100 American Historical Documents from the William Reese Co.
By Michael Stillman
The William Reese Company has issued its 270th catalogue, this one entitled One Hundred American Historical Manuscripts. We always appreciate titles that succinctly describe what the catalogue contains. It makes our job easier. We will just add that these manuscripts range from those of major historical importance to those from obscure people who witnessed interesting events and changes in early American life. Here are a few of the one hundred Reese is offering.
We will start with what we consider the most significant piece in this very interesting collection. Item 52 is a letter from Thomas Jefferson, dated June 8, 1792, while he was serving as Secretary of State, to a good friend in France, Jean Antoine Gautier. It touches on important issues in both America and France. In America, we were just starting to see the split, notably between Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, which led to the two-party system that has ruled the nation to this day. Meanwhile in France, the revolution that promised to bring that nation a democratic and constitutional government similar to America, was just starting to spin out of control, and into the bloodthirsty chaos that would erupt shortly. In a stinging comment aimed at Hamilton and those who shared his federalist sympathies, Jefferson writes, "there are heads among us itching for crowns, coronets, and mitres. But I hope we shall sooner cut them off than gratify their itching." This cutting off of heads comment must have sounded harsh to Gautier for, as Reese notes, the French government had introduced the guillotine a few months earlier as the official means of execution. That device would see a lot of use in the days ahead as the revolution spun into the infamous Reign of Terror (the French King would have his head cut off less than eight months after the writing of this letter). However, it must be noted that Jefferson had no idea at the time how bad things would become in France. He was still hopeful France would adopt a constitution similar to that of America. "[O]ur constitution is a wise one, and I hope we shall be able to adhere to it," writes Jefferson. He then proffers the advice, "If your first assay is unsuccessful as ours was, make a second as we did. When you have got what is good, hold it fast as we do." Priced at $145,000.
Speaking of Alexander Hamilton, he was America's first Secretary of the Treasury, assigned the task of managing the enormous financial problems of a nation heavily in debt from the Revolution. However, in 1782, he was still a private citizen, recently resigned from the military with the Revolution effectively over, in need of money. On February 17, he sent this letter to Jeremiah Wadsworth, who had also served in the Revolution and would go on to be a major banker. Writes the cash-strapped Hamilton, "Having met with some disappointment in a sum I expected to receive, I should be much obliged of you for the loan of an hundred pounds..." Item 40. $5,000.
Item 20 is a manuscript deed/sale of 216 square miles of land in upstate New York, northwest of Albany, along the Mohawk River. The date was December 28, 1738, and the seller was the Mohawk Indians, the buyer King George II. It is signed by six Mohawk chiefs, who "...have bargained, sold released, and for ever quit claim unto our said most gracious sovereign Lord King George the Second..." One imagines the King's representatives helped the Indians with the wording. The price for the land was 180 pounds. That's about one-quarter of a cent per acre. $37,500.