1787 Washington letter sells for $3.2 million

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 5, 2009

An impassioned letter penned by George Washington in 1787 about the strengths of the newly written U.S. Constitution was sold at auction in New York on Friday for a record price of $3.2 million.

Christie's had estimated that the letter, written from Mount Vernon, could fetch up to $2.5 million at auction, but some experts doubted it would bring that much in the poor economy.

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

The letter's "hammer" price Friday was $2.8 million, but the buyer's premium, or auction fee, boosted the overall cost, Christie's said.

The letter, owned by an unidentified British descendant of Washington's family, was written Nov. 9, 1787, to his nephew, Bushrod, weeks after the Philadelphia convention that drew up the U.S. Constitution. Washington had presided over the convention and was praising the Constitution's benefits.

The bidding began at $950,000 and quickly surged. It slowed around the $2.7 million mark, as two anonymous telephone bidders battled it out. Auctioneer Francis Wahlgren banged his hammer at $2.8 million a few minutes after 5 p.m. The room broke into applause. The purchaser was not identified.

The letter is written on handmade English paper in Washington's orderly, legible handwriting.

Washington, then 55, expresses his passion for the Constitution and for a union of the states into one strong nation. "If . . . the Union of the whole is a desirable object, the parts which compose it must yield a little," he writes.

He assails critics of the Constitution, and points to its strengths.

"The power under the Constitution will always be with the people," he writes. "It is entrusted for certain defined purposes and for a certain limited period to representatives of their own chusing; and whenever it is exercised contrary to their interests . . . their servants can, and undoubtedly will be, recalled."

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