Couple finds Thomas Jefferson letter at Old Town Alexandria's American Legion

By Anne Miller
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, January 25, 2010

Army veteran Tom Hewitt hovered over the stained and brittle page, itching to get closer but afraid to touch. Crowded into the upstairs office at American Legion Post 24 in Old Town Alexandria, he couldn't believe what his wife was saying.

Not an hour before, Hewitt, 39, and his friends were drinking beer and talking about updating the walls with historic photos. His wife, Candice Bennett, dropped by, and the couple went upstairs to poke through the drawers and file cabinets in the messy third-floor office to look for some photos.

In a drawer, Bennett, 34, spotted a paper that looked very old and unusual. She pulled out her iPhone and tapped away, frantically searching for names. Then she turned to her husband.

"Tom, I think this is a Thomas Jefferson letter," she said.

"You're kidding me," he said.

She wasn't.

It's a fairly rare occurrence when someone stumbles across a valuable historical artifact, like a letter from Thomas Jefferson. Coincidentally, the same week in early December that the Virginia couple ventured upstairs at the local American Legion, the University of Delaware announced that two graduate students had discovered a Jefferson letter in papers the university received from a local museum. The Virginia couple made their find public this month.

What makes the Old Town discovery special, one historian says, is that the note sheds light on Jefferson's private life during his chaotic last year as the nation's third president.

"It's a nice, personal interlude in a life that is very difficult for him," said Barbara Oberg, a historian and professor at Princeton University who serves as the general editor of a massive project compiling every one of Jefferson's papers into more than 50 volumes. "The personal notes are rarer than the presidential notes."

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The commander of Post 24, Michael Conner, wrote in a January newsletter that negotiations are underway with the city of Alexandria to help preserve and display the letter. Conner said in a phone interview that he did not want to comment until he met with city officials. The city's Office of Historic Alexandria also declined to comment.

But Bennett and Hewitt took photographs, which they posted on Facebook, and the newsletter is available on Post 24's Web site. The couple consulted two independent experts, including Allan J. Stypeck Jr. of Second Story Books in Rockville, who has worked with the Smithsonian and the PBS series "Antiques Roadshow." Bennett said she and her husband paid him for a formal appraisal.

The letter is dated July 25, 1808, and addressed to Jefferson's friend, the poet and diplomat Joel Barlow. Barlow dubbed his Northwest Washington estate Kalorama, Greek for "beautiful view," according to the D.C. Office of Historic Preservation. The estate was later split up but the name stuck.

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