George Washington-associated items have attained record prices at recent auctions. The president’s copy of a book containing a few of his annotations to the U.S. Constitution fetched nearly $10 million at Christies on June 22, 2012. Earlier this month, a letter written by Washington to James McHenry achieved $362,500 at Doyle New York against a reasonable $80,000 to $100,000 estimate. What differentiates this letter from typical Washington autograph letters signed, many of which can be found on the market in the $25,000 to $45,000 range? Certainly, the timing of a letter is important, as is its recipient. But the most important feature imparting value to a letter, especially a George Washington letter, is, in a word, content.
The Doyle letter records the moment when Washington told his trusted friend and aide-de-camp McHenry of his plan to retire from the Continental Army. Washington considered his task complete; independence had been achieved, the Peace of Paris was signed, and the British had finally evacuated from New York City. Washington wanted to retire and return to his beloved Mount Vernon as a private citizen. Less than a month later, he would tender his resignation to the Continental Congress, quelling conspiracies to install him as dictator and earning his reputation as an American Cincinnatus. His relaxation as a country gentleman would be short lived; he returned to public service four years later to join the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia and, as they say, the rest is history.
We have several superior-content George Washington letters including his call for “material change” in the organization of the Continental Army to win what he calls “the prize in view”— independence—as well as more reasonably-priced offerings such as letters where Washington discusses investing in the new city that would ultimately bear his name or a planning an attack on New York City.
We also have letter from Washington to McHenry written ten months after the British surrendered. The Commander in Chief hints at his desire to give up the “occupation of a G—-” [General] and admonishes his friend for failing to respond to an earlier letter. Chiding McHenry “do not…tease your Mistress in this manner,” Washington provides a jocular glimpse behind his typically-stoic façade. This letter will be on display, along with a manuscript draft of the Articles of Confederation and the Treaty of Paris Proclamation, at the Annapolis Continental Congress Festival, November 26-28, 2012. For more information, see www.annapolisccs.org/festival.