How History Unfolds on Paper: Choice Selections from the Eric C. Caren Collection, Part IX
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[WASHINGTON, George (1732-1799)]. Autograph document signed, entirely in the hand of Charles Thomson Secretary of the Continental Congress, including the signature of “John Hancock”, appointing George Washington as General and Commander in Chief of the army of the United Colonies, Philadelphia, 19 June 1775.

One-page, oblong folio (324 x 400 mm), on sheepskin vellum, browned on verso from removal of old mount, small hole affecting one word, also a small stain affecting one word, old repair with small hole at left margin from old seal, some marginal browning or soiling, old folds. Provenance: Dr. George Whitfield Avery (1835-1983), “we know that the framed document [at the time Ahlstrom purchased it] hung for many years in [his] office… a letter from his granddaughter, who still lives in Ohio, tells of David Avery, Dr. Avery’s grandfather, being acquainted with General Washington” (see, A Significant George Washington Discovery by Richard M. Ahlstrom, 1975). -- Richard M. Ahlstrom, purchased the document in 1969, at an antique show in northeastern Ohio; includes scans of his published notes, as well as scans of letters and notes from leading authorities. -- Lot 369, Important Americana, Sotheby Parke Bernet, 24 February 1976 (highlight of its bicentennial auction, however, withdrawn from sale pending further review).


The document reads in part: “To George Washington Esquire. We reposing especial trust and confidence in your patriotism, conduct and fidelity Do by these presents constitute and appoint you to be GENERAL AND COMMANDER IN CHIEF of the army of the United Colonies and of all the forces raised or to be raised by them and of all others who shall voluntarily offer their service and join the said army for the defence of American Liberty and for repelling every hostile invasion thereof…”

Thomson signed the document as Secretary and on behalf of “John Hancock, President”. On June 15, 1775, the Continental Congress, “Resolved, that a general be appointed to command all the continental forces, raised, or to be raised, for defence of American liberty… The Congress proceeded to the choice of a general, by ballot, when George Washington, Esq. was unanimously elected” (Journal of the Continental Congress for June, 1775). On the following day, President Hancock, “From the chair informed Geo. Washington, Esq. that he had the orders of Congress to acquaint him that the Congress had, by unanimous vote, made choice of him to be General and Commander in Chief, to take the supreme command of the Forces raised, and to be raised, in defence of American liberty, and desired his acceptance of it. To which, Colonel Washington, standing in his place…” gave his response (ibid). When Colonel Washington had completed his acceptance speech, it was, “Resolved, that a committee of three by appointed to draught a commission and instructions for the General” (ibid). On Saturday, June 17, the Congress, “Met according to adjournment,” and, “The committee appointed to draught a commission for the General, reported the same, which, being read by paragraphs and debated was agreed to” (ibid). It was then ordered that the commission be, “Dated, Phila. June 17, 1775, and, that the same be fairly transcribed, to be signed by the President, and attested by the Secretary and delivered to the General” (ibid). Timothy Matlack was chosen from among the congressional clerks to write out the commissions of both George Washington and Adjutant General Horatio Gates. General Washington’s Commission was prepared with a number of significant textual changes from the approved resolution, and dated June 17, to conform with the date of the resolution of the Congress. This date was altered by John Hancock when he was presented with the Commission for signature on Monday, June 19th, by his making a nine out of a seven. Shortly after receiving his commission, Washington departed for Massachusetts and took charge of the Continental Army in Cambridge on July 3, 1775. Following eight years of conflict, he stepped down from his role as Commander in Chief on December 23, 1783. When the original commission was given back to Congress by Washington at the close of the War, it was in remarkably good physical condition, and speculation began about the existence of a second document. Charles Thomson (1729-1824), a Founding Father of the United States, served as the Secretary of the Continental Congress throughout its existence, from 1774 to 1789. He was responsible for maintaining the records of the Congress and played a significant role in the administrative affairs of the revolutionary government. Thomson’s meticulous record-keeping contributed to the historical documentation of the events and decisions made during the early years of the United States that was so vital to a Congress whose members were ever-changing. Along with Hancock, Thomson’s name appeared on the first published version of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776 - the only two names to appear on the document. Thomson is also known for co-designing the Great Seal of the United States that was first used in 1782, and later adopted by Congress as the national symbol. As his last official act as Secretary, Thomson would also be given the distinction of informing Washington of his election to the presidency. On March 23, 1789, Henry Knox informed George Washington, “At present it appears probable that Mr Charles Thomson will have the honor of announcing to the President his appointment.” Then, on April 6, John Langdon wrote a letter to Washington, “to transmit to your Excellency the information of your unanimous election to the Office of President of the United States of America.” Thomson delivered this letter to Washington at Mount Vernon on April 14, 1789. As Secretary of the Congress, Thomson oversaw the safe keeping all documents related to his post. “When the new federal government was established in 1789, Thomson transferred all of the papers of the Continental Congress to the Department of State. In a letter written July 24, 1789, Washington instructed Thomson ‘to deliver the Books, Records & Papers of the late Congress—the Great Seal of the Federal Union—and the Seal of the Admiralty, to Mr Roger Alden, the late Deputy Secretary of Congress; who is requested to take charge of them until further directions shall be given’” (Harvard University, Declaration Resources Project, Charles Thomson, 4 November 2017). It is known that Charles Thomson was in possession of the original commission that Washington handed to Congress at the end of the War and in a letter dated 22 January 1784, Washington wrote to Thomson requesting that his commission be deposited amongst his own papers for his future family legacy. On 7 February 1784, Thomson obliged and returned the commission with hope that it may “prove an incentive to them to emulate the virtues of their worthy great progenitor”. The present document is without a doubt, entirely in the hand of Thomson and the text and format are nearly identical to that of Washington’s own document now in the Library of Congress - which is also on vellum.

According to Michael Brown of Michael Brown Rare Books (ABAA member and specialist in manuscript Americana), Thomson’s signature seen here is consistent with other examples: “The bold bottom loop of the ‘C’ which is unattached to the ‘h’ with its rightward slanting ascending loop is a consistent attribute found in Thomson’s signature whether scrawled or deliberately inscribed… The most noticeable trademark of Thomson’s signature is present here as well: the ascending stroke from the ‘a’ looping upwards to connect with the ‘T' of Thomson… The formation of the letters in the abbreviations ‘Attest’ and ‘Secy’, which precede and follow Thomson’s signature of [this] commission match those on other documents signed that way by Thomson”. Previously, the document was submitted to the Documentary History of the First Federal Congress Project at The George Washington University, and on 15 January 1974, the handwriting expert, Helen E. Veits, wrote in a letter to Ahlstrom: “Based upon the manuscripts in our possession, I am quite confident that [this] document was written in the hand of Charles Thomson, Secretary to the Continental Congress”. Included with this lot, is Charles Thomson’s signature cut from a printed document that shows the exact similarities of the one he used for Washington’s commission. To further substantiate this document as being an official commission, we must look at the wording used. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb “attest” as “to bear witness to, affirm the truth or genuineness of.” “Charles Thomson’s attestation of the Declaration of Independence, in the Dunlap broadside and subsequent printings, was an affirmation of both the text and the act of declaring independence. But the Declaration was far from the only Congressional resolution to bear Thomson’s name. Almost any resolution pulled directly from the minutes of the Congress was also accompanied by Thomson’s name, confirming its authenticity” (Harvard University, Declaration Resources Project, Charles Thomson, 4 November 2017). Not only did Thomson sign the document in his capacity as Secretary of Congress, but he also affirmed the genuineness of such a document by attesting to it. From a legal standpoint, Eric Caren has proven by law that only Charles Thomson could apply his signature after the word “attest” as he did on numerous resolutions of the Continental Congress including the Declaration of Independence. According to a note from Gary D. Eyler of Old Colony Shop, there are three reasons this document could have been produced. The first is that the document originated to be used to show that Washington was in fact nominated for that position when he quickly proceeded up to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to take command of the troops. Secondly, that it could have been written as a backup for the secret files of Congress, in case of British invasion, capture, or destruction that was about to befall upon the Continental Congress. Or lastly, it was drawn up by Thomson at the request of Washington when he asked for his original to be sent back to him after the end of the War. In a letter to Ahlstrom from Dr. Paul G. Sifton at The Library of Congress on 8 August 1973, Sifton wrote that there is no other copy or draft of Washington’s commission, and in addition: “Commissions issued by the Second Continental Congress ordinarily consisted of one copy to the designated recipient. In rare instances, a duplicate would be issued upon the later application by the commission holder”. After an executive order that was issued requiring the transfer of Washington’s papers to the Library of Congress in 1904, the Library notes that “some of the many manuscripts that became separated over the years from the main body of Washington’s papers have already been noted. It may be well at this point to refer to others of the kind. There is evidence that certain private papers of Washington were distributed among members of the Washington family, who later gave them away or sold them.” THIS DOCUMENT IS UNDENIABLY ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT HISTORICAL AMERICAN DOCUMENTS STILL IN PRIVATE HANDS.

 [WASHINGTON, George (1732-1799)]. Autograph document signed...
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