Jefferson letter is to be sold in June, valued at $700,000

Thank-you note found last year in Cecil County

February 14, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

ELKTON - The owners of a rare Thomas Jefferson letter discovered nearly a year ago in a historic Cecil County house announced yesterday that the 19th-century thank-you note, with an appraised value of $700,000, will be sold at auction.

Michael L. Dixon, president of the Historic Elk Landing Foundation, said the sale would grant the 3-year-old group a remarkable opportunity to move ahead with plans to restore the Hollingsworth House and surrounding buildings into a living history park at the head of the Chesapeake Bay.

"This is certainly going to go a long way in helping us," Dixon said at a news conference at the Historical Society of Cecil County.

Dixon turned the letter over to Chris Coover, senior specialist in manuscripts at Christie's auction house in New York, who appraised the letter in June. Coover said yesterday that he has no doubt private collectors, as well as institutions, will have keen interest in the letter, which is to be auctioned in four months.

Coover said the highest sale price for a Jefferson letter had been about $725,000 - until December, when a Jefferson letter on the Lewis and Clark expedition brought $1.5 million at auction.

The letter, written to the Delaware Baptist Association in July 1801, is a thank-you note Jefferson penned after members wrote to congratulate him on his election to the presidency, and to impress upon the new president the need for religious freedom in the fledgling nation.

"This is, without question, the most important Jefferson letter I've handled," Coover said, noting its "wonderful condition" and "striking" passages on freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.

The letter reads, in part: "I join you, fellow citizens, in rendering the tribute of thankfulness to the Almighty ruler, who, in the order of his providence, hath willed that the human mind shall be free in this portion of the globe. ... I rejoice too with you in the happy consequences of our revolution, namely our separation from the bloody horrors which are depopulating the other quarters of the earth, the establishment here of liberty, equality of social rights, exclusion of unequal privileges civil & religious, & the usurping domination of one sect over another."

Jefferson was a prolific letter writer and kept a journal of every letter received and sent, Coover said, so experts knew of the letter's existence. A copy of it existed in his papers - but the original had been lost for two centuries.

That is, until it was found on a wintry March evening nearly a year ago by a foundation volunteer who was sifting through a box of papers found in the Hollingsworth House, a two-story white clapboard home bought, along with all its contents, by the foundation about three years ago.

The house is part of an old plantation established at Elk Landing, bought and named by merchant Zebulon Hollingsworth in 1735.

Dixon said proceeds of the letter's sale can help the group become a stronger competitor for grants, which often require matching funds. A stone building in "critical" shape, which could require up to $3 million in repairs, will be a top priority after the sale, he said.

Elk Landing is home to several historical re-enactments during the year, said Sandy Turner, Cecil County tourism coordinator. A Defender's Day re-enactment in April will re-create events of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.

Before the letter's discovery, the foundation hoped to open the living history park in about a decade, but the discovery and sale of the letter could help shave years off the project. "It is a very exciting find, indeed," Dixon said.

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