In Jefferson's words, perhaps

Letter: The discovery of a thank-you note that might have been penned by the third president has some in the small town of Elkton thinking big.

May 07, 2002|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

ELKTON - Joanna Alford, a volunteer at the historic Hollingsworth House, was sifting through a box of old papers found in an upstairs bedroom when she reached into an unmarked envelope and pulled out two faded, fragile letters.

The first, signed by members of the Delaware Baptist Association, was a note congratulating Thomas Jefferson on his presidential win and defending the new republic's ideal of religious freedom.

And the second?

"Oh my God, here's his answer!" she recalled exclaiming as she unfolded the third president's neatly penned reply.

The letter's discovery, in the home of a prominent Colonial family, has set this Cecil County town on its ear.

Jefferson's page-long letter thanks the association and reiterates his strong support of religious freedom, saying, in part, that he rejoices in "the establishment here of liberty, equality of social rights, exclusion of unequal privileges civil and religious, and the usurping domination of one sect over another."

The words are well-known among Jeffersonian experts. But until now, only Jefferson's fuzzy "press copy" - a sheet of tissue paper pressed over the original while the ink was wet - had survived in his letters at the Library of Congress.

"It's a wonderful letter," said Barbara Oberg, a Princeton University history professor, noted Jeffersonian expert and the general editor of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, a transcription project that so far includes 29 volumes.

"It's quintessentially Jeffersonian," eloquent and elegant, she said.

While the letter has not been officially authenticated, Oberg said, the contents, the handwriting and the press copy - which matches the newly discovered letter line for line - "are pretty compelling facts."

Placing a value on the letter at this point is premature, said Chris Coover, manuscript expert for Christie's auction house in New York City, who will review the letter.

Some Jefferson letters are worth as little as $10,000, Coover said, but in May 2000, a Jefferson letter discussing First Amendment rights sold for between $650,000 and $700,000.

Just the mention of those kinds of potential values has astonished the Historic Elk Landing Foundation, which bought the Hollingsworth House and its contents in 1999 for about $390,000 from descendants of the original family, said Michael L. Dixon and Robert Alt, members of the board of directors. Alt is also the mayor of Elkton.

"We knew we had rare stuff, but we had no clue we had this kind of stuff," Dixon said.

J. Jefferson Looney, who edits a segment of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello in Charlottesville, Va., said calls come in a few times a year about found Jefferson letters. It isn't terribly surprising, he said, when you consider that Jefferson wrote somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 letters in his lifetime.

"It's not at all unknown for a document to surface, even at this late date," he said, "and it's always exciting when it does."

Oberg said Jefferson claimed to hate writing them, though.

"He talks about being chained to his desk, answering his mail," she said.

Jefferson also kept a Summary Journal of Letters, a two-column record of every letter sent and received. "It's just meticulous, year after year after year," Oberg said.

The letter found at Hollingworth House is the first letter Jefferson entered in July 1801, Oberg said.

The first step for the foundation is to have Coover review the letter's authenticity.

"I don't have a definite date from them" on a meeting, Coover said. "The sooner the better - I'm very anxious to see it. It could be a very exciting find."

Coover said that when he sees the letter, he will know almost immediately whether it is authentic. He looks primarily at the ink, paper and handwriting.

When it comes to valuing the letter, Coover said, the subject matter is critical.

"Content is like location in real estate, and what you want is Jefferson talking about the issues that were closest to his heart and most relevant to his presidency and public life," Coover said.

Alt hopes the letter will put Elkton on the map, attracting tourists seeking a little small-town charm and Colonial history.

Elk Landing, a 42-acre parcel that includes Hollingsworth House and an old tavern building, is destined in five to seven years to become an interpretive center (think Williamsburg). It will be the feather in Elkton's cap, Alt said.

How the letters came to the home is a bit of a mystery.

The Hollingsworths were merchants who built fortunes in milling and shipping. They owned the property for more than 300 years, and at one point, most of this northeast Maryland town.

In the mid-1800s, one of the Hollingsworth daughters probably married into a Delaware family linked to the Baptist Association, Dixon said.

"We're still looking for more of the connections," said Pat Howe, who writes the foundation newsletter. Her husband, Douglas, is director of collections.

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