Couple finds Thomas Jefferson letter at Old Town Alexandria's American Legion
Army veteran Tom Hewitt hovered over the stained and brittle page, itching to get closer but afraid to touch. Crowded into the upstairs office at American Legion Post 24 in Old Town Alexandria, he couldn't believe what his wife was saying.
Not an hour before, Hewitt, 39, and his friends were drinking beer and talking about updating the walls with historic photos. His wife, Candice Bennett, dropped by, and the couple went upstairs to poke through the drawers and file cabinets in the messy third-floor office to look for some photos.
In a drawer, Bennett, 34, spotted a paper that looked very old and unusual. She pulled out her iPhone and tapped away, frantically searching for names. Then she turned to her husband.
"Tom, I think this is a Thomas Jefferson letter," she said.
"You're kidding me," he said.
It's a fairly rare occurrence when someone stumbles across a valuable historical artifact, like a letter from Thomas Jefferson. Coincidentally, the same week in early December that the Virginia couple ventured upstairs at the local American Legion, the University of Delaware announced that two graduate students had discovered a Jefferson letter in papers the university received from a local museum. The Virginia couple made their find public this month.
What makes the Old Town discovery special, one historian says, is that the note sheds light on Jefferson's private life during his chaotic last year as the nation's third president.
"It's a nice, personal interlude in a life that is very difficult for him," said Barbara Oberg, a historian and professor at Princeton University who serves as the general editor of a massive project compiling every one of Jefferson's papers into more than 50 volumes. "The personal notes are rarer than the presidential notes."
A weather report
The commander of Post 24, Michael Conner, wrote in a January newsletter that negotiations are underway with the city of Alexandria to help preserve and display the letter. Conner said in a phone interview that he did not want to comment until he met with city officials. The city's Office of Historic Alexandria also declined to comment.
But Bennett and Hewitt took photographs, which they posted on Facebook, and the newsletter is available on Post 24's Web site. The couple consulted two independent experts, including Allan J. Stypeck Jr. of Second Story Books in Rockville, who has worked with the Smithsonian and the PBS series "Antiques Roadshow." Bennett said she and her husband paid him for a formal appraisal.
The letter is dated July 25, 1808, and addressed to Jefferson's friend, the poet and diplomat Joel Barlow. Barlow dubbed his Northwest Washington estate Kalorama, Greek for "beautiful view," according to the D.C. Office of Historic Preservation. The estate was later split up but the name stuck.
In his letter, Jefferson opens with mention of the weather. He gives Barlow directions to Monticello, including places he'll find once he crosses the Georgetown Ferry.
Historians know this, without having seen the letter that was sent, because Jefferson made copies of many of his papers. Oberg checked Jefferson's copy of the July 1808 letter in New Jersey, and confirmed that there was no record of anyone having found the actual sent letter before now.
The letter also appears in a volume about Barlow, "The Life and Letters of Joel Barlow," compiled by Charles Burr Todd and digitized and published online by Google.
In his travel tips, Jefferson marks the good and bad establishments, and notes distances -- six miles to the "Fairfax Court House," the first stop, and then seven miles from Walton's Tavern, the last stop, to Monticello.
"In the hope that nothing may intervene to deprive us of the pleasure of possessing Mrs Barlow and yourself here after presenting her my respects I salute you with friendship and great consideration TH JEFFERSON"
As for the letter Bennett found, a huge stain covers the paper. The date and reference to the weather are clearly visible, but the travel notes are faded. The page is split down the middle, where it was clearly folded.
Bennett, who owns a private consulting business, and her husband, who works for the Pentagon, live in Lorton. She rarely stops into Post 24. That Friday she was nearby visiting a friend and decided to swing by.
After finding the letter, the couple called the National Archives and the Library of Congress, which eventually led them to Stypeck, and to Gary Eyler, who owns the Old Colony Shop in Alexandria and is an expert in early American manuscripts.
The next Tuesday, Bennett rushed into his shop.
"I'm not going to tell you what it is," she said. "I want you to tell me."
"I saw the handwriting, and I knew," Eyler said. "It's one of the ultimate finds you can find, a letter from Thomas Jefferson that could have been tossed away."
Speaking generally, Eyler said a letter in Jefferson's own hand is worth more than a simple autograph. A letter detailing grand philosophies of state might fetch $100,000 or more. A brief, damaged correspondence would likely bring less than $10,000.
At Monticello, Jeff Looney is the editor of "The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: The Retirement Series," in conjunction with the project Oberg is directing. He hasn't seen the letter from the American Legion, but said that the inks and paper used back then would be hard to fake.
"You can't just take a letter like that from the Library of Congress and trace it," he said. "An expert can see that in an instant."
No one knows exactly how the letter ended up at the American Legion post.
Hewitt's best guess is that someone connected to the post years ago had no heirs, and so gave or deeded papers to the organization. It had happened before, most notably with a soldier's World War I diary.
Hewitt served 14 years in the Army, including tours in Bosnia and Iraq. For him, the fact that he could actually touch a page that once graced the hands of a president, a page that could easily have wound up in the trash, was enough.
"We have the actual letter that Thomas Jefferson put his hand on, wrote and folded," Hewitt said. "I've never held one of these in my hand before, and I'll never hold one again."
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