O n 4 July 1776, the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence, solidifying sentiments of revolution, and escalating war with Great Britain. Along with the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the Declaration is the United States’s most significant founding document, yet the country’s recorded history extends even further, to at least 1566 when Sir Humphrey Gilbert was granted rights to colonize the New World – one of several epochal documents offered in Sotheby’s upcoming Fine Books and Manuscripts auction. The auction, held on 20 July, will include an exceptional array of Americana, including dictums from Congress and letters exchanged between the nation’s Founding Fathers, that tell a rich and fascinating story of the nation’s earliest days.
Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s Articles of Agreement
In the 16th century, explorers were all but sure of the existence of a Northwest Passage, even if no one had yet discovered it. In 1566, Sir Humphrey Gilbert petitioned Queen Elizabeth I with what he believed was proof of such a route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. His petition was approved along with a six-year patent granting the explorer rights to “inhabit and possess ... all remote and heathen lands not in actual possession of any Christian Prince.” The patent was just about to expire when Gilbert finally landed in Newfoundland, establishing the first British colony in North America and laying the groundwork for further English settlement on the continent.
These articles of agreement, dated to 6 June 1582, grant Gilbert the right to 1.5 million acres of land.
The Encoded and Decoded Instructions for Negotiating the Treaty of Peace with Great Britain
Five years into the Revolutionary War, the American colonies faced heavy pressure from France to negotiate a truce with Great Britain, prompting the Continental Congress to issue peace instructions to five of its ministers plenipotentiary: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Henry Laurens and Thomas Jefferson.
Laurens and Jefferson refused the appointment, leaving the revolution’s fate in the hands of three men. Franklin, who was pivotal in securing France’s support for the war, trusted their involvement; Adams and Jay believed the congressional orders reflected France’s own ambitions in America. Ultimately Adams’s and Jay’s votes prevailed, and the government went on to negotiate directly with the British commissioners without French intervention.
The instructions were written in a cipher to which Jay held the key, and the decoded copy bears Franklin’s endorsement and a dismissive annotation from Adams: “Ultimately to govern ourselves by their advice & opinion.”
George Washington’s Invitation for John Jay to Become Minister in London
A year into his second and final term, President George Washington found himself in the awkward position of having a stalwart “monarchy man” appointed as Resident Minister to France. The young country’s closest ally was in the middle of its own revolution, which Gouverneur Morris disapproved of, leading the US revolutionary general to recall him from his post and replace him with Thomas Pinckney, then the Minister to Great Britain.
In this letter, addressed 29 April 1794, Washington writes to his friend John Jay, imploring him, in an almost apologetic tone, to take up the position as the US emissary to its former colonial administrator. Jay, then serving as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, declined due to his political ambitions. Nonetheless, he visited London later that year as US Envoy Extraordinary, where he negotiated several issues unresolved in the Treaty of Paris.
A Letter Anticipating Thomas Jefferson’s Reconciliation with John Adams
As John Adams, the second president of the United States, was ending his time in office in 1801, he appointed several influential judges. Incoming President Thomas Jefferson and his cabinet refused to honor these “midnight appointments,” which they believed were improperly filed by the outgoing opposition party, fueling animosity between the two former allies and friends.
In this letter, written in 1804, Jefferson consoles his grieving son-in-law after the death of his daughter Maria – and addresses his ruptured friendship with Adams. The letter prompted both Abigail and John Adams to send their condolences to Jefferson for the loss of his daughter. It took several more years for the families to reconcile their political differences fully, but after Jefferson retired from the presidency in 1809 they again renewed their warm correspondence.
In a poignant twist of fate, the two friends and rivals died hours apart on 4 July 1826, fifty years to the day after signing the Declaration of Independence.
Banner: Emanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware (detail), 1851. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of John Stewart Kennedy, 1897