The Jefferson Letter

Elk Landing certainly can be called “Historic”, not only because of the buildings and events that occurred here, but also because of its artifacts. This is the intriguing story of one particular item that had been lost for almost two centuries.

   

Finding lost treasures can be unexpected and you may not immediately be aware of its significance.

   

Such was the case in March of 2002, when an Historic Elk Landing volunteer was carefully sifting through an old carboard box of things – old newspapers, personal letters, scraps – things that we all accumulate, but don’t need anymore.  Usually, boxes of this kind  are destined for the trash, or today, the recycle bin.  But this time, a keen eye, and curiosity allowed the volunteer to uncover a substantial find.

In a common envelope were folded papers that had an appearance suggesting they were from a time long ago.  The first was a document signed by John Quincy Adams. Certainly, this raised curiosity and a degree of astonishment.  What about the remaining two items? The second was from the Delaware Baptist Association offering congratulations to the newly elected, third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson.  Finally, the third item was the reply.  Dated July 2, 1801, was a personally signed letter from non-other than Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence!  The volunteer was astounded and said, ‘My God!’ [1]. 

   

At first, Mike Dixon, then president of the Historic Elk Landing Foundation, and local historian was skeptical and considered it a “routine find”.  However, after closer examination, the original skepticism turned to excitement. 

   

The Jefferson letter was examined and authenticated by an expert in manuscripts and Americana at Christies Auction House of New York City [1].  It was indeed an original, in Jefferson's own hand, and signed by the President.  He described it as one of the finest Jefferson letters he has handled, and an extraordinary find. [2]

   

The contents of the letter reinforce basic Jeffersonian tenants that were central to his presidency:  the freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.  Jefferson eloquently stated: 

   

 

“That the society shall here know that the limit of its rightful power is the enforcement of social conduct; while the right to question the religious principles producing that conduct is beyond their cognizance.”

   

 

These words carry a unique meaning and are points of public discourse even today.

   

Both the Baptist’s congratulatory letter and Jefferson’s reply were published in friendly newspapers, including the 'Mirror' - a Wilmington, Delaware newspaper.  Publishing in friendly newspapers was a practice used by the President to communicate his ideas to the public. [3]

   

While uncovering the original letter is significant, the contents were already known.  Jefferson made “press copies” of letters and made a note of this letter in his Summary of Letters.  The "press copy" is kept in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC [3].

   

It is extraordinary that the letter survived, unknown for such a long time.  The Hollingsworth’s, being such a prominent family, no doubt amassed quite a collection of documents over the years.  Also, beginning in the 1900s, the Hollingsworth House was leased to multiple tenants. Some were farmers and the property also operated as a dairy.  There were both short term and long-term occupants. Entire rooms were filled with remains of Hollingsworth and tenant’s possessions.  That these letters survived, is nothing short of remarkable. T

      

It is suspected that at some point in time, a marriage occurred years prior between a Hollingsworth descendant and possibly James Wilson, editor of the “Mirror”.  But exactly how the letters came to Elk Landing is unknown. [3]

   

The Jefferson letter is a highlight of the history that can be found at Elk Landing, in this unique and quiet corner of Cecil County.

   

A copy Thomas Jefferson’s response to the Delaware Baptist Congregation is on display in the 2nd floor museum room of the Hollingsworth House.

   

Plan a visit and view the letter and several other artifacts on display.

References:

  1. Ed Okonowicz and Jerry Rhodes, “Friends, Neighbors and Folks Down the Road", Myst and Lace Publishers, Inc., 2003

  2. https://www.theintelligencer.com/news/amp/Jefferson-Letter-May-Be-Sold-at-Auction-10542559.php, accessed June 2021

  3. Lane Brown, “Unmistakable’ piece of history”, The Baltimore Sun, June 5, 2002