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Letter at auction shows Washington’s thoughts about the Constitution

June 19, 2013 by NCC Staff


A very rare private letter from George Washington is on the auction block on Friday, but what is priceless to scholars are the first president’s private thoughts about the Constitution.

Link: Read the entire letter

Washington's letter. Source: Christie's

The text of Washington’s letter to John Armstrong from April 25, 1788 has been available to scholars for years. Christie’s estimates the original letter could fetch up to $2 million on Friday. But recent interest in Washington artifacts has been very high.

Last year, Christie’s estimated that Washington’s hand-notated folio of the Constitution would sell for $3 million at auction. Instead, it sold for almost $10 million to the folks at Mount Vernon, who will make the folio a centerpiece of a new library.

Washington wrote Armstrong in 1788 at a time when the 13 states were deciding to ratify the Constitution. He had spent the prior summer presiding over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

His private thoughts to Armstrong showed Washington’s faith in the Framers to act in the best interests of the country—and a suspicion that special interests could try co-opt the process through requiring amendments before ratification.

“I have no doubt but (if the proposed Constitution obtains) those persons who are chosen to administer it will have wisdom enough to discern the influence which their examples as rulers and legislators may have on the body of the people,” Washington said. “And [they] will have virtue enough to pursue that line of conduct which will most conduce to the happiness of their Country.”

Related Story: Two constitutions make rare public appearances

Washington was indeed wary of forces that put conditions on ratification of the Constitution.

“To make such amendments as may be proposed by the several States the condition of its adoption would, in my opinion amount to a complete rejection of it,” he said.

The need for a Bill of Rights was much discussed during the ratification process, but James Madison’s proposed Bill of Rights was introduced in Congress in June 1789, about three months after the Constitution went into effect.

“The truth is, men are too apt to be swayed by local prejudices, and those who are so fond of amendments which have the particular interest of their own State in view cannot extend their ideas to the general welfare of the Union,” Washington added. “They do not consider that for every sacrifice which they make they receive an ample compensation by the sacrifices which are made by other States for their benefit--and that those very things which they give up will operate to their advantage through the medium of the general interest.”

Washington also welcomed public debate about the Constitution.

“Upon the whole I doubt whether the opposition to the Constitution will not ultimately be productive of more good than evil; it has called forth, in its defense, abilities (which would not perhaps have been otherwise exerted) that have thrown new lights upon the science of Government, they have given the rights of man a full and fair discussion, and have explained them in so clear and forcible a manner as cannot fail to make a lasting impression upon those who read the best publications on the subject, and particularly the pieces under the signature of Publius."

Publius is the named used in the Federalist papers, a series of articles written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay that shaped the ratification process.

Washington also told Armstrong he understood that the anti-Federalists would put up a fierce fight when his home state of Virginia voted on ratification.

“There will be a greater weight of abilities opposed to the system in the convention of this State than there has been in any other, but notwithstanding the unwearied pains which have been taken, and the vigorous efforts which will be made in the Convention to prevent its adoption, I have not the smallest doubt but it will obtain here,” he said.

If you plan to bid at the auction, Christie’s has a lot of details on their web site.

Christie’s said it sold a similar letter in 2009 for $3.2 million.

Editor’s note: The National Constitution Center will display one of the 12 surviving copies of the Bill of Rights starting in fall of 2014. The museum of “We the People” will be the first institution in the Pennsylvania to exhibit this historic document to the general public. Click here for more info.


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