Signed, Thomas Jefferson

Signed, Thomas Jefferson

If a piece of the presidential record remains stowed in a drawer, is it history or history waiting to happen?

The December discovery of a personal letter from Thomas Jefferson circa 1808, the twilight of his presidency, in an office at Old Town’s American Legion Post 24 has since brought that very question to light albeit in the form of a faded, stained piece of paper covered in Jefferson’s own scrawl.

Originally announced in a monthly newsletter on the Post 24 website, the find has since sparked attention from all directions and prompted Legion leaders to have the document’s authenticity verified.

Gary Eyler, owner of Old Colony Shop and an expert in colonial-era manuscripts, was one of the first to take a more skilled look at the letter. Years of working with authentic copies of Jefferson’s own script left little doubt about the veracity of the piece.

“This lady comes in to my shop and she brings in an 8-by-10 old black frame with no glass that has a faded letter in it,” Eyler said, recalling the day Candice Bennett stopped by with the document. “As soon as I saw the handwriting and the script because I’ve trained myself enough to recognize and be familiar with the mannerism of handwriting I knew it was Thomas Jefferson.”

With that much clear, Post 24 Commander Michael Conner said his branch is still finalizing some of the other particulars of the artifact. They are working to ensure ownership of the letter and get it restored before a public presentation planned in the coming weeks.

Whenever a manuscript comes to Eyler they tend to arrive in spurts, making it hard to pinpoint the exact number he sees in a year he goes through a multi-faceted process of determining if it’s the genuine article. 

Beyond having “a sixth sense for what you’re handling,” the business of authentication comes down to examining the paper, the ink, the individual handwriting and cross-referencing the content with a place in history, Eyler said.

The results establish the value of a given piece, according to Eyler.

“In collecting manuscripts you have tiers of value,” he said, explaining that the levels begin with a simple clipped signature and rise to a signed document and then, on the highest tier, an autographed letter. “The ultimate is to have an autographed letter signed and that’s what this is.”

The letter uncovered at Post 24, with stains left by a paint can it supported several decades earlier, provided some insight into the workings of the president’s private residence at Monticello, making it a unique piece of Jefferson’s personal record.

“If that Jefferson letter talked about the Declaration or an outlook on America or the Louisiana purchase, you go from several thousand to tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Eyler explained.

Its real value, rather, is bolstered by the existence of a “free frank” a clear version of Jefferson’s signature that once doubled as postage on the document, Eyler said. “So to a postal history collector that is worth as much as the letter is.”

According to the Legion’s January newsletter, the uncovering of the manuscript is part of a broader effort to put the post’s historically significant items on display “for everyone to enjoy” a history that could be quite substantial.

After the Washington Post published a story on the letter last month, Eyler received a call from a person who worked with the Legion in the ’60s and ’70s. The caller, whose name Eyler didn’t record, said at that time “other Jefferson letters and materials were found on the second floor” and donated to historical outlets around the state.

And while the recently discovered document could very easily have been tossed aside at some point in the last 200 years, records exist that show it was indeed sent from Jefferson’s own desk but lost in the shuffle of time.

“It’s just the fate of the recipient keeping the manuscript,” Eyler said, noting that it was habit at the time to hold on to and keep track of correspondence. The end result is an intimate relationship between generations.

“To me, manuscripts are like the window to someone’s thinking,” Eyler said. “It’s primary-source [material] you have a letter written by Thomas Jefferson and you know just what he was doing at that moment in time.”