Rare Book Monthly

Book Catalogue Reviews - December - 2008 Issue

History in Signed Documents from The Raab Collection

Washington letter on the cover of the latest Raab Collection catalogue.


By Michael Stillman

We just received Catalog 59 from The Raab Collection. It reads like a 200-year political history of America. Well, not entirely. Albert Einstein was not a politician; Napoleon not an American. However, most of the items offered come from major American political figures, most of whom served as president. They range from Washington to the first President Bush, and include the great, near-great, and failures. Many of these documents pertain to important events in American history, revealing the thinking of the nation's leaders on important subjects of the day. All items are signed, and most are filled with written (or typed) text. Here are a few samples of these often important and highly collectible documents.

Item 1 is an amazing letter from George Washington which reveals the mind of the military strategist at work. It was written at Valley Forge on March 31, 1778. His dispirited troops had endured a long, bitter winter after having been chased by the British from Philadelphia the previous fall. They were outnumbered, poorly equipped, and definitely on the defensive. The cause appeared lost. While Washington fully appreciated the situation, and was not above getting dispirited himself on occasion, he here looks at the desperate situation and strategizes how to go on the offensive. He has heard that the already strong British military is sending reinforcements from New York to wipe him out. In writing to Major General Alexander McDougall, stationed north of New York, Washington says, "General Howe intends an early campaign; to take advantage of our weak state. What is to be done? We must either oppose our whole force to his, in this Quarter, or take the advantage of him in some other, which leads me to ask your opinion of the practicability of an attempt upon New York..." Figuring that even gathering all his troops at Valley Forge would not be sufficient to withstand a reinforced British assault, Washington considers attacking New York instead once the British have moved some of their troops from that city to Philadelphia. It was a clever idea to hit the British where they had let down their defenses. Ultimately, the attack on New York did not take place, as it turned out the British had transferred far fewer troops out of New York than he had initially been led to believe. Priced at $185,000.

Item 14 provides some interesting insight to President Monroe's input at the time he signed the Missouri Compromise. This was a major piece of legislation as it staved off the split in the Union for three decades. Missouri wished to enter the Union as a slave state in 1820. However, this would upset the delicate balance between slave and free states. To balance Missouri, Maine was entered as a free state. However, to avoid problems in the future, a line along Missouri's boundary was extended west. Above this line, no new states could ever have slavery. Former President Thomas Jefferson opposed this compromise, fearing, not inaccurately, that it would divide America by region, setting off regional strife. This certainly did occur in the future, though it is hardly clear that it would not have happened anyway without the Missouri Compromise. Jefferson sent a letter to Maine Congressman Mark Hill explaining his opposition. Item 14 is a letter from Monroe to Hill acknowledging that he has read, and is now returning, Jefferson's letter to Hill. So we know that Monroe was familiar with Jefferson's opposition to the Compromise, but ultimately decided to support it anyway. The Missouri Compromise would be repealed three decades later in an attempt to keep the South in the Union, but the potential extension of slavery to territories where it previously was prohibited only increased anger in the North. $8,000.

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