|By Elizabeth Johnson
NEW YORK, N.Y. — When Keno Auctions held a single-object sale on Jan. 26, it sent shivers of excitement down the collective spine of those who study the formative years of the fledgling United States of America.
Up for bids was one of the most historically significant documents to cross the auction block in recent times. The only known handwritten draft of the last appeal for peace by the Continental Congress to the people of Great Britain, the 12-page document sold for $912,500 (with premium) against an estimate of $100,000 to $400,000.
Written front-and-back on six pages, the draft was found in the summer of 2013, comingled with an assortment of colonial-era doctor’s bills stored in a desk in the attic of the Morris-Jumel Mansion in New York City.
The mansion itself is steeped in history, so it is fitting the structure played an integral part in this story. Built in 1765 in the Palladian style, it is the oldest surviving house in Manhattan. Originally the home of retired British Col. Roger Morris and his wealthy American wife, Mary Philipse Morris, the building became Gen. George Washington’s headquarters in the fall of 1776 when the couple, Tory sympathizers, returned to England shortly after the start of the American Revolution.
Following Washington’s withdrawal north after the Battle of Harlem Heights, the structure was appropriated by British and Hessian troops. Subsequent to the departure of the British at the close of the Revolution, it passed through a series of owners and served as an inn until 1810 when a wealthy French wine merchant, Stephen Jumel, and his wife, Eliza, purchased the building and restored it to its original purpose as a country house.
After Stephen’s death in 1832, Eliza married the controversial former U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr, but the union was short-lived, lasting just two years. She retained ownership of the mansion until her death in 1865. The city of New York purchased the property in 1903, with the goal of preserving it as a monument to the nation’s past. The structure first opened as a museum in 1904 and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1961.
How the patriots’ plea for peace came to be filed away in the mansion’s attic is not known, but it most likely arrived with an assortment of papers donated between 1903 and 1913. Emilie Gruchow, an archivist with the museum, discovered the historic document in the summer of 2013 when she noticed several pages of text just didn’t seem to belong with the assemblage of doctor’s bills she was cataloging.
Recognizing a line referring to the ties that bound Americans and Britons together and knowing the words were composed during a pivotal time in the nation’s history, Gruchow realized she might have uncovered something of historical significance. Indeed, she had. The emotional appeal by colonists was a last-ditch attempt at reconciliation, meant to be circulated among British citizens at the same time the Olive Branch Petition was presented to King George III.
“It never ceases to amaze me what is found,” Leigh Keno, president of Keno Auctions, told AntiqueWeek. “But this has to rank as one of the greats.” Described as being in very good condition, the lightly toned document had some splits to the folds. “Considering its age and the fact that the manuscript was misfiled for decades, it’s amazing that the pages were all there, all the sections,” he added. “Who would think one could acquire this, something of this magnitude? Of all the things I’ve handled, this has to be one of the most exciting.”
Once specialists determined the manuscript was authentic and not merely an early copy, the race was on to ascertain authorship. The document provided some interesting clues. Side-by-side comparisons with other handwritten texts revealed that New York jurist Robert Livingston penned the work.
Prior to Gruchow’s discovery, the only known existing versions of Letter from the Twelve United States Colonies, by Their Delegates in Congress to the Inhabitants of Great Britain were the printed ones produced in July 1775. It had always been assumed Richard Henry Lee of Virginia had written the original text.
Although an incorrect attribution, the assumption was a plausible one. Lee would later author the eponymous Lee Resolution, an act of the Second Continental Congress that declared the colonies’ independence from the British Empire. Livingston, on the other hand, had been undecided about whether to support independence for the colonies, so it didn’t seem plausible the work was his.
Ultimately, however, Livingston did solidify his stance, and he was appointed to the Committee of Five tasked with drafting the Declaration of Independence. Gruchow’s discovery helps explain why he was chosen for this honor, with fellow appointees John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Roger Sherman.
“This is the missing link,” Keno said of the recently discovered document. “It gives us an understanding of why Livingston was on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence.”
When the unsigned Letter from the Twelve United States Colonies was first published in the summer of 1775, James Madison praised its “true eloquence.” This was no small compliment, coming from the man who, with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, wrote the Federalist Papers and who would later be referred to as the Father of the Constitution for helping to draft that document.
The discovery of the handwritten plea for peace solved the centuries-old mystery of authorship, but it also introduced some surprises of its own. In addition to altering longstanding beliefs about Livingston’s role in the quest for independence, the document provided a behind-the-scenes look at the editorial process that took place two centuries ago during the attempt to stave off the Revolutionary War.
With edits and handwritten notes by Livingston and Lee, the manuscript highlighted the struggle involved in creating the final text. The working draft included excised paragraphs and marginal notes; substitute phrases; words crossed out, re-entered, then crossed out again – all underscoring just how important the decision was to declare independence.
“It is an incredible piece of American history,” Keno said. “The changes say so much about what was going on at the time.”
Notes in a third hand are also present in the document. Livingston, Lee and Edmund Pendleton of Virginia were the three men appointed by the Continental Congress to compose the eleventh-hour petition, but it has not been determined if the additional edits are Pendleton’s.
The winning bid for this important piece of early Americana came from Brian Hendelson, a New Jersey coin dealer and private collector. Proceeds from the sale benefit the endowment of the Morris-Jumel Mansion.
To watch a video about the discovery of the Letter from the Twelve United States Colonies, or for more information, see www.kenoauctions.com or call (212) 734-2381.