Monday, November 1, 2021


             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 Massachusetts Council.

            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 $5,000.

            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:

            Lessons / Questions / Observations:

            I have 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.

            Well, 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.

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