Advised in 1780 that British troops
stationed in New York were “making an embarkation with which they menace the
French fleet and army” stationed in Rhode Island, Alexander Hamilton wrote a
letter to the Marquis de Lafayette. When Lafayette received the letter, he met
with the Massachusetts General William Heath who, in turn, sent it to the
The Council, serving as the executive
body during the Revolutionary War, authorized sending troops to Rhode Island to
help the French forces.
That letter, along with other
records of the period, were ultimately transferred to the custody of the
Massachusetts Archives. The Archives kept the letter in an indexed volume at
least until 1920.
At some point between 1920 and 1950,
the letter disappeared. Only a copy was maintained.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts
and USA assert that the letter was taken by Harold Perry sometime at or shortly
before WWII. The Estate of Stewart Crane instead suggested that the
letter was missing due to the negligence of the Archives, or perhaps because the
Archives no longer wanted to maintain it.
The letter ultimately came into the
possession of Stewart Crane, who claimed that his father purchased it in 1945
from a rare documents dealer in Syracuse, NY. In November 2018, Stewart
consigned it to a Virginia auctioneer who discovered that the letter was “missing”
and contacted the Archives.
The auctioneer notified the FBI. The
FBI seized it pursuant to a judicial warrant on December 19, 2018.
Five months later USA filed a
verified complaint for forfeiture, alleging a violation of federal statutes
that criminalize interstate transport of and trade in stolen goods valued over
Only the Commonwealth of
Massachusetts and Stewart Crane’s Estate filed claims to the letter. The
federal district court granted USA’s motion to strike the Estate’s claim, and
concluded that under Massachusetts law a public record the letter could only be
owned by the Commonwealth.
The court awarded the letter to
Massachusetts. The Estate of Stewart Crane appealed.
The Court of Appeals reviewed Massachusetts
laws regarding public records, and determined based on laws starting in 1897
that the letter qualifies as a historic public “original paper.” As
such, the letter was part of the files of the Commonwealth, was retained by the
Commonwealth, and was stored in the Commonwealth’s Archives.
The Court of Appeals delighted in
using words and terms such as contretemps, kleptomaniacal, alternate reality, asseverational
array, chary, pellucid, whistling past the graveyard, the legislature said what
it meant and meant what it said, force a square peg into a round hole, perfidy,
short shrift, and elucidated.
Thank you, Google.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts
will keep this letter. See USA v. Letter from Alexander Hamilton to the Marquis
de Lafayette Dated July 21, 1780; US Court of Appeals, 1st
Circuit, No. 20-2061, October 6, 2021: https://wbznewsradio.iheart.com/content/massachusetts-gets-stolen-hamilton-letters-back-federal-court-rules/.
Lessons / Questions
no lessons, questions, or observations. I write this Article only because Al
Hamilton penned almost all of the Federalist Papers, was our nation’s first
Secretary of the Treasury, and pretty much created our Republic.
that and I’m a huge Broadway musical fan. Hey Lin-Manuel: call me, I found the
subject for your new production!
Stuart A. Lautin, Esq.*
* Board Certified, Commercial (1989) and Residential (1988) Real Estate Law, Texas Board of Legal Specialization
Licensed in the States of Texas and New York
Reprinted with the permission of North Texas Commercial Association of REALTORS®, Inc.