1801 Jefferson letter supporting religious freedom discovered

Monday, June 10, 2002

ELKTON, Md. — A thank-you note from Thomas Jefferson to Baptist supporters, found at a historic home that is being converted to a museum, is authentic, a manuscript expert says.

“Essentially, I knew it at a glance,” Christie’s auction house expert Chris Coover said on June 4. “The handwriting is unmistakable.”

The letter, dated July 2, 1801, was the former president’s reply to the Delaware Baptist Association, which had written him a congratulatory note for winning the presidency and mentioned his defense of religious freedom.

Jefferson’s reply thanked the group and reiterated his support for religious freedom.

As posted on the Web site of The (Baltimore) Sun, Jefferson’s letter speaks of the “establishment here of liberty, equality of social rights, exclusion of unequal privileges civil & religious, & the usurping domination of one sect over another.”

“The re-discovered letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Delaware Baptists is a timely reminder that religious liberty is our nation’s ‘first liberty,’ ” said Charles Haynes, senior scholar, religious-freedom expert and director of education programs at the First Amendment Center.

“In words that echo powerfully across the centuries, Jefferson affirms freedom of the mind as a gift of the Almighty and the foundation of all our freedoms. And he reminds us that only through an abiding commitment to full religious liberty will the world end the “bloody horrors” of religious wars that marked his time — and our own,” Haynes said.

The letter was found March 23 by restoration volunteer Martha Alford inside a cardboard box during cleanup at Hollingsworth House, a Colonial-era home being converted to a museum by the Historic Elk Landing Foundation. The foundation has the rights to the property.

A watermark on the paper from J. Whatman, considered the finest English writing paper of the time, and the distinctive Jefferson script are two telltale signs proving authenticity, Coover said.

Jefferson’s letter size and form were also distinctive, as well as the former president’s tendency to pen the body of the letter in one script and his signature in another, he added.

The Associated Press reported that until now, the contents of Jefferson’s letter were known only through a copy he made by pressing a thin sheet of paper over the letter when the ink was still wet — called a press copy. Jefferson, a meticulous secretary, was very careful about maintaining his correspondence, said Coover, a senior specialist in manuscripts for Christie’s.

But The Sun quoted Maryland state archivist Edward C. Papenfuse as saying he had discovered that the letter was also published in The Mirror, a newspaper in Wilmington, Del., on Sept. 9, 1801, and in the New London (Conn.) Bee in October 1801.

“I think [Jefferson] intended this letter for publication,” Papenfuse told The Sun. “What it begins to show you is how the president of the United States communicated his ideas to the general public through the newspapers — friendly editors willing to pick it up and print it.”

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