Historical bonanza: Washington's letters from Revolution era


The day for celebrating George Washington's birthday may have changed, but there's no changing the importance of original letters signed and written by the first president. Joseph Rubinfine, an American historical autographs dealer in West Palm Beach, Fla., recently acquired a cache of 47 Revolutionary War-era letters from Washington to Gen. Alexander McDougall. Mr. Rubinfine's acquisition is considered one of the most significant by an American manuscript dealer in more than half a century.

Mr. Rubinfine won't say exactly what he paid -- only that it was a seven-figure price and that no comparable group of Washington letters has been on the market in recent memory. (He also won't won't identify the sellers, who are known to be elderly McDougall descendants.) Washington materials of this importance generally are in libraries and historical societies. It's extraordinary that such a group of letters to one correspondent stayed together and in private hands for over two centuries.

"Most often Washington's letters are divided among family members -- each one gets a few -- and when we hear of a group of that many letters, it's usually in the hands of a collector, not a descendant of the recipient," said Dorothy Twohig, an editor of the Washington Papers at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, which has received transcripts and facsimiles of these letters.

In the late 1950s, a great-great-great grandson of McDougall discovered the 47 Washington letters in a decaying suitcase in his mother's Long Island garage, along with family mementos and another group of important Revolutionary War documents that Mr. Rubinfine purchased. Believing they were worthless old copies, the descendant took the letters with him as he moved between homes in Miami and New England. In 1967 a professor at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., identified them as genuine, and they were lent to the college through 1976. Writing in Life magazine in 1968, historian Roger Butterfield called the discovery one of the greatest finds of this century.

The McDougall heir long ago told Mr. Butterfield that the Washington letters "would never be put on the open market," since he wanted them eventually to go to the "right institution or institutions." Circumstances obviously changed.

The auction record for a Washington letter is $137,500, paid last year at Christie's in New York for a June 1776 letter to Benjamin Franklin concerning British peace initiatives just a few weeks before the Colonies declared independence. Nevertheless, Mr. Rubinfine claims that he doesn't expect to make a lot of money on the Washington letters. One reason may be that he paid a high price to acquire the whole group so he wouldn't lose them to a public auction, where ordinarily a collection of this significance would be sold.

"It just is a privilege to handle correspondence that shows Washington's faithful execution of his duties, under disadvantage and hardship, in his diligent pursuit of America's independence," the soft-spoken, scholarly dealer said during a recent interview in Palm Beach.

Two historical autograph collectors already have purchased significant segments of the letters, according to Mr. Rubinfine, who will offer the remainder, slightly more than half, through his catalogs over the next decade. (The gradual dispersal probably is to provide time for research and to avoid flooding the market at once.) Prices start at $14,000. Mr. Rubinfine's February catalog features, at $27,500, a November 1778 letter from military headquarters in Fredericksburg, N.Y., in which Washington instructs McDougall to grant no furloughs to privates "until some general system [is] adopted for the purpose," but notes he has "not the smallest objection" to the general's visiting Mrs. McDougall.

The letters cover nearly every aspect of the Revolutionary War, from Washington's meeting with volunteers at Cambridge, Mass., in 1775 to his accepting congratulations for the victory at Yorktown in 1781. One describes the amazing success at the battle of Trenton, N.J., while 10 letters were written during the bitter winter of 1777-1778 from Valley Forge.

Priced at $150,000 is a group of four letters from late September 1777 directing McDougall to join Washington at Trappe, 24 miles from Philadelphia, where the commander in chief had retreated after losing the battle of Brandywine. They also describe strategy for the October 1777 battle of Germantown, Pa., at which McDougall's troops distinguished themselves. During most of the war, however, McDougall was detached from the main army, serving as commanding general in the strategic Hudson Highlands of New York, which is why Washington wrote to him so often, giving first-hand accounts of his hopes and fears and seeking McDougall's counsel.

Washington dictated most of his letters from the field; they were penned by military secretaries and aides. Some of the letters to McDougall are in the handwriting of Tench Tilghman; others were written by Robert H. Harrison; and one was dictated to the young Alexander Hamilton. Washington signed each one himself, and 23 also have Washington's postal franking signature on the outside of the folded letter. Four are entirely in Washington's own hand. Most also show docket entries by the meticulous McDougall, with a brief note about their content.

McDougall's cache of correspondence from Washington at one time included at least 160 letters. They survived intact until the 1862 death of the general's only unmarried granddaughter, who had stored the family manuscript collection in eight locked trunks in the Flushing, N.Y., hotel room where she lived, according to Mr. Butterfield's 1968 article. The pauper-like and irascible "Aunt Betsey," as she was called, once threatened to burn the family papers and portraits. After her death, her heirs squabbled over their historical inheritance and the papers were split among warring family factions; the papers that Mr. Rubinfine was to acquire went to the line of Wooton Wright

Hawkes, a professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., who died in 1887. Hawkes donated much of the McDougall family collection to the New-York Historical Society.

Alexander McDougall (1732- 1786) was an under-appreciated patriot, according to Mr. Rubinfine, who claims that the fiery-tempered Scotsman (who ultimately was court-martialled for unbecoming conduct) was to New York what Samuel Adams was to Boston -- except that McDougall never had a beer named after him; and when he was commemorated with a street bearing his name in Greenwich Village, it was misspelled, without the final "L."

In 1780, McDougall succeeded traitor Benedict Arnold as commander at West Point. Later, he was a New York state senator and a member of Congress.

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