Lot 1014
  • 1014

Alexander Hamilton

35,000 - 50,000 USD
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  • Autograph letter to Elizabeth Schuyler, announcing the treason of Benedict Arnold
  • Paper, ink
3 pages (8 7/8 x 7 3/8 in.; 223 x 188 mm) on a bifolium, [Robinson’s House, Highlands (present-day Garrison), New York, opposite West Point], 25 September [1780]; half-inch strip torn from the foot of the second leaf costing Hamilton’s signature and perhaps a final line of text, other minor early repairs to fold separations, stained, silked. Tipped to a larger sheet.


The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, ed. Syrett, 2:441–442


3 pages (8 7/8 x 7 3/8 in.; 223 x 188 mm) on a bifolium, [Robinson's House, Highlands, New York] 25 September [1780]; half-inch strip torn from the foot of the second leaf costing Hamilton's signature and perhaps a final line of text, other minor early repairs to fold separations, stained, silked. Tipped to a larger sheet.
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Catalogue Note

The dénouement of the most famous espionage case in American history. Benedict Arnold made his name an eponym for treachery when, goaded by perceived slights he had endured from the Continental Congress, he conspired with British spymaster John André to surrender the American garrison at West Point. (Arnold may also have been partly motivated by his disdain for an alliance with France, as well as by a considerable debt.) Major André was subsequently captured behind American lines, dressed as a civilian and holding papers relative to the betrayal. News of André's capture allowed Arnold to flee to the safety of British forces on 23 September 1780. Washington sent Hamilton in pursuit, but Arnold was able to avoid capture by taking refuge in the British man-of-war Vulture, which was anchored in the Hudson River. Just two days later—and on the same day that he informed Washington of Arnold's escape—Hamilton sent the present remarkable letter to his beloved.

"In the midst of my letter, I was interrupted by a scene that shocked me more than any thing I have met with—the discovery of a treason of the deepest dye. The object was to sacrifice West Point. General Arnold had sold himself to André for this purpose. The latter came but in disguise and in returning to New York was detected. Arnold hearing of it immediately fled to the enemy. I went in persuit of him but was much too late, and I could hardly regret the disappointment, when on my return, I saw an amiable woman frantic with distress for the loss of a husband she tenderly loved—a traitor to his country and to his fame, a disgrace to his connections. It was the most affecting scene I ever was witness to. She for a considerable time intirely lost her senses. The General went up to see her and she upbraided him with being in a plot to murder her child; one moment she raved; another she melted into tears; sometimes she pressed her infant to her bosom and lamented its fate occasioned by the imprudence of its father in a manner that would have pierced insensibility itself. All the sweetness of beauty, all the loveliness of innocence, all the tenderness of a wife and all the fondness of a mother showed themselves in her appearance and conduct. We have every reason to believe she was intirely unacquainted with the plan, and that her first knowlege of it was when Arnold went to tell her he must banish himself from his Country and from her forever. She instantly fell into a convulsion and he left her in that situation."

Hamilton's chivalric view of Arnold's loyalist wife, the former Peggy Shippen, betrays his eighteenth-century sensibilities. While Arnold had left his wife alone with the couple's infant son to face the American investigation, she was far from the innocent victim Hamilton believed. In fact, Mrs. Arnold supported and assisted her husband's espionage with the British, sometimes carrying secret dispatches herself. As the continuation of Hamilton's letter shows, she was likely the superior to her husband in the art of deception:

"This morning she is more composed. I paid her a visit and endeavoured to sooth her by every method in my power, though you may imagine she is not easily to be consoled. Added to her other distresses, She is very apprehensive the resentment of her country will fall upon her (who is only unfortunate) for the guilt of her husband. I have tried to persuade her, her apprehensions are ill founded; but she has too many proofs of the illiberality of the state to which she belongs to be convinced. She received us in bed, with every circumstance that could interest our sympathy. Her sufferings were so eloquent that I wished myself her brother, to have a right to become her defender. As it is, I have entreated her to enable me to give her proofs of my friendship.

"Could I forgive Arnold for sacrificing his honor reputation and duty I could not forgive him for acting a part that must have forfieted the esteem of so fine a woman. At present she almost forgets his crime in his misfortune, and her horror at the guilt of the traitor is lost in her love of the man. But a virtuous mind cannot long esteem a base one, and time will make her despise, if it cannot make her hate."

Inevitably, Hamilton thinks of his relationship with Elizabeth and cannot imagine putting her in the position that Mrs. Arnold finds herself in: "Indeed my angelic Betsey, I would not for the world do any thing that would hazard your esteem. ’Tis to me a jewel of inestimable price & I think you may rely I shall never make you blush." Time would show that this was an easier pledge to make than to fulfill.

Hamilton closes the letter with a renewed avowal of his love. "I thank you for all the goodness of which your letters are expressive, and I entreat you my lovely girl to believe that my tenderness for you every day increases and that no time or circumstances can abate it. I quarrel with the hours that they do not fly more rapidly and give us to each other."

Hamilton misjudged the virtue of Peggy Shippen Arnold's mind. General Washington permitted her to return to her father's Philadelphia home almost immediately. Early in 1781, she was reunited with her husband in loyalist New York, and in December of that year the family sailed to England. She and Arnold continued their lives together in virtual exile from the society of supporters of both the patriot and British causes until his death in 1801. 

André's fate was sealed by Arnold's capture. He did not deny his actions, but he did maintain that we was acting as a soldier and not in the manner of a spy and, so, deserved at least the dignity of execution by firing squad. The court martial that heard the case was headed by General Nathanael Greene and included the Marquis de Lafayette, Baron von Steuben, and William Alexander, Lord Stirling. Despite André's contention that he was a prisoner of war—and Sir Henry Clinton's claim that he was operating under the colors of the British army—the court martial concluded that "Major Andre, Adjutant General to the British Army, ought to be considered as a Spy from the Enemy, and that agreable to the Law and usage of Nations, it is their opinion he ought to suffer death." Frantic British efforts were made to save André and the execution was postponed briefly. The Americans would have exchanged André for Arnold, but Clinton refused to do so. He was hanged at noon on 2 October 1780.