A letter written by Alexander Hamilton during the Revolutionary War has resurfaced more than seven decades after the document was stolen from the Massachusetts Archives, federal authorities said.
The letter, addressed to Hamilton’s good friend the Marquis de Lafayette, came to light last November when an auction house in Virginia notified the FBI after a South Carolina family tried to consign it for auction, according to a complaint filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts by the U.S. attorney’s office.
An auction house researcher had discovered that the letter matched a copy of the correspondence on Founders Online, a National Archives and Records Administration website. It had been listed as missing.
Federal prosecutors are asking a federal judge to rule that the document be returned to its original owner. It is now in the possession of the FBI in Boston, a law enforcement official said Friday.
In 1950, a former Massachusetts Archives employee was arrested for stealing and selling documents, including the Hamilton letter and original papers of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and other Founding Fathers, to rare-books dealers when he worked at that institution between 1937 and 1945, the complaint said. It does not list the name of the employee or what happened to that person.
In the 1940s, Hamilton’s letter ended up in the possession of a rare-books and documents dealer in Syracuse, New York, who sold it to a now-deceased relative of the South Carolina family that tried to consign it last year with an auction house in Virginia, the complaint said. The family said it had inherited a collection that included the Hamilton letter.
The three-paragraph letter — now valued between $25,000 and $35,000, according to the Virginia auction house — warned Lafayette, the French general who commanded troops in several Revolutionary War battles, of pending danger from the British.
“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, then a lieutenant colonel, wrote. “Fifty transports are said to have gone up the Sound to take in troops and proceed directly to Rhode Island.”
Hamilton told Lafayette that a British fleet was patrolling New York, said Joanne B. Freeman, a professor of history and American studies at Yale University.
The correspondence “marks a moment when coming soon would be a lot of French assistance in the war,” which ended in 1783, Freeman said.
Lafayette and Hamilton became close friends when the French general arrived in 1778. “Hamilton spoke pretty fluent French, so he was given the responsibility of being Lafayette’s translator,” Freeman added.
Aside from its intrinsic historical value, the letter is likely worth more now because of Hamilton’s newfound prominence after “Hamilton” the musical, a pop-culture phenomenon, debuted on Broadway in 2015.
“Hamilton was really not well known” before the 2004 Ron Chernow biography on the first secretary of the Treasury, and the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical it helped inspire, Freeman added. In 2017, a collection of hundreds of Hamilton letters and manuscripts sold for $2.6 million.