J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Unstudied Letters from Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson

Kenneth Burchell called my attention to an unpublished letter from Thomas Paine that Sotheby’s sold for £10,000 this past week. Paine wrote it in 12 July 1789 when he was back in England, trying to find investors to back an iron bridge he had designed. He asked the letter recipient if they might be related.

The auction house’s description says:

This curious letter reveals the great radical agitator and American Patriot investigating his family history. Presumably out of caution when writing to a stranger, he emphasises the respectability of his background. He amiably discusses the Hustler family arms and avoids any hint of revolutionary politics; one would hardly guess from his understated comment about having spent time in America that he had been the revolution’s great propagandist.

The date of the letter imparts an even greater historical irony to Paine’s wish “in about a month’s time to go to France”: these words were written just two days before the fall of the Bastille, which set in train events that would not only bring Paine to Paris, but take him away once and for all away from England, engineering and family history, and firmly back into the ferment of revolutionary politics.
In other epistolary news, earlier this month the University of Delaware reported that two graduate students had identified a previously forgotten letter from President Thomas Jefferson, dated 4 Feb 1808 (and pictured above). Jefferson was responding to the death of John Dickinson, a fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence:
A more estimable man, or truer patriot, could not have left us. Among the first of the advocates for the rights of his country when assailed by Great Britain, he continued to the last the orthodox advocate of the true principles of our new government: and his name will be consecrated in history as one of the great worthies of the revolution.
The letter was saved in the archives of the Rockwood Museum, which is a Victorian-era mansion. Presumably the members of the Bringhurst family who came to live in that house had recognized the value of Jefferson’s name and kept the manuscript.

1 comment:

Theodore Scott said...

Those two graduate students were also lucky enough to find a couple John Dickinson letters.