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  • WASHINGTON, GEORGE Autograph letter signed to James McHenry. Philadelphia: 10 December 1783. 1 page autograph letter signed...


    Sold for $362,500

    WASHINGTON, GEORGE Autograph letter signed to James McHenry. Philadelphia: 10 December 1783. 1 page autograph letter signed...



The Fourth Highest Price Fetched at Auction for a Letter by Washington, and the Highest Price for a Single-Page Letter

Letter from Washington to His Wartime Aide James McHenry Dated December 10, 1783

Washington Describes Seeing the British Evacuate New York and His Intention of Resigning His Military Commission and Becoming a Private Citizen

An important George Washington letter achieved a stunning $362,500 at Doyle New York’s November 5, 2012 auction of Rare Books and Autographs. Purchased by a private collector, the letter far surpassed its pre-sale estimate of $80,000-100,000. It was the fourth highest price fetched at auction for a letter by Washington and the highest price for a single-page letter.

The letter was written by George Washington to his wartime aide James McHenry on December 10, 1783. Washington writes of his intention to resign his commission as Continental Commander and become “translated into a private Citizen.” In 1859, this remarkable letter was sold with McHenry's archives at auction, where it was purchased by Baltimore collector William T. Walters, in whose family it has descended to the current consignor.

The November 5 auction was preceded by special preview exhibitions of the letter in Washington, DC at historic Tudor Place, and in Boston, MA at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

The Arrival of Peace
Upon the signing of the Treaty of Paris in September 1783, the American Revolution officially ended. The British, having taken Manhattan eight years earlier after the Battle of Long Island in 1776, now faced a gargantuan task – the removal of the ­­remaining 29,000 British soldiers, loyalists and war refugees occupying the island, as well as the military property and hundreds of ships occupying New York’s vast harbor. This evacuation was delayed several times and was finally scheduled to be completed on November 25, 1783.

Commander George Washington watched the proceedings of that day from New Jersey an­d entered the city once the last British ship sailed and the American flag was raised. The final shots of the Revolution were reportedly fired as the British left the harbor and the American flag replaced the British flag on an allegedly greased flagpole in the Battery. When Washington entered the city, he led a triumphant parade down Broadway alongside Governor George Clinton in a strong signal of restored American sovereignty. “Evacuation Day,” as the day came to be known, was celebrated annually for many years.

“This Place”
Washington longed to return to his beloved Mount Vernon after his eight-year ordeal as Continental Commander-in-Chief. He intended to resign his commission in person in front of the Continental Congress at Annapolis, MD. On December 4, Washington called together his officers and bid them farewell in a tear-infused ceremony at New York's Fraunces Tavern, and he left the city later that day. Washington was increasingly celebrated on his journey to resign. He graciously addressed jubilant crowds at every stop along the way, including New Brunswick and Trenton, NJ, before reaching Philadelphia on December 9. His schedule of writing and reciting these addresses allowed little time for personal correspondence, but Washington did take thetime to pen the current letter to his close friend, fellow Virginian and wartime aideJames McHenry. Washington was usually quite reserved in his declarations but is candid and direct in this letter:

My Dear Sir,
After seeing the backs of the British forces turned upon us, and the State of New York putinto the peaceable possession of its Governor, I ­­­set out for this place.

"This place." This place refers to Philadelphia, the site of the first gathering of unhappy colonial delegates that became the Continental Congress. Philadelphia was the most important American city of the 18th century, where revolution was argued for even in the face of treason to the British crown and where the Declaration of Independence had been signed on July 4, 1776. Only weeks later, Washington and his militia would be forced to retreat from New York after the Battle of Long Island on August 26, 1776, not to return for eight years. The significance of Washington returning to Philadelphia victorious cannot be overstated.

“Private Citizen”
After the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the Continental Congress reconvened in Annapolis on November 25, 1783. Washington continues the letter:

On Monday next I expect to leave the city, and by slow traveling arrive at Baltimore on Wednesday, where I will spend one day and then proceed to Annapolis and get translated into a private Citizen.

Translated into a private Citizen.”­­­­­­ Washington's desire to retire to Mount Vernon rather than continue in public service is much recounted in American folklore. However, a large constituency of Americans desired and expected Washington to become the lifelong military ruler of the new nation. His resignation was an act of commitment to the political motivation that had launched the American Revolution and shows his utmost respect to the members of the Continental Congress who were tasked with forming the government of the United States. Resigning as Commander and returning to private life was the ultimate revolutionary act. Washington's language here is candid but also evocative and philosophical – "get translated into a private Citizen." Washington acknowledges that the concept of the private citizen now required a forced redefinition. He becomes the first of many to transform himself from a disenfranchised British subject into a revolutionary and, upon victory, into a startling new entity: the free American citizen.

Census of Contemporary Letters
In the days between the evacuation of New York and his resignation in Annapolis, Washington made direct reference to his retirement only to select members of his “military family.” On December 9, 1783, the day before the McHenry letter, he wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette in a letter known only from the transcription in Washington’s letter book now at the Library ofCongress:

We have just now my Dear Friend closed the military scene by taking possession of New York. I am now on my way to Annapolis to lay my resignation before Congress, from thence I shall retire directly to Mount Vernon, where I anticipate the pleasing moment when I shall embrace My Dr. Marqs. [Dear Marquis]

On December 23, 1783, minutes before his resignation in Annapolis, Washington wrote to his confidant Major General Baron Von Steuben in a letter now in the collection of the Secretary of the United States Senate:

This is the last Letter I shall ever write while I continue in the service of my Country; the hour of my resignation is fixed at twelve this day; after which I shall become a private Citizen on the Banks of the Potomack where I shall be glad to embrace you.

That day at noon, Washington resigned his command in front of the Continental Congress, telling them:

The great events on which my resignation depended having at length taken place; I have now the honor of offering my sincere Congratulations to Congress and of presenting myself before them to surrender into their hands the trust committed to me, and to claim the indulgence of retiring from the Service of my Country … Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of Action; and bidding an ­ Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.

A New Nation
Washington did retire, but not for long. In 1787 he was lured from Mount Vernon to participate in the Constitutional Congress in Philadelphia, and he was elected the nation’s first presid­ent in 1789. Washington served two terms before retiring for a final time in 1797. George Washington died at Mount Vernon on December 14, 1799. Days later, the century that had seen the transformation of America from disparate colonies to nationhood would close. Thus began for the new nation that had translated itself into the United States a period of unparalleled freedom for its citizens, which continues to this day.

Images and interviews are available upon request.


Louis LeB. Webre
SVP, Marketing & Media
212-427-4141, ext 232
Lot 129
Autograph letter signed to James McHenry
. Philadelphia: 10 December 1783. 1 page autograph letter signed Go: Washington, on a bifolium (watermarked C Taylor), docketed most likely in McHenry's hand on verso: G. Washington/Dec. 10th 1783/Route from N. York to Annapolis/to resign his commission. 8 ¾ x 7 ¼ inches (22 x 18.5 cm). Some small brown stains, usual folds with a few short splits, remnants of mounting to verso of integral blank, this mount present with evidence of age toning.

The full text as follows:

Philadelphia Dec. 10th 1783
Dear Sir,
After seeing the backs of the British Forces turned upon us, and the Executive of the State of New York put into the peaceable possession of their Capitol, I set out for this place. On Monday next I expect to leave the City and by slow traveling arrive at Baltimore on Wednesday, where I will spend one day and then proceed to Annapolis and get translated into a private Citizen.
I am yr affect
Go: Washington

George Washington's wartime aide-de-camp James McHenry of Maryland served as a delegate to the Continental Congress and was a signer of the United States Constitution. He was the United States Secretary of War from 1796 until 1800 under both Presidents George Washington and John Adams. The namesake of Fort McHenry in Baltimore, it was the bombardment of the fort by British warships on the night of September 13th, 1814 that inspired Francis Scott Key to write The Star-Spangled Banner, the original title of which was Defence of Fort McHenry.

George Washington to James McHenry;
Sold in the auction of James McHenry's papers to benefit the Maryland Institution for the Instruction of the Blind. The auction, Autograph Letters of Presidents Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Harrison, etc, was conducted by Gibson & Co., Auctioneers on December 15th, 1859. Three annotated copies of this catalogue in the Maryland Historical Society and at Syracuse University were examined and each bears a manuscript note reporting this letter sold to W. Walters of Baltimore for $21. This was Baltimore collector William T. Walters (1819-1894);
By descent to his son Henry Walters (1848-1941);
By descent to his wife Sarah Green Jones Walters (1859-1943);
By descent to her daughter Sadie Jones Pope (1887-1975) (daughter of Sarah and Pembroke Jones; wife of noted Jefferson Memorial architect John Russell Pope);
By descent to her daughter Jane Pope Akers Ridgway (1917-2011)

Literature: Published in Worthington Chauncey Ford (editor). The Writings of George Washington. [New York and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1890]. Vol. X (1782-1785).

A MAGNIFICENT LETTER WITH A DISTINGUISHED AMERICAN PROVENANCE. WASHINGTON WRITES IN HIS FINAL DAYS AS CONTINENTAL COMMANDER TO WARTIME AIDE AND CONFIDANT JAMES McHENRY REPORTING VICTORY OVER THE BRITISH, THE RESTORATION OF NEW YORK, AND HIS INTENTION TO RETIRE FROM PUBLIC SERVICE. After the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the gargantuan task of removing the 29,000 British soldiers, citizens, refugees and military property crowding Manhattan island and New York harbor took place on November 25th, 1783. Washington watched the events of that day from New Jersey and did not enter the city until the British flag was removed and the American flag raised. He then led a triumphant parade down Broadway alongside Governor George Clinton, a strong symbol of restored sovereignty, before gathering his officers for a tear infused farewell at Fraunces Tavern on December 4th. Anxious to return to Mount Vernon after his eight year absence, Washington would travel from New York to Annapolis, where he intended to resign his commission of Commander of the Continental Army. Along his journey, jubilant celebrations erupted, and Washington addressed crowds in New Brunswick and Trenton before reaching Philadelphia. The tight schedule of formal appearances did not allow much time for personal correspondence, but Washington found time to pen this poignant and candid letter to James McHenry on the 10th. Washington is quite candid in his statements to McHenry and proudly reports "seeing the backs of the British forces turned upon us" and having returned the "State of New York [to] the peaceable possession" of its rightful Governor, before announcing his intention to retire in the oft-quoted phrase that he will "get translated into a private Citizen." In this letter Washington acknowledges the greatness of his victory and the newness of his personal state, having in eight years time been transformed from an unhappy Virginia planter to the commander of the revolutionary army, and most importantly, into this startling new entity: a free American citizen.

The letter remained among McHenry's papers until 1859, when it was sold at auction in Baltimore to benefit an institution for the blind. Sold to William T. Walters, the Baltimore industrialist and art collector, the letter descended to his son Henry Walters, who would greatly expand the family collection and would marry Sarah Jones. Jones was instrumental in the formation of the Walters Art Museum after Henry's death in 1931 and the balance of the collection sold at auction. Recently discovered among family papers, the letter has thus remained with the family of the original purchaser since 1859.

C Estate of Jane Akers Ridgway
Sold For $362,500