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American Revolution letter

National Postal Museum
This letter was sent to Colonel Edward Hand by Jasper Yeates during the American Revolutionary War. Writing on the front and back of a single page, Yeates shares strategical information with the Colonel, ranging from his position and future movements to financial matters. Despite the business attended to in the letter, the tone remains informal and Yeates takes time to mention both his wife and that of the Colonel.

Jasper Yeates was a lawyer from Pennsylvania, a strong Patriot who went on to be among the delegates who ratified the United States Constitution in 1787. Edward Hand was an Irish born medic who rose to the rank of Brigadier General during the siege of Yorktown. The two men knew each other from Lancaster, Pennsylvania where they had lived prior to the beginning of the Revolutionary War.

The Revolutionary Wars saw the beginnings of the American postal system. Originally operating alongside the British Royal Mail, William Goddard’s Newspaper carrier service effectively developed into the postal service of independent America. Despite problems with fraud, staffing and high expenditure, the postal service in those early years of the new state established the foundation of the U.S. postal system.

References

Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. “Hand, Edward (1744 - 1802)”, http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=H000153 (Accessed July 25, 2011).

Fitzpatrick, John. C. “The Post Office of the Revolutionary War”. Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine vol. 362 (1922): 575-588.

Landis, Charles I et al. “Jasper Yeates and His Times”. The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Bibliography vol. 46 (1922): 199-231. (http://www.jstor.org/stable/20086481)

Pictorial History American Revolution

National Museum of American History

8c American Revolution Bicentennial single

National Postal Museum
mint

Graphic of American Revolution letter

National Postal Museum
This letter was sent to Colonel Edward Hand by Jasper Yeates during the American Revolutionary War. Writing on the front and back of a single page, Yeates shares strategical information with the Colonel, ranging from his position and future movements to financial matters. Despite the business attended to in the letter, the tone remains informal and Yeates takes time to mention both his wife and that of the Colonel.

Jasper Yeates was a lawyer from Pennsylvania, a strong Patriot who went on to be among the delegates who ratified the United States Constitution in 1787. Edward Hand was an Irish born medic who rose to the rank of Brigadier General during the siege of Yorktown. The two men knew each other from Lancaster, Pennsylvania where they had lived prior to the beginning of the Revolutionary War.

The Revolutionary Wars saw the beginnings of the American postal system. Originally operating alongside the British Royal Mail, William Goddard’s Newspaper carrier service effectively developed into the postal service of independent America. Despite problems with fraud, staffing and high expenditure, the postal service in those early years of the new state established the foundation of the U.S. postal system.

References

Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. “Hand, Edward (1744 - 1802)”, http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=H000153 (Accessed July 25, 2011).

Fitzpatrick, John. C. “The Post Office of the Revolutionary War”. Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine vol. 362 (1922): 575-588.

Landis, Charles I et al. “Jasper Yeates and His Times”. The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Bibliography vol. 46 (1922): 199-231. (http://www.jstor.org/stable/20086481)

Portrait of America: The American Revolution [fresco] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Panel was destroyed by a fire at Unity House on February 28, 1969.

"Diego Rivera: A Retrospective," New York: Founders Society Detroit Institute of Arts, 1986, pg. 300-301, panel B.

Rivera, Diego and Bertram D. Wolfe, "Portrait of America," New York: Convici, Friede, 1934, panel II.

Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Nitrate, BW.

copy 1 negative: 8x10, Safety, BW.

Unity House, Forest Park, Pennsylvania.

Installed 1933 at the New Workers School, New York City. Bequest 1941 to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

Paul Revere's Ride and the American Revolution

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Teacher-created lesson in which students come up with alternative strategies for Lexington and Concord. In reports that include maps and other graphics, they explain how those strategies might have altered history.

A History of the American Revolution

National Museum of American History
Samuel Williams authored A History of the American Revolution in 1795 when it first appeared in monthly installments in Rural Magazine. This edition was compiled and published by William Storer, Jr. in 1826. The book was intended as a reading book for schools, to teach children about the history of the American Revolution. The preface notes that, “next to the Bible, the history of the American Revolution is most deservedly entitled to the attention and reverence of the youth.” The book was published in several editions, speaking to its popularity among early colonists and its utility in teaching. The Copp Collection contains about 150 books of early American imprint and shows a wide range of reading matter typical of a New England Puritan family living in a port town. Literacy was expected of many New Englanders, as Puritan doctrine required everyone to read the Bible. The abundance of multiple Bibles, psalms, hymnodies, sermons, and morality tales reflects the Copp’s religious beliefs. Other highlights of the library include the works of Shakespeare, almanacs, historical and political texts, and travel narratives. The Copp Collection contains a variety of household objects that the Copp family of Connecticut used from around 1700 until the mid-1800s. Part of the Puritan Great Migration from England to Boston, the family eventually made their home in New London County, Connecticut, where their textiles, clothes, utensils, ceramics, books, bibles, and letters provide a vivid picture of daily life. More of the collection from the Division of Home and Community Life can be viewed by searching accession number 28810.

American Revolution Bicentennial Committee Meeting and luncheon

Smithsonian Institution Archives
Digital contact sheet available.

American Revolution Bicentennial Committee meeting and luncheon at the National Museum of History and Technology, now known as the National Museum of American History.

8c American Revolution Bicentennial plate proof

National Postal Museum
Certified plate proofs are the last printed proof of the plate before printing the stamps at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. These plate proofs are each unique, with the approval signatures and date. For postal scholars these plates provide important production information in the plate margin inscriptions, including guidelines, plate numbers, and initials of the siderographer, or person who created the plate from a transfer roll.

Plate No.33031

Denomination: 8c

Subject: Bicentennial Commission Emblem, American Revolution Bicentennial Issue

Color: gray, red, blue & black

A History of the American Revolution

National Museum of American History
Samuel Williams authored A History of the American Revolution in 1795 when it first appeared in monthly installments in his Rural Magazine. This edition was compiled from the monthly editions and published by William Storer, Jr. in 1824. The book was intended as a reading book for schools, to teach children about the history of the American Revolution. The preface notes that, “next to the Bible, the history of the American Revolution is most deservedly entitled to the attention and reverence of the youth.” The book was published in several editions, speaking to its popularity among early colonists and its utility in teaching youngster the history of the new country. The Copp Collection contains about 150 books of early American imprint and shows a wide range of reading matter typical of a New England Puritan family living in a port town. Literacy was expected of many New Englanders, as Puritan doctrine required everyone to read the Bible. The abundance of multiple Bibles, psalms, hymnodies, sermons, and morality tales reflects the Copp’s religious beliefs. Other highlights of the library include the works of Shakespeare, almanacs, historical and political texts, and travel narratives. The Copp Collection contains a variety of household objects that the Copp family of Connecticut used from around 1700 until the mid-1800s. Part of the Puritan Great Migration from England to Boston, the family eventually made their home in New London County, Connecticut, where their textiles, clothes, utensils, ceramics, books, bibles, and letters provide a vivid picture of daily life. More of the collection from the Division of Home and Community Life can be viewed by searching accession number 28810.

The American Revolution history you didn’t learn in high school

Smithsonian Insider

If you think the American Revolution was an isolated conflict between Great Britain and the American colonies, you know only part of the story. A […]

The post The American Revolution history you didn’t learn in high school appeared first on Smithsonian Insider.

Onondaga County Soldiers and Sailors of the American Revolution Tablet [sculpture] / (photographed by A. B. Bogart)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
On photo mount label: I. Konti. Tablet in memory of the Soldiers and Sailors of the American Revolution. Syracuse, N.Y. Bogart. Classification number: 282/K82/965. Accession: 47085.

"The sculpture of Isidore Konti, 1862-1938," Yonkers: Hudson River Museum, c1974, no. 74.

1 photographic print : b&w, 8 1/4 x 6 in. (trimmed), mounted on 9 3/4 x 13 7/8 in. board.

Why Benedict Arnold Turned Traitor Against the American Revolution

Smithsonian Magazine
The story behind the most famous betrayal in U.S. history shows the complicated politics of the nation's earliest days

Presentation by Daughters of the American Revolution to MHT

Smithsonian Institution Archives
Also known as 66728.

Digital contact sheet available.

Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) presentation to Silvio Bedini, Assistant Director of the Museum of History and Technology (MHT), now known as the National Museum of American History.

¡Salud! to the Mexican-American Wine Revolution

Smithsonian Magazine
Ceja Vineyards breathes new life into Napa Valley’s wine industry

When Nova Scotia Almost Joined the American Revolution

Smithsonian Magazine

Early in 1776, while in the midst of overseeing his army's siege of British-held Boston, General George Washington received at his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an anonymous letter from a citizen on the fringes of the British colonial empire.

“Sir,” the letter began. “You may reasonably imagine that it is presumptuous in me to take such liberty in writing to your Excellency; still, its going from one whose principles are actuated from the genuine feelings of liberty, and an indelible anxiety for the happiness of his country.”

The writer went on to express solidarity with America’s “great struggle” against the crown; and strongly hinted that rebellion could be fomented in his neck of the woods—with support from the general. “We would greatly rejoice could we be able to join with the other Colonies, but we must have other assistance before we can act publicly.”

Scholars today believe that the unsigned letter was likely written by John Allan, an influential merchant and politician in Nova Scotia—today, one of Canada’s Maritime Provinces, but then a crown colony.

For 200 years, historians have been debating the question of why Nova Scotia never became the 14th colony to join the American Revolution. It had close ties with the rebellious colonies, after all: An estimated three-quarters of Nova Scotia’s population of 20,000 at the time of the Revolution were New Englanders.

To Americans today, the idea that there were 13 colonies—and 13 only—seems sacrosanct. It certainly didn’t look that way in 1776. Nobody then saw the northern territories as something separate; certainly not a separate entity called Canada.

“There is no Canada at this point,” explains historian Margaret Conrad, professor emeritus at the University of New Brunswick. “There is British North America.”

Actually, there once was a part of France’s North American colonies called Canada. But when the British took the land as part of the spoils of the French and Indian War of the 1750s and 60s, they renamed it Quebec. That, too, was a colony at the start of the American Revolution—as were far-off Newfoundland and tiny Saint John’s Island (today known as Prince Edward’s Island). But of the crown’s four northern colonies, none had such close ties to those in rebellion as Nova Scotia.

In the years after the war, the British government expelled French Acadian inhabitants and, eager to re-populate the land with English-speaking colonists, offered their land for cheap to nearby New Englanders. The colonial capital of Halifax was a military garrison town founded in 1749 as a counterweight to the then-French fortress of Louisbourg a few hundred miles up the coast.

The city and the province attracted the interest and presence of some now-familiar names on both sides of the impending Revolution. Benjamin Franklin owned land in Nova Scotia. General Charles Cornwallis, who would later surrender to Washington at Yorktown, was the nephew of Nova Scotia’s Royal Governor. Horatio Gates, the American hero of Saratoga (and nemesis of Washington) was stationed there as a young British officer.

As things heated up in Massachusetts in the early 1770s, Nova Scotians responded in kind. Echoing their independence-minded cousins to the south, the same Committees of Correspondence and Safety that united the 13 colonies began popping up in Nova Scotia. There were also acts of civil insurrection: A large consignment of hay, bound for Boston where it would be used as forage for the British army occupying the city, was burned in Halifax before it could be loaded onto transport ships. A Canadian Hay Party, if you will.

In 1775, Washington sent two spies to Nova Scotia to assess whether the colony was indeed ripe for rebellion. The agents proved remarkably inept, claiming that they weren’t even able to find a ship to get them across the Bay of Fundy into the colony. More encouraging was a meeting in February 1776 with representatives of the native peoples of Nova Scotia, who expressed solidarity with the American cause.

And yet the revolutionary spirit in Nova Scotia was stamped out early. One reason? Simple bad luck.

In March 1776, a delegation of Nova Scotians eager to lead a rebellion in their colony arrived at Washington’s headquarters in Cambridge just as the British were evacuating Boston. As recounted by historian Ernest Clarke in his book The Siege of Fort Cumberland 1776, the delegation—Jonathan Eddy, Isaiah Boudreau and Samuel Rogers—met several times with the general in a building at Harvard College. But Washington was pre-occupied with where the British fleet, still anchored in Boston Harbor, would head next.

 “Timing is everything, and this was bad timing on part of the Nova Scotian emissaries,” says historian Barnet Schecter, author of George Washington's America: A Biography Through His Maps.

Although he dutifully passed the emissaries along to Congress, Washington declined to aid his visitors’ cause. While applauding what he called the “spirit and zeal” of the liberty-loving people of Nova Scotia, he expressed concern that the invasion of a colony not already in rebellion would make Americans the aggressors. “I apprehend such an enterprise to be inconsistent with the principles on which the Colonies have proceeded,” he wrote.

It was a specious argument. The Americans had already invaded a colony that was not in rebellion—Quebec. And it hadn’t gone well. Indeed at the very moment of the Nova Scotian delegation's arrival in Cambridge, Benedict Arnold's starving and smallpox-ridden army was languishing just outside Quebec City, having been defeated in their attempt to take it the previous December.

Arnold was Washington's best general and despite his valiant efforts, the attempted invasion of Canada had been a disaster. "Washington was probably thinking 'If Arnold and his army couldn't do it, what chance do these guys have?'" Schecter says.

“Maybe Washington thought they didn’t have much chance of success,” Schecter says.

If so, he was right. The bad timing continued for the Nova Scotians when they arrived in Philadelphia—just as Congress was busy debating the Declaration of Independence. Rebuffed again, the rebels did go on to launch a series of small and largely unsuccessful military actions back home; a campaign still known in Canada as “Eddy’s Rebellion.”

Allan, the man who is believed to have written the anonymous letter to Washington, made a little more progress. He too traveled to Philadelphia and, perhaps arriving at a more opportune time than his colleagues, met with Congress in early 1777. According to Clarke, he convinced the representives to back an expedition into Nova Scotia, the first step of which would involve Allan returning home to organize the native tribes against the British. Allan, now a colonel in the Massachusetts militia, did broker friendly relations with the Indians, and some historians credit his efforts for protecting otherwise defenseless American settlements in what is now eastern Maine from attack. But the invasion of his home colony that he had dreamed of never materialized.

Recent scholarship suggests colonists hesitated to rise up for several reasons: influential clergymen who opposed the rebellion; long distances between settlements that stymied efforts by rebels to act in concert; the intimidating presence of the large British military base in Halifax.

Still, perhaps the biggest reason that Nova Scotians didn’t join the Americans may have been the Americans themselves. At the time, American privateers operating out of New England ports were ravaging Nova Scotia’s coast. “The privateers come early on in the conflict,” says Conrad. While they couldn’t stand up to the British fleet, “they could do a lot of damage in hit-and-run raids.”

They didn’t discriminate against loyalists, neutrals or those inclined to support the patriot cause, either. Nor did Congress, Washington or anyone else seem able to control them. “Numerous settlements received nocturnal visits from the heartless New Englanders,” wrote historian John Dewar Faibisy. “They entered harbors, rivers and coves, committing various depredations on land, burning vessels in port and at sea seizing valuable prizes.”

The behavior of these raiders, Conrad says, “took away a lot of the sympathy for the rebellion.” As one Nova Scotian wrote at the time: “Robbing poor innocent ones has bin a grate means to Coule [cool] the Affection of many well wishers to the Just proceedings of America.”

When the main theater of war moved to the middle and southern colonies, Nova Scotia braced itself for a new American invasion. This time, it was loyalists fleeing the United States, a country where they could no longer live in safety. After the war, in 1784, the mainland of Nova Scotia was carved into a new entity, New Brunswick, for these American refugees.

When Canada became a nation in 1867, both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were among the original four provinces. But as the country expanded west in the 20th century, the importance of Atlantic Canada diminished and its economy deteriorated—leaving behind an intriguing series of “What if?” questions. What if people like Eddy or Allan had succeeded in their missions? What if Congress had been able to restrain the overzealous privateers? Could Nova Scotia have become the 14th colony to join what would become the United States?

“I doubt the British would have let Nova Scotia go easily,” says historian Jeffers Lennox of Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

Hopes of a 14th colony may have been misplaced, but commercial and social intercourse between Nova Scotia and New England endured. “There’s a long history of migration back and forth that continues after the war,” says Lennox. “And there remains a real facility and familiarity between these two regions.”

Indeed, the bonds that even the American Revolution couldn’t completely sever are still evident today. Just ask a Halifax football fan what his or her favorite team is. The inevitable answer?

The New England Patriots. 

The Woman Whose Words Inflamed the American Revolution

Smithsonian Magazine

John Adams and some of the other leaders of the American Revolution knew Mercy Otis Warren’s secret. At a time when few women could, Warren contributed her own voice to the cause for freedom. Her piercing satires of British authorities, published in Boston newspapers starting in 1772, had prepared colonists for the final break with the mother country. Adams called her the “most accomplished woman in America” – though he, too, would later feel the sting of her pen. Other Founding Fathers also celebrated her writing when she began publishing under her own name in 1790. A poet, playwright and historian, she’s one of the first American women who wrote mostly for publication. 

The younger sister of James Otis, Boston’s leading advocate for colonists’ rights in the 1760s, Mercy was a bookish girl in a time when many girls never obtained basic literacy. Her father, James Sr., encouraged her curiosity. She demanded to join in when her brothers read aloud and   took the place of her second-oldest brother during lessons with their uncle, a local minister. While James was a student at Harvard, he’d come home and tell her about his studies, especially the political theories of John Locke. She read voraciously: Shakespeare and Milton, Greek and Roman literature, Moliere’s plays in translation, Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World. At age 14, she met her future husband, James Warren, at her brother’s Harvard graduation. They married in 1754 at ages 26 and 28, respectively. While raising five children, she began writing private poems about family and nature.

In the 1760s, the Warrens’ Plymouth home became a meeting-place for like-minded patriots. Her husband joined her brother in the Massachusetts legislature—together, they opposed colonial governor Thomas Hutchinson. But James Otis’ career was cut short in 1769, when a British customs officer bashed his head with a cane in a bar brawl and the trauma pushed him into mental illness. 

After Otis went mad, his sister began answering his correspondence, including letters from radical British historian Catharine Macaulay. Encouraged by her husband, who praised her “genius” and “brilliant and busy imagination,” Warren also began writing satirical plays that attacked Hutchinson, her brother’s nemesis. Her first play, The Adulateur, published in Boston’s Massachusetts Spy newspaper in March and April 1772, portrayed a thinly disguised Hutchinson as Rapatio, the dictatorial leader of the mythical kingdom of Servia. Warren pitted Brutus, a hero based on her brother, against Rapatio. “The man who boasts his freedom,/Feels solid joy,” Brutus declared, “tho’ poor and low his state.” Three years before the Revolution, Warren’s play warned that a day might come when “murders, blood and carnage/Shall crimson all these streets.”

The Adulateur caught on with Boston’s patriots, who began to substitute its characters’ names for actual political figures in their correspondence. Then, in 1773, Boston newspapers published private letters of Hutchinson’s that confirmed patriots’ worst suspicions about him. (In one, Hutchinson called for “an abridgement of English liberties in colonial administration.”) Warren responded with The Defeat, a sequel to The Adulateur, which cast Rapatio as the “dangerous foe/Of Liberty of truth, and of mankind.” 

Leading patriots knew Warren was the play’s anonymous author. After the Boston Tea Party, John Adams asked her to write a mythical poem about it, as “a frolic among the sea-nymphs and goddesses.” Warren obliged, quickly writing “The Squabble of the Sea-Nymphs,” in which two of Neptune’s wives debate the quality of several teas, until intruders poured “delicious teas” into the water, thus “bid[ding] defiance to the servile train,/The pimps and sycophants of George’s reign.” In early 1775, as Bostonians chafed at Britain’s Intolerable Acts, Warren published poems that encouraged women to boycott British goods. Another play that mocked loyalists, The Group, was published two weeks before the battles of Lexington and Concord. 

Like other patriot writers, she insisted on anonymity to avoid British retaliation, telling one publisher not to name her “so long as the spirit of party runs so high.” Anonymity may have also helped her as a female writer, by insuring that readers judge her work on its merits, not dismiss it because of her sex.

During the war, Warren worked as her husband’s personal secretary and managed their Plymouth farm while he was away governing as president of the Massachusetts provincial congress. She kept up a frequent correspondence with John Adams, a protégé of her brother’s, and his wife, Abigail. In November 1775, as the British held Boston under siege, James Warren wrote to Adams, a friend and delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, urging him to give up on trying to reconcile with George III. “Your Congress can be no longer in any doubts, and hesitancy,” he wrote in his lawyerly style, “about taking capital and effectual strokes.” 

Mercy insisted on adding a paragraph of her own. “You should no longer piddle at the threshold,” she dictated. “It is time to leap into the theatre to unlock the bars, and open every gate that impedes the rise and growth of the American republic.”

As Americans debated the proposed new Constitution in 1787, Warren and her husband became Anti-Federalists. As part of the older generation of revolutionaries that had emerged from provincial governments, they were more loyal to their state than the federal government. Both Mercy and James penned arguments against the Constitution – published anonymously, much like the Federalist Papers. Her essay, published in 1788 under the pseudonym “A Columbian Patriot,” warned that the Constitution would lead to “an aristocratic tyranny” and an “uncontrolled despotism.” The Constitution, she warned, lacked a bill of rights – no guarantees of a free press, freedom of conscience, or trial by jury. Warren complained that the Constitution didn’t protect citizens from arbitrary warrants giving officials power to “enter our houses, search, insult, and seize at pleasure.” Her sweeping, florid essay proved more popular than her husband’s narrow, precise legal argument. It contributed to the pressure that led Congress to pass the Bill of Rights in 1789. 

Warren shed her anonymity in 1790, publishing her book Poems, Dramatic and Miscellaneous under her own name. It collected two decades of her work, including Revolutionary-era satires and two new plays with prominent female characters. Adams and George Washington sent congratulations; Alexander Hamilton proclaimed her a “genius” of “dramatic composition.” But the compilation was just a prelude to her masterwork.  

In 1805, Warren published a three-volume, 1,200-page history of the American Revolution. Titled History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, it made her the U.S.’s first female historian, and the only one of her era to write about the nation’s founding from an Anti-Federalist and Jeffersonian Republican perspective. The book sold poorly—and provoked a vicious series of letters from John Adams, who had encouraged her to start the history. His Federalist politics had clashed with hers, and he didn’t come off terribly well in her telling. “History is not the province of the ladies,” Adams sniped in a letter to a mutual friend. 

History disagrees. Filled with character insights, primary sources, and footnotes, Warren’s History is still useful and insightful to modern readers. It’s “one of the earliest and most accurate histories of the independence movement,” wrote Rosemarie Zagarri in her biography of Warren. “The work conveyed a sense of grandeur, intellectual ambitiousness and moral integrity that impresses even today.”

The Laptops That Powered the American Revolution

Smithsonian Magazine

Delegate to the Continental Congress, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, General Washington’s aide-de-camp, secretary of state, president of the United States, secretary of the treasury. During their lifetimes, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton epitomized the role of American Founding Father, all of them heavily involved in the birth of the new United States and the shaping of its government and future.

Between them, they performed some of the most important tasks in forming our nation, but for all three men, their significant contributions came in large part through their writings. The world has known many inspiring revolutionary leaders, but few whose written legacy so inspired the world to embrace a new form of government, and their nation to stay true to the new republic’s founding principles and charter for more than two centuries.

Within the political history collections at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History are three important links to these men and the ideals that inspired them: the portable writing boxes of Jefferson, Washington and Hamilton.

When staff at the Smithsonian recently took the boxes out to be photographed together for the first time, I was lucky enough to witness this moment. We were standing in the presence of the brilliant minds that shaped our country.

Some of us stood in silent admiration. A few even got teary-eyed. America is a nation of ideas, and here were the instruments that first made those ideas a reality and transmitted them to the wider world.

Within the political history collections at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History are three important artifacts. Left to right: the portable writing boxes of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. (National Museum of American History)

The 18th-century writing box, also known as a dispatch case, portable desk and writing case, would have been an important object for the traveling Founding Father to own. Like the laptops and mobile devices of today, a writing box provided its owner a base from which to communicate, even when on the move.

A box generally contained space for paper, pens, ink and pencils, and often unfolded to reveal some type of writing surface as well. For Jefferson, Washington and Hamilton, who were often required to work away from the fully stocked desks they would have had in their homes and who were constantly writing letters or essays, the ability to travel with a small box with the most essential items from a writing desk was crucial. Each of their boxes, however, while serving similar purposes, is different.

Jefferson’s writing box is small and light, made of a beautiful mahogany with satinwood inlay. The top is a hinged board that can be propped up as a bookstand, or unfolded to twice its size to become a writing surface.

A small drawer provides storage for paper, pens and ink. It is emblematic of his many interests and talents. Jefferson spent more than 40 years designing and redesigning his home Monticello in Virginia, invented a new type of moldboard for a plow, and crafted his own designs for a sundial, a wheel cipher, a polygraph, and more. So it comes as no surprise that his desk was done after his own drawing. Jefferson had the desk constructed by Philadelphia cabinetmaker Benjamin Randolph sometime in either 1775 or 1776.

It was on this desk while away from home as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress that Jefferson drafted one of the seminal documents of our nation: the Declaration of Independence. (National Museum of American History)

It was on this desk while away from home as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress that he drafted one of the seminal documents of our nation: the Declaration of Independence. Over the next half-century as a diplomat, cabinet member and president, Jefferson continued to write copious amounts, some of it undoubtedly on this very desk.

In 1825, Jefferson sent the desk as a gift to his granddaughter and her husband, Ellen and Joseph Coolidge, with a note in his own hand affixed beneath the writing board attesting that the desk “is the identical one on which he wrote the Declaration of Independence.” In 1880, the United States government officially accepted an offer from the Coolidge family to donate the desk, and it was placed in care of the State Department until 1921, when it was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution.

For seven long years after the Declaration was written, the Revolutionary War raged, and George Washington was fighting at its forefront—and writing. Washington’s dispatch case is of a completely different design than Jefferson’s—more easily portable but without as much space to write on.

Washington’s dispatch case is of a completely different design than Jefferson’s—more easily portable but without as much space to write on. (National Museum of American History)

It was intended for use by someone constantly traveling. It was intended, in short, for someone like the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. The case is a slight rectangular box made of mahogany and covered with black leather. A hinged lid at the bottom opens to reveal several compartments for writing implements while the top has a leather pocket for stationary and documents. It could easily be slipped into a saddle or travel bag and carried to its owner’s next location.

As Commander-in-Chief, Washington had to be in constant communication with army officials and the Congress, sending dispatches, issuing orders, and writing letters both political and personal. His most pivotal decisions of the war were not issued on the battlefield but from his pen using this very case.

Like the Jefferson writing box, those to whom the case was passed down eventually recognized its significance to the country and it was presented to the government in 1845 by Dr. Richard Blackburn in care of the U.S. Patent Office. In 1883 it was officially transferred to the Smithsonian, the first of the three boxes to arrive.

For a man whose legacy exists most prominently in the volumes of writings he produced during his lifetime, the sturdy workhorse quality of Alexander Hamilton’s portable desk seems fitting. Throughout his lifetime, Hamilton kept up a continuous stream of correspondence, military papers, cabinet papers, Treasury records and political commentary. Most famously he authored 51 of the 85 essays of The Federalist Papers in just eight months. Hamilton knew the power of the written word and strove to use it to its fullest.

The sturdy workhorse quality of Alexander Hamilton’s portable desk seems fitting. Throughout his lifetime, Hamilton kept up a continuous stream of correspondence, military papers, cabinet papers, Treasury records and political commentary. (National Museum of American History)

The thick mahogany travel desk that resides in the museum's collections is just the type to stand up to such constant use. It unfolds in the center to provide a large, slanted writing surface and includes a side drawer and slots for writing instruments. Like that of his political rival, Jefferson, Hamilton’s writing box remained with his descendants until they presented it to the Smithsonian in 1916.        

"Politics as well as Religion has its superstitions. These, gaining strength with time, may, one day, give imaginary value to this relic, for its association with the birth of the Great Charter of our Independence,” wrote Jefferson in the affidavit he attached to his writing box.

Time has proven Jefferson right, not only about his own box, but about those of Washington and Hamilton as well. Together, these objects that began as ordinary instruments remind us that our nation was built on a foundation of inspiring words, a new social contract Americans continue to honor, and endeavor to fulfill.

With these desks history was written, and with these desks our nation took shape. It is fitting that they all found their way to our national museum in the nation’s capital, the city where ultimately Jefferson, Washington and Hamilton came together during Washington’s tenure as president and worked, fought, compromised—and wrote—in the struggle to establish a nation.

This war of words that has been passed down over 200 years—more than the muskets and cannons fired during the Revolution—ensured that our new country would not only succeed, but flourish.

Bethanee Bemis is a museum specialist in the political history division at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. She wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a partnership of the Smithsonian and Zócalo Public Square.

In Defense of Liberty: The Magna Carta in the American Revolution

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Lesson examining an authentic Massachusetts thirty-shilling note (1775) from the Museum's collection and hypothesizing about the meaning of its visual elements. Primary and secondary sources are used to refine student hypothesis. Provides insight into the causes of the American Revolution and builds students' ability to read and interpret objects as primary sources.

Unidentified daughter of the American revolution letter to Edward B. Rowan

Archives of American Art
Letter : 1 p. : typescript ; 17 x 19 cm. Letter from a woman who was greatly offended by Grant Wood's painting Daughters of Revolution which was exhibited in Rowan's Little Gallery in Cedar Rapids.
She identifies herself as "a daughter of that great conflict" and requests that the painting "be removed from the gallery or the inscription should be changed."
The letter is signed "a patriot first."

Patchwork and powder horn [sound recording] : songs and ballads of the American Revolution / sung by with autoharp, Dorothy Mesney

Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections
Program notes and song lyrics (6 p. : ill.) inserted in container.

Dorothy Mesney, vocals and autoharp.
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