Hamil-Swag: $2.6M Sotheby’s Auction of Hamilton Documents

On January 18, 2017, Sotheby’s held an auction titled: Alexander Hamilton: An Important Family Archive of Letters and Manuscripts.  This auction included it

Sotheby’s description of the auction items stated:

The material in the auction includes highly personal documents, such as love letters exchanged between Hamilton and his wife Eliza, as well as the condolence letter, sealed with black wax, his father-in-law, Phillip Skyler, sent to his daughter after Hamilton was killed in the duel with Burr (estimate $15/20,000). However, his public career is also well represented with notes he wrote for one of Washington’s annual addresses to congress (estimate $15/25,000) as well as legal papers from his private practice, among many others documents. Perhaps the most poignant relic in the sale is a lock of Hamilton’s hair with a letter of presentation from his wife Eliza (estimate $15/25,000).

Image from Sotheby’s

The New York Times coverage of the auction noted that Hamilton artifacts are now valued more than Washington artifacts:

“Hamilton has exceeded the value of George Washington with this auction,” John Reznikoff, a dealer from Stamford, Conn., said after the hammer dropped on the last of 77 lots of letters and documents, which had been held by Hamilton descendants for more than 200 years. “If you compare letters with comparable content, Hamilton’s now cost more.”

Hamil-Burrn: Samuel Chase, the Publius Letters, and Hamilton’s Critique of Public Corruption

At age 21, a young and fiery Alexander Hamilton directed some serious vitriol towards Samuel Chase, a Maryland Congressman.  As a Congressman, Chase had known of Congress’ secret plan for securing flour to supply the French fleet. He then passed on this information to profit-minded associates, who hatched a plan to corner the supply of flour and raise its price.  In a series of three Publius letters in October and November 1778, Hamilton blasted Chase for seeking to profit from the Revolution, and using his position as a Member of Congress to damage the country and the Revolutionary movement.

The first Publius letter, published on October 16, 1778 accused Chase of violating his sacred responsibilities of office:

But when a man, appointed to be the guardian of the State, and the depositary of the happiness and morals of the people—forgetful of the solemn relation, in which he stands—descends to the dishonest artifices of a mercantile projector, and sacrifices his conscience and his trust to pecuniary motives; there is no strain of abhorrence, of which the human mind is capable, nor punishment, the vengeance of the people can inflict, which may not be applied to him, with justice. If it should have happened that a Member of C———ss has been this degenerate character, and has been known to turn the knowledge of secrets, to which his office gave him access, to the purposes of private profit, by employing emissaries to engross an article of immediate necessity to the public service; he ought to feel the utmost rigor of public resentment, and be detested as a traitor of the worst and most dangerous kind.

Hamilton’s deep abhorrence of corruption and the use of political power for personal gain is apparent in his criticism of Chase.  Particularly during a time of war, Hamilton felt that Chase’s use of information he had gained through his position of political trust for profit made him a “traitor of the worst and most dangerous kind.”

Hamilton’s second letter, published on October 26, 1778, criticized Chase as a man of mediocre (at best) talents, who had forced himself into public view as a result of the scandal and thus “acquired an indisputed title to be immortalised in infamy.”  Hamilton packed no punches in his letter, and his contempt of Chase shines unmistakably through:

The honor of being the hero of a public panegeric, is what you could hardly have aspired to, either from your talents, or from your good qualities. The partiality of your friends has never given you credit for more than mediocrity in the former; and experience has proved, that you are indebted for all your consequence, to the reverse of the latter. Had you not struck out a new line of prostitution for yourself, you might still have remained unnoticed, and contemptible—your name scarcely known beyond the little circle of your electors and clients, and recorded only in the journals of C–––––ss. But you have now forced yourself into view, in a light too singular and conspicuous to be over-looked, and have acquired an indisputed title to be immortalised in infamy.

In his third and final Publius letter on the subject of Chase’s corruption, dated November 16, 1778, Hamilton painted a picture of Chase as someone driven by greed alone, who had achieved success but who had gone too far to return to a position of public trust

The love of money and the love of power are the predominating ingredients of your mind—cunning the characteristic of your understanding. This, has hitherto carried you successfully through life, and has alone raised you to the exterior consideration, you enjoy. The natural consequence of success, is temerity. It has now proceeded one step too far, and precipitated you into measures, from the consequences of which, you will not easily extricate yourself; your avarice will be fatal to your ambition. I have too good an opinion of the sense and spirit, to say nothing of the virtue of your countrymen, to believe they will permit you any longer to abuse their confidence, or trample upon their honour.

Hamilton urged Chase to resign from office in light of the scandal, and to stop the facade of patriotism.

It is a mark of compassion, to which you are not intitled, to advise you by a timely and voluntary retreat, to avoid the ignominy of a formal dismission. Your career has held out as long as you could have hoped. It is time you should cease to personate the fictitious character you have assumed, and appear what you really are—lay aside the mask of patriotism, and assert your station among the honorable tribe of speculators and projectors. Cultivate a closer alliance with your D—s—y and your W—t, the accomplices and instruments of your guilt, and console yourself for the advantage you have lost, by indulging your genius, without restraint, in all the forms and varieties of fashionable peculation.

Hamilton’s accusations effectively ended Chase’s career in the Continental Congress, and led him to near bankruptcy.  Chase went home to Maryland, but returned to the national stage in the 1780s as a strong critic of the new Constitution.  Chase would eventually switch his political beliefs and became aligned with the Federalist Party.

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase (image from Wikipedia)

Interestingly, after his fall from the Continental Congress in disgrace, Chase was appointed by President Washington to be a Supreme Court justice in 1796.  Chase later came into President Jefferson’s cross-hairs after openly criticizing the Democratic-Republicans for the repeal of the Judiciary Act of 1801.  Chase was served with eight articles of impeachment, and Vice President Aaron Burr presided over his impeachment trial.  Chase was ultimately not impeached by a large margin, and served on the Supreme Court until his death.  Chase’s victory in avoiding impeachment helped maintain judicial independence from the executive and legislative branches.   To read more about the trial, I recommend a 1967 article from the Maryland Law Review: “The Trials of Mr. Justice Samuel Chase.”  It’s a fascinating read, and is available for free online via Digital Commons.

Hamil-Burrns: A Twisted Tale

I’ve written before about how John Adams maintained a lifelong hatred of Hamilton, even after Hamilton’s death.  Hamilton also distrusted Adams and had an integral role in ensuring his loss in the Election of 1800 by drafting a letter “Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. President of the United States.”  A few months before Hamilton’s letter was released, he criticized Adams and his administration in a private July 1, 1800 letter to Maryland politician Charles Carroll.  Hamilton said of Adams:

“That this gentleman ought not to be the object of the federal wish, is, with me, reduced to demonstration. His administration has already very materially disgraced and sunk the government. There are defects in his character which must inevitably continue to do this more and more. And if he is supported by the federal party, his party must in the issue fall with him. Every other calculation will, in my judgment, prove illusory.

Doctor Franklin, a sagacious observer of human nature, drew this portrait of Mr. Adams:—“He is always honest, sometimes great, but often mad.” I subscribe to the justness of this picture, adding as to the first trait of it this qualification—“as far as a man excessively vain and jealous, and ignobly attached to place can be.”

Hamilton’s reference was to a July 1783 letter from Ben Franklin that has an interesting and twisted history of its own.

On July 22, 1783, Franklin wrote to Robert Livingston complaining of Adams’ persistent and public hostility to the French and warning that his attitude could have grave political consequences:

“I ought not however to conceal from You, that one of my Collegues is of a very different Opinion from me in these Matters. He thinks the french Minister one of the greatest Enemies of our Country; that he would have straitned our Boundaries to prevent the Growth of our people; contracted our Fishery to obstruct the Increase of our Seamen; and retained the Royalists amongst Us to keep us divided—that he privately opposes all our Negotiations with foreign Courts, and afforded us during the War the Assistance We received, only to keep it alive that We might be so much the more weakened by it. That to think of Gratitude to France, is the greatest of Follies, and that to be influenced by it, would ruin us. He makes no Secret of his having these opinions, expresses them publickly, sometimes in presence of the english Minister, and speaks of hundreds of Instances which he could produce in proof of them. None however have yet appeard to me, unless the Conversation and Letter above mentioned are reckoned such. If I were not convinced of the real Inability of the Court to furnish the farther Supplies We asked, I should suspect these Discourses of a person in his station, might have influenced the Refusal; but I think they have gone no farther than to occasion a Suspicion that We have a considerable party of Antigalicans in America, who are not Tories, and consequently to produce some Doubts of the Continuance of our Friendship. As such Doubts may hereafter have a bad Effect, I think We cannot take too much Care to remove them: and it is therefore I write this to put you on your Guard (beleiving it to be my Duty, tho I know that I hazzard by it a mortal Enmity) and to caution You respecting the Insinuations of this Gentleman against the Court, and the Instances he supposes of their Ill Will to us, which I take to be as imaginary as I know his Fancies to be that the Count de V[ergennes] and myself are continually plotting against him, and employing the News writers of Europe to depreciate his Character &c., but as Shakespear says “Trifles light as Air” &c.  Persuaded however that he means well for his Country, is always an honest Man, often a Wise one, but sometimes and in somethings absolutely out of his Senses.”

Robert Livingston then sneakily provided Franklin’s confidential letter to Abigail Adams via Elbridge Gerry in order to keep her informed about what Franklin was saying about her husband.  (This proves that you don’t need email or social media to get in trouble  about indiscreet past correspondence).  In his letter to Mrs. Adams, Gerry wrote:

Inclosed is an Extract of an official Letter from Doctor F—to Mr. Livingston Secretary of foreign affairs dated July 22d., which is calculated to give a private Stab to the Reputation of our Friend; at least it appears so to me. By the Doctors Observation that by writing the Letter “he hazzarded a mortal Enmity,” I think it evident, he did not intend the Letter should be seen by Mr. Adams’s particular Friends, but that Mr. Livingston should make a prudent Use of it to multiply Mr. Adams’ Enemies. Mr. L. could easily do this, by not communicating to Congress the paragraph: but being now out of Office,the Doctor’s Craft is apparent. You will please to keep the Matter a profound Secret, excepting to Mr. Adams, General Warren and Lady; and let the Channel of Communication be likewise a secret.

Of course, Abigail then sent the letter to John Adams in December of 1783, adding a scathing criticism that Franklin was one of many fools accidentally placed in a position of stature in public opinion of which he was unworthy:

“A Friend of yours in Congress some months ago, sent me an extract of a Letter, requesting me to conceal his Name, as he would not chuse to have it known by what means he procured the Coppy. From all your Letters I discoverd that the treatment you had received, and the suspence You was in, was sufficiently irritating without any thing further to add to Your vexation. I therefore surpresst the extract; as I knew the author was fully known to you: but seeing a letter from G[e]n. W[arre]n to you, in which this extract is alluded to; and finding by your late Letters, that your situation is less embarrassing, I inclose it; least you should think it much worse than it really is: at the same time I cannot help adding an observation which appears pertinant to me; that there is an ingredient necessary in a Mans composition towards happiness, which people of feeling would do well to acquire—a certain respect for the follies of Mankind. For there are so many fools whom the opinion of the world entittles to regard; whom accident has placed in heights of which they are unworthy, that he who cannot restrain, his contempt or indignation at the sight, will be too, often Quarrelling with the disposal of things to realish that Share, which is allotted to himself.” And here my paper obliges me to close the subject—without room to say adieu.”