Tag Archives: James Madison


An unparalleled offering of presidential commissions—from Thomas Jefferson to
Abraham Lincoln—covering the most significant career advances of Joseph G. Totten,
Chief Engineer of the U.S. Army, 
who fought with distinction in three wars.

This set of commissions, from an officer who served so long and contributed so much to American military preparedness in the run-up to the Civil War, is indeed a rare find.

Only Hyman Rickover, the “Father of the Nuclear Navy” served longer than Totten, at 63 years. General Winfield “Old Fuss and Feathers” Scott served 53 years, and generals such as Omar Bradley and Douglas MacArthur all served fewer than 50 years each.

Document Signed. Commission as 2nd Lieutenant of Engineers,
June 11, 1808. On vellum. 14¾ x 18 in.

Document Signed. Commission as 1st Lieutenant of Engineers,
March 9, 1811. On vellum. 15½ x 18 in.

Document Signed. Commission as Colonel of Engineers,
April 1, 1839. On vellum. 14 x 17¾ in.

Document Signed. Commission as Brevet Brigadier General,
August 23, 1848. On vellum. 14½ x 17 in.

Document Signed. Commission as Brigadier General of Engineers,
April 13, 1863. On vellum. 14¾ x 19½ in.

All in matching archival display frames. #23097.01-.05 The set: $48,000

Totten’s Career (with our commissions in bold)

In 1805, Joseph Gilbert Totten (1788-1864) of New Haven, Connecticut, graduated from West Point and was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers. He resigned in 1806 to serve as secretary to the Surveyor General of the Northwest Territory. In 1808, Thomas Jefferson reappointed him to his former rank, which began his nearly 56 years of military service (55 years and 10 months, in addition to the 2 years he had already served).

Totten’s career in the Corps of Engineers spanned the development of the United States’ coastal defense program. He helped construct New York’s harbor defenses and supervised the construction of Fort Clinton in Castle Garden (now Battery Park), 1808-1812. James Madison promoted Totten to 1st lieutenant in 1811 just before the War of 1812.

Madison again promoted Totten, this time to captain, where he was supervising engineer for the fortification of Lake Champlain, the St. Lawrence River, and other coastal defenses. He served in operations on Lake Champlain, the Niagara and St. Lawrence Rivers, and the Great Lakes. He helped capture Fort George in Upper Canada (Ontario), repel the British Fleet on Lake Ontario, took part in the Battle of Plattsburg, and blew up the abandoned Fort Erie, also in Upper Canada. Still under Madison’s presidency, Totten was breveted major in 1813, and lieutenant colonel in 1814, for meritorious service and gallantry, respectively.Lincoln detailPGPresident James Monroe promoted Totten to major in 1818, and breveted Totten colonel in 1824. John Quincy Adams promoted Totten to lieutenant colonel in 1828. Between 1825 and 1838, Totten supervised the construction of Fort Adams in Newport, Rhode Island, (now the site of the world-famous Newport Jazz Festival).

In 1838, Martin Van Buren gave Totten one of his most important commissions to full colonel and Chief Engineer of the Army. Totten continued to build shore defenses and harbor works as well as with the drydocks at the Pensacola Navy Yard. Totten then served under General Winfield Scott at the Siege of Vera Cruz (1847) during the Mexican-American War. President Polk marked Totten’s advancement to a generalship when he awarded him the rank of brevet brigadier general for “gallant and meritorious conduct” in the battle.

Minot's Ledge Light

Minot’s Ledge Light

In 1851, he joined the lighthouse board and began reforming notoriously dangerous designs. His most notable design achievement was rebuilding Boston Harbor’s Minot’s Ledge Light, considered the “most wave-swept structure in North America,” after the first lighthouse was destroyed in spectacular fashion with the loss of both lighthouse keepers. Totten designed a granite-constructed tower, with its first forty feet serving as a massive anchor block attached to the ledge with iron pins and its own enormous weight. It took five years to construct (1855-1860) and stands to this day.

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln made the breveted rank permanent by promoting Totten to full brigadier general in 1863. As chief engineer of the army, Totten helped plan the defense of Washington, D.C., including construction of Fort Totten, now a D.C. neighborhood. Totten was breveted a major general for “long, faithful, and eminent services” on April 21, 1864, one day before he died.

Fort Totten-LoC-03723v-550px

100 lb. Parrott gun at Fort Totten in Washington, D.C., August 1865

In addition to his military achievements, Totten was a regent of the Smithsonian Institution, a Corporator of the National Academy of Sciences, and the Harbor Commissioner of both Boston and New York. Three forts bore his name: Fort Totten in Queens, New York, Washington, D.C., and North Dakota.

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Posted by on April 19, 2013 in General


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One of the last drafts of the Bill of Rights, published on this day in 1789

This very rare printing of twelve proposed amendments to the Constitution, approved by the Senate on September 9, 1789, but not yet reconciled with the House, was published in the New-York Daily Gazette on September 18, 1789.

Article 3, guaranteeing freedom of religion, underwent the most substantial changes between this and the final version ten days later. This draft reads:

Art. 3d. Congress shall make no law establishing articles of faith, or a mode of worship, or prohibiting the free exercise of religion, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition to the government for a redress of grievances.

Read this draft, published 223 years ago today . . .

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Posted by on September 18, 2012 in General


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The first draft of the Bill of Rights, published today in 1789

This rare newspaper has a full printing of seventeen amendments to the Constitution approved by the House of Representatives on August 24.

On May 4, 1789, two months into the first session of the First Congress, James Madison announced that he intended to propose amendments to guarantee basic civil rights. The absence of such language almost sunk the Constitution’s ratification. In the end, New York, Virginia, and several other states agreed to ratify only with the understanding that a Bill of Rights would be added by the First Congress.

This issue includes the full text of the August 24 House resolution, which was then sent to the Senate for approval. The Senate began deliberating the next day, approving some articles and rejecting or altering others. Ultimately, ten of these amendments would be ratified by the states as the Bill of Rights.

Read this remarkable draft, published 223 years ago today . . .

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Posted by on September 4, 2012 in General


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