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