Washington and Jefferson: Letters from a nascent United States

Specialist Peter Klarnet examines revealing missives from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson which offer a stunning insight into the birth — and survival — of a great nation

‘These letters form the basis of our history,’ explains specialist Peter Klarnet, introducing an exceptional set of nine original manuscripts, featured in our Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts sale in New York on 14 December. Written by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, they give a first-hand insight into the hopes and dreams of America’s leaders, at a pivotal moment in the country’s development.

The letters’ recipient was the Marquis de Chastellux, a major general in the French army who travelled to North America with an expeditionary force in 1780, to help in the War of Independence. On meeting both Washington and Jefferson, he found in each a shared interest in philosophy and the ideology of the American cause. ‘He was fascinated by America and its possibilities,’ Klarnet explains.  

Exchanges between Chastellux and the two men evolved into what would become lifelong friendships, sustained through letters. The tone of many is unguarded. ‘When the United States won its independence in 1783, its survival was by no means assured,’ says Klarnet. ‘That survival is a recurring theme. It’s one of the beauties of these letters: unlike historians, they don’t know what’s going to happen — they’re living in the moment.’

A letter from Jefferson to Chastellux, written in Paris in 1784, shows the future President grappling with the characteristics of Americans across the country — so distinct, he writes, that the ‘observing traveller, without the aid of a quadrant, may always know his latitude by the character of the people among whom he finds himself.’ To the north, he cites a ‘cool’, ‘persevering’ nature, distinct from the ‘fiery’, ‘generous’ spirit in the south.

‘It’s one of the beauties of these letters: unlike historians, they don’t know what’s going to happen — they’re living in the moment’

In another exchange, Washington reflects on the success of the United States Constitution, adopted, at the time, by just six states, with a ‘greater unanimity than could have been reasonably expected’. ‘Should it be adopted,’ the first President reflects, ‘America will lift up her head again, and in a few years become respectable among the nations.’

Now more than 200 years old, the letters remain ‘remarkably well-preserved’, says Klarnet. ‘The ink is almost as bright as the day it was written; the paper almost as creamy white as when Washington first laid his pen on it.’ Never previously offered in public, they offer a remarkable insight into America’s foundation. ‘This is beginning,’ concludes Klarnet. ‘This is where we get it all from.’