George Washington Letter Found in Scrapbook
George Washington Letter Found in Scrapbook
By KAREEM FAHIM
UNION, N.J., April 26 The letter from George Washington is pasted
between poetry and party invitations, stuffed into a dusty scrapbook
amid jokes and cutouts of handsome men, and all the highlights of a
lucky little girl's life.
It was written in May 1787 and addressed to Jacob Morris, grandfather
of Julia Kean, the precocious 10-year-old who started the brown
leather scrapbook in 1826 and put the letter under a portrait of the
nation's first president.
The letter is just 111 words long, a scant two paragraphs, but it
mentions a rival of Washington, Horatio Gates, and includes enough
hints of intrigue to whet the appetite of scholars. They learned of
the letter's discovery only recently, after it was found among the
private papers of one of New Jersey's most prominent families.
"The happiness of this Country depend much upon the deliberations of
the federal Convention which is now sitting," reads the second
paragraph of the quill-and-ink letter. "It, however, can only lay the
foundation the community at large must raise the edifice."
Washington was writing from Philadelphia, where the Constitutional
Convention was under way. It was two years before he became president.
His correspondence was wide and frequent, but discoveries of his
letters, especially those in which he says something notable, are
somewhat rare, scholars and archivists say. It is rarer still to find
such a letter in so unusual a place as a child's scrapbook. (The last
discovery of a Washington letter previously unknown to scholars was
about two years ago; the owner said it had been hanging on a friend's
Finding the letter in such a place "I think is unique," said Theodore
J. Crackel, the editor in chief of The Papers of George Washington, a
project to collect copies of all of his correspondence. The comment
about the Constitutional Convention "is Washington at his best," he said.
Julia's letter was bequeathed to Kean University this spring with the
rest of the contents of Liberty Hall, a 50-room Italianate mansion
that was home to generations of Keans and is near the campus here.
The scrapbook was found among turtleback trunks and packed
bookshelves; an icehouse full of documents are yet to be read. "It
gives me goose bumps," said the university president, Dawood Farahi.
"I believe it is one of the last great undiscovered collections of
Mark Lender, the chairman of Kean's history department, has already
set about trying to solve the first of the letter's mysteries,
Washington's reference to forwarding written "enclosures" to Gates.
"They were not on good terms at all," Mr. Lender said.
The convention "was of monumental importance to the history of the new
republic," Mr. Lender said. "I don't think you have to read between
the lines to see that his position was sympathetic to the strong,
nationalist implications of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison."
The scrapbook and the letter, taken together in fact, they are
firmly stuck together, thanks to Julia provide a glimpse of the
era's great men and the families that moved in their orbits.
Julia also saved a letter from Thomas Jefferson to her
step-grandfather, a Polish count who was traveling back to Poland to
help Napoleon in a military campaign. She also included invitations to
balls celebrating the end of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.
There are scrapbook pages spread with playing cards and clippings of
miscellaneous items from newspapers, marbled pages and others
festooned with mementos from holidays and glimpses of the fashions of
The 10th page is reserved for George. The letter paper was too long to
fit, especially under the large portrait, so Julia cut a strip off the
top and plastered it vertically on the page, next to the letter's
Written on acid-free linen paper, and hidden from the light, the
letter is faded but well preserved. No one has yet settled the
question of whether to remove it from the book, which would certainly
increase its commercial value. For now, the few historians who have
seen it are preoccupied with its other attributes, particularly the
reference to enclosures for Gates.
In 1777, Gates was widely credited with the victory in the Battle of
Saratoga, at a time when General Washington was struggling on the
battlefield, and there was a call for Washington to be removed as
commander in chief. Congress even considered the change, but the
matter was dropped after Washington caught wind of correspondence in
which Gates criticized him as a weak general.
There are letters between the two men during the war, but they are not
especially friendly, Mr. Crackel said, adding, "It would be very
interesting to know what he sent to Gates."
So, however brief Julia's letter, it is significant because it alerts
scholars to the existence of other letters, pieces of puzzles that may
be in other collections, or have still not been collected.
Washington's letter to Morris was a reply; where is the first letter?
Was that a reply?
The man sorting through the thousands of documents in the Kean family
collection is Ken Summers, who used to work in insurance. He found
Julia's binder in the vault that sits next to his office.
"I saw the Washington picture, but I don't think the first time I went
through it I realized it was a letter from him," Mr. Summers said. He
noticed the letter about a year ago, but for various reasons "the
family wasn't ready to go prime time with it."
It was only in recent weeks, after the collection was given to Kean
University, that outsiders were notified about the letter. One of
those is Terry Golway, who is curating the Liberty Hall collection for
the university. (Mr. Golway writes occasionally for The New York Times.)
Julia Kean remains something of a mystery. She painted, and she took
her vacations in Ballston Spa, N.Y. Along with the remarkable letters,
the scrapbook hints of bookishness: it is lined with newspaper
articles and passages from Shakespeare, Wordsworth and others. At 20,
she married Hamilton Fish, a lawyer who became secretary of state.
Her descendant, John Kean, Julia's great-great-nephew and a first
cousin of former Gov. Thomas H. Kean, was responsible for handing her
scrapbook and the rest of Liberty Hall over to the university.
"It was a little difficult," he recalled. The deal was signed two
weeks ago, and Mr. Kean said he hoped it will help interest a new
generation in the Revolutionary era.
"She was an amazing young lady," he said of Julia Kean. "The heroine
of the day."