and the United Netherlands, of the one part, and France on the other; and the duty and interest of the United States require, that they should with sincerity and good faith adopt and pursue a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent Powers; I have therefore thought fit by these presents to declare the disposition of the United States to observe the conduct aforesaid towards those Powers respectfully; and to exhort and warn the citizens of the United States carefully to avoid all acts and proceedings whatsoever, which may in any manner tend to contravene such disposition.”
The Proclamation was issued only after a contentious debate among the cabinet; while all agreed the United States should remain neutral, the Democratic-Republicans saw so necessity for an official proclamation, which they felt could forestall some benefit from one side or the other of the belligerents “bidding for” American neutrality. Thomas Jefferson’s opposition to the proclamation was so great that he eventually resigned as Secretary of State.
Under the pen name Pacificus, Alexander Hamilton took up a defense of the neutrality proclamation; James Madison (ironically one of Hamilton’s co-authors of The Federalist Papers), writing as Helvidius, responded with the opposing viewpoint. The debate expanded into the areas of the limits of executive authority, the separation of powers in foreign relations, and the correct interpretation of the Constitution.
In Pacificus VI, Hamilton argues that while Louis XVI and France had certainly aided the cause of American independence, the gratitude of the younger country did not compel it to accept an alliance with France contrary to her own interests—or to have to choose sides between the French revolutionaries and their former rulers. The present draft foretells very closely the essay as published. Despite the many crossings-outs over the first four paragraphs of the draft, they align very closely with the first eleven paragraphs of the published text
Lot 1039 is a previously unrecorded autograph draft of Hamilton’s Pacificus IV, written in early July 1793. It is evidently one of a kind, and Hamilton himself considered this series of essays to be on equal ground as his Federalist essays. Because none of the Federalist essays survive in manuscript form today, Sotheby’s suggests this may be considered “the most important political holograph of Hamilton in private hands.” Whosever hands the draft of Pacificus IV ends up in, one thing’s for certain—they will be rich hands.
Stepping back in Hamilton’s life to the American Revolution, lot 1004’s high estimate is a mere half of Pacificus IV, standing at $150,000 – 250,000. In terms of importance to U.S. history though, this item is at first glance perhaps not as significant as the preceding lot, but a second appraisal says otherwise. The document in question is the manuscript appointing Hamilton as Aide-de-Camp to General George Washington in March 1777. This post with Washington “made possible the meteoric and momentous career of the most unlikely of the Founding Fathers” (Sotheby’s).
Sotheby’s describes the collection as one that touches on “virtually every phase of his extraordinary life,” and lot 1007 checks another box on the list of these phases. This is the earliest surviving love letter from Hamilton to his future wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, dated 1780 and written only a month or two after their first encounter. Hamilton was clearly smitten early as he closes with, “Adieu my charmer; take care of your self and love your Hamilton as well as he loves you.” The letter to Eliza is estimated at $40,000 – 60,000.
Not every item in the sale reaches otherworldly heights however. Signed documents and letters by Hamilton appear with high estimates as low as $2,500. Other interesting material includes letters from other people of the era addressed to Hamilton including his wife Eliza, John Jay, and Andrew Jackson.
Sotheby's Alexander Hamilton: An Important Family Archive of Letters and Manuscripts takes place January 18, 2017 at 2 pm eastern in New York. The catalog is available online. Bidding will be conducted via the normal methods, including in person, absentee, internet, and telephone. Registering with Sotheby's (if not already done so for a prior sale) is required. Exhibition times are as follows:
- Wed, 11 Jan 17 | 01:00 pm - 05:00 pm EST
- Thu, 12 Jan 17 | 11:00 am - 05:00 pm EST
- Fri, 13 Jan 17 | 11:00 am - 05:00 pm EST
- Sat, 14 Jan 17 | 11:00 am - 05:00 pm EST
- Sun, 15 Jan 17 | 11:00 am - 05:00 pm EST
- Mon, 16 Jan 17 | 11:00 am - 05:00 pm EST
- Tue, 17 Jan 17 | 11:00 am - 05:00 pm EST