By KIMBERLY COLE
—Autograph April 2010
“The Power Under The Constitution Will Always be With The People”
On November 9, 1787, George Washington wrote a letter to his nephew, Bushrod Washington, laying out a series of arguments in support of adoption of the newly framed Constitution of the United States. Two hundred twenty-two years later, the letter was auctioned at Christie’s New York on December 4, 2009, setting a record price for a Washington autograph: $3,200,000.
Not only did it set the bar for Washington, it brought one of the highest prices ever for an American autograph. Why? Because it has the best of the three most important things you look for in an autographed letter. Content, content, and content.
Read the story and letter and you’ll see why.
The Fight for the Constitution
Washington served as commander-in-chief of the American Revolutionary forces from 1775 to the end of the war in 1783. During those years, he struggled constantly to keep his army fed, clothed and armed under the first constitution of the United States, the Articles of Confederation. While the Articles called for Congress to regulate military and monetary affairs, they stopped short of forcing the states to comply with requests for troops or revenue. Washington’s army nearly starved to death several winters of the war.
After the war, Washington returned to his home, Mt. Vernon, which had declined greatly during his absence. Although he became president of the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization of former Revolutionary War officers, he avoided involvement in Virginia politics.
In 1787, Washington represented Virginia at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, where his presence lent prestige and he agreed to serve as presiding officer. His actual participation in the deliberations was very slight—he was not accustomed to parliamentary debate—and he is on record as having delivered only a single brief comment on the day the draft was finished. What mattered was that he was there.
After the Constitution was drafted in September 1787, he once again retired to Mt. Vernon. Washington did his best to remain aloof during the passionate nationwide debate over its ratification. It was a very acrimonious battle with many people, well organized, who bitterly opposed the idea of federalism. Among their ranks was the eminent Virginia orator, Patrick Henry, who ranted and railed against ratification.
Washington knew this was going to be a difficult campaign, and a great deal was riding on it. But it was his position as a civilian, which he was at this juncture, not to plunge into the fray and take partisan sides. It was this conflict—his deeply held belief in the importance of a strong federal government warring with his desire to remain above the debate—that led him, on that day in November of 1787, to pen a personal letter to Bushrod, a family member and a delegate to the Virginia State ratifying convention.
And What a Letter
Chris Coover, Vice President and Senior Specialist in books and manuscripts for Christie’s, New York, explains:
“The content of this particular letter is of extraordinary import. Washington makes a strong case for the ratification of the Constitution, outlining the fallacies of its opponents and giving Bushrod arguments that he can use to bolster support for the Constitution.”
Writing just two months after the Framers drafted the Constitution, Washington took on the opposition, whose arguments he found baseless, designed only “to rouse the apprehensions of the ignorant and the unthinking.” The question of the Constitution, he tells Bushrod, boils down to a simple proposition, “namely—is it best for the States to unite, or not to unite?”
Washington points out to his nephew, “that it does not lye with one State, nor with a minority of the States, to superstruct a Constitution for the whole. The separate interests, as far as it is practicable, must be consolidated—and local views as far as the general good will admit, must be attended to.”
Washington concedes that the Constitution was in some ways imperfect, but the ability to amend it was the key point to remember.
“The warmest friends to and the best supporters of the Constitution do not contend that it is free from imperfections; but these were not to be avoided, and they are convinced if evils are likely to flow from them, that the remedy must come thereafter; because, in the present moment it is not to be obtained. And as there is a Constitutional door open for it, I think the people (for it is with them to judge) can, as they will have the aid of experience on their side, decide with as much propriety on the alterations and amendments [which] shall be found necessary, as ourselves; for I do not conceive that we are more inspired—have more wisdom—or possess more virtue than those who will come after us. The power under the Constitution will always be with the people.”
The power rested with the people—but powers there must be:
“It is agreed on all hands that no government can be well administered without powers.”
Anti-constitution pamphleteers were branding the proposed new federal government as a tyrannical monster. Washington thought these arguments absurd and dishonest:
“Whilst many ostensible reasons are held out against the adoption of [the Constitution] the true ones are yet behind the Curtain; not being of a nature to appear in open day… No man is a warmer advocate for proper restraints, and wholesome checks in every department of government than I am; but neither my reasoning, nor my experience, has yet been able to discover the propriety of preventing men from doing good, because there is a possibility of their doing evil.”
Coover describes the physical letter: “Washington wrote on very good quality paper whenever he was able to. This letter was written from Mt. Vernon where he obviously had a good supply of high quality laid paper for his correspondence. The intriguing thing that doesn’t immediately show is a watermark, a sort of logo or symbol that is woven into the paper mold by the papermaker. It’s usually almost imperceptible, particularly in this case, as the letter is written on both sides of the paper.
“But the watermark in this letter is quite fascinating. It’s what we call a pro patria design, which means it was an English-made paper, and the watermark is an oval with a seated woman holding a lance, and then a countermark, which goes on the other half of the sheet. The countermark has the initials GR, Georgius Rex. So here is Washington, the man who spent seven years of his life fighting George III to achieve independence for his homeland using paper which carries the Royal Crown and a little tribute to George!
“The ink when it was originally applied to the paper is likely to have been very dark; almost black, if not black. Over time, the ink oxidizes slightly and you get a very rich, walnut brown ink and that’s the color that is evident in the letter we see now. Most of the inks of that period were made with oak gall, an organic compound. They would crush that powder and mix it with gum arabic and perhaps a little water until they got the consistency they wanted. Over time, it lightens to a beautiful rich coffee brown.”
Hidden Away for 200 Years
The four page letter is in remarkable condition, with only minor, expert repairs to the creases. Where has the letter been? Coover reveals its provenance:
“The letter, which Bushrod received in the post from George, ended up in a branch of the family in which one of the women married an Englishman. This, and a handful of other Washington documents, which Christie’s is handling, have been in England for generations. The family that owned it until our auction had taken very good care of it. They had minimal conservation performed at the British Library Conservation Centre. When I saw first saw it, it had just been removed from a safe deposit box.”
As compelling as the letter is, I wonder if the story of the letter is not more compelling. I ask Coover to help me understand how rare the appearance of the letter is. How many letters did Washington write?
“There’s no question that Washington was one of the most prolific, if not the most prolific president who wrote letters. He took his correspondence very seriously. If he received a letter from someone, sometimes even a stranger, he felt obligated to respond to it thoughtfully and generously. He spent a great deal of his time in correspondence, particularly during the latter part of his life when he was the foremost spokesman for the Revolutionary War generation.
“During the American Revolution, he had scribes who would write out his letters for him, which he would sign, and those are what we call letters signed. During the war, he had a really voluminous correspondence, as would any commander-in-chief fighting a far flung war. Fortunately, the scribes kept copies of all his outgoing correspondence in his letter books. There are many volumes in the Library of Congress, part of the Washington Papers. The original letters we tend to see and handle are the recipients’ copies of these letters, and in some instances, they differ slightly or significantly from the text that was recorded in the letter books.
“After Washington was president, of course, he was under a little less pressure to keep copies, but he still had a personal secretary, who would write out copies. The Bushrod letter, in fact, very closely agrees with the text copied in the letter books at the time the letter was written, but the recipient’s copy had been unseen and unstudied since 1787.”
How many letters are still in private hands? “That’s very hard to estimate,” Coover says, “because many of them are held very tightly. They haven’t been shown to the people at the Washington Papers. They may just be sitting in an envelope in someone’s file drawer. But at Christie’s, I would say we handle between five and ten Washington letters a year. On rare occasions when a large archive has come our way, we’ve offered as many as 12 to 15 letters in a single auction.”
How often might a document with content like the Bushrod letter come up for sale?
“One like this doesn’t come around more than once every quarter century.”
The day Christie’s posted the description of the Bushrod letter on their Web site, they had 10,000 hits. “That’s a good response,” Coover quips.
He describes the auction. “The auctioneer opened the bidding at $950,000. There was competition in the room and on the telephones, all the way up to $1.5 million or thereabouts. Then it became a two-telephone duel. Two very determined buyers, both on the telephone, bid against each other, slugging it out up to $2.8 million. At that point, the auctioneer took ample time to let the bidders ponder whether they wanted to bid the next increment. Then auctioneer Francis Wahlgren banged his hammer a few minutes after 5 p.m. and the room broke into applause. It was quite dramatic.”
With buyer’s premium, the Bushrod letter sets a record for Washington documents at $3.2 million. The single most valuable Washington item previously sold was a document Christie’s auctioned for the family of Malcolm S. Forbes: An 11 page autograph account by Washington of his service during the French and Indian War sold for $835,000 in October of 2002.
I ask Coover if this remarkable increase, roughly quadruple in seven years, is representative of prices for fine historical documents in general. He smiles, “I think it’s a unique price for a uniquely important letter.”
With the sale of this letter, Washington’s thoughts on the importance of the Constitution are brought to the forefront of American thought. The struggle to find a balance between federal authority and states’ rights is being fought in Washington to this day. Passions run deep, just as they did in the months following the Constitutional Convention, and the eventual ratification of the Constitution of the United States in July 1788.
While the buyer of the letter remains anonymous, it is hoped that George’s letter to Bushrod will be on display in coming months, so that we can experience in person Washington’s legible hand, detailing for his nephew the importance of the Constitution of the United States of America.
Bushrod Washington went on to become a Justice of the United States Supreme Court in 1799, where he served until his death in 1829. Reading the letter, one can’t help but think that Washington’s words were his inspiration.
Now his letter can inspire the leaders of tomorrow.