Mass. recovers Hamilton letter from 1780

Lafayette correspondence disappeared from state archives by 1950s

ON JULY 21, 1780, Alexander Hamilton wrote a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette warning of imminent danger to French troops in Rhode Island. 

“We have just received advice from New York through different channels that the enemy are making an embarkation with which they menace the French fleet and army,” Hamilton wrote in a letter written in neat script and signed A. Hamilton, Aide De Camp. The “enemy” he was referring to were the British troops who Hamilton said were proceeding toward Rhode Island with “fifty transports.” 

“Though this may be only a demonstration, yet, as it may be serious, I think it best to forward it without waiting the General’s return,” wrote Hamilton, a top aide to Gen. George Washington. 

Washington would go on to become the nation’s first president and he appointed Hamilton as his secretary of the treasury. Hamilton, who has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity due to Ron Chernow’s biography and Lin Manuel-Miranda’s hit Broadway play, was also a principal author of the Federalist Papers. 

Last Wednesday, a US Appeals Court judge ordered Hamilton’s letter returned to its rightful owners – the people of Massachusetts – decades after it went missing from the state archives. Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin said the letter will be displayed in the Commonwealth Museum for special events. 

When he wrote a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette on July 21, 1780, warning of imminent danger to French troops in Rhode Island, Hamilton scarcely could have imagined that it would some day become the focal point of a civil forfeiture action. But truth often outpaces imaginings,” Judge Bruce Selya wrote in his decision returning the letter to the state. 

A letter written by Alexander Hamilton to the Marquis de Lafayette in 1780. (Courtesy of Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin)

Lafayette – later to become a key figure in the French Revolution – was a senior French military officer at the time who held a high-up position in the Continental Army. According to the facts laid out in the court ruling, when Lafayette received the letter, he met with Massachusetts Gen. William Heath. Heath forwarded the letter to the president of the Massachusetts Council – the governing body of Massachusetts during the Revolutionary War period – with a request for troops to be sent to support the French allies. The council sent the requested troops. 

At some point before the mid-19th century, the letter was transferred to the Massachusetts Archives along with other council records. But by the 1950s, it had disappeared. It eventually landed in the hands of Stewart Crane, who inherited it from his grandfather, R.E. Crane. 

It is unclear what happened to the letter. State officials believe it was stolen by a cataloguer working in the archives who stole a number of historic documents and sold some off to disreputable dealers. The Cranes, who allege that the archives let the letter go through negligence, say R.E. Crane purchased it in good faith from a reputable documents dealer. 

The letter was discovered in 2018, when Stewart Crane included the letter in a consignment going up for sale at an auction house. The auctioneer discovered the letter was listed as missing from the Massachusetts archives and contacted the FBI. 

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Shira Schoenberg

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About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

The US government seized the letter and went to court to try to return it to the state of Massachusetts.  

Selya, in his ruling, concluded the letter is a historic public record, and the state never gave up ownership of it. He affirmed a District Court ruling granting ownership to Massachusetts. “As an original paper belonging to the Commonwealth and dated in 1780, the Letter is owned by the Commonwealth,” Selya wrote. 

“I am very pleased that this Revolutionary War letter has finally been returned to its rightful owners,” Galvin said in a statement. Attorney General Maura Healey, whose office pursued the letter in court, issued a statement hailing the ruling as “a resounding victory.”