Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the length of the George Washington letter being auctioned. The error has been corrected.

A 1787 letter by George Washington is set to go on auction for a record price

FOR THE UNION: Washington's letter to his nephew passionately supported the union of the states into one strong nation.
FOR THE UNION: Washington's letter to his nephew passionately supported the union of the states into one strong nation. (Christie's Images Ltd.)

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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 19, 2009

The debate on the reform plan was just getting started. The plan was radical. It had strong supporters but more strident opponents. And the retired general warned that the critics were fearmongers, twisting the facts to poison public opinion.

He couldn't figure out, he wrote his favorite nephew, why people should be prevented from trying to do good just because there was a chance they might do bad.

It was 1787. The writer was George Washington. The reform in question was the U.S. Constitution.

And the powerful four-page letter he penned from Mount Vernon on Nov. 9 is set to go on the auction block next month at Christie's in New York. Asking price: a potentially record-breaking $1.5 million to $2.5 million.

The previous auction record for a Washington document was set in 2002, also at Christie's, when one of his military reports fetched $834,500, the auction house said.

The 1787 letter to nephew Bushrod Washington, most likely inked with a quill pen, is written on handmade English paper bearing a watermark of the king whose rule the general had successfully fought to end.

It is written in Washington's orderly, legible handwriting and signed with his curious "G:{+o} Washington" signature.

The letter is important, historians said, because the former Revolutionary War commander had just returned from Philadelphia, where he presided over the convention that drafted the Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation.

The Constitution was signed Sept. 17, 1787, but needed to be ratified by the states, which was completed the next year.

Washington, who was cautious about taking public positions, expresses in the privacy of the letter his passion for the Constitution and for a union of the states into one strong nation. The letter has been reproduced before and does not contain any new historical bombshells. But it is unusually long and intimate for Washington.

"If . . . the Union of the whole is a desirable object, the parts which compose it must yield a little in order to accomplish it," he writes.

He notes that the Constitution is not free of flaws. "These were not to be avoided," he writes. But he says the Constitution contains mechanisms through which it can be adjusted and is confident that future generations will do so wisely.


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