(WWLP) — A court has ruled that a letter written by founding father Alexander Hamilton during the Revolutionary War belongs to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
The letter, believed stolen decades ago from the Massachusetts state archives, has been returned following a federal appeals court decision, top state officials said Tuesday.
“I am very pleased that this Revolutionary War letter has finally been returned to its rightful owners,” said Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin, who runs the Massachusetts Archives and Commonwealth Museum. “After what has been a lengthy court battle, I am gratified that the First Circuit affirmed that this historical treasure belongs to the people of the Commonwealth, who will now have the opportunity to come see it and learn about our nation’s history.”
Hamilton wrote the letter to the Marquis de Lafayette while serving as Aide de Camp to General George Washington. Massachusetts General William Heath then forwarded the letter to the president of the Massachusetts Council, along with a request for troops to be sent to support French allies.
According to a news release sent to WWLP from the Office of William Galvin, the letter was allegedly stolen by a former employee of the archives sometime between 1937 and 1945. The former employee was later arrested in connection with the theft of various items, which he is believed to have sold to various rare document dealers around the country.
In 2018, Hamilton’s letter resurfaced when the family of a man who claimed to have purchased it in 1945 attempted to sell it after the man died. A Virginia auction house contracted by the family contacted the FBI after realizing the letter was stolen.
The U.S. Attorney’s office filed a complaint against the estate of the man who last possessed the letter, seeking to have the stolen property returned to Massachusetts. The family who attempted to sell the letter claimed that the letter was purchased legally and that they were the rightful owners.
This week, the court ruled the letter was a public record and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is the legal owner. It is now secured in the Massachusetts Archives. It will be on display in the future for special events at the Commonwealth Museum, which also features an original copy of the Declaration of Independence signed by John Hancock.
“When he wrote a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette on July 21, 1780, warning of imminent danger to French troops in Rhode Island, Hamilton scarcely could have imagined that it would someday become the focal point of a civil forfeiture action. But truth often outpaces imaginings,” Judge Bruce M. Selya wrote for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit last week.
Galvin extended his thanks to the FBI for recovering the document and also to the U.S. Attorney’s office and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s office, who has worked to ensure the letter was returned to the archives.
“Thanks to a tip from an auction house in Virginia and the hard work of members of the FBI’s art crime team, we were able to track down and authenticate this Alexander Hamilton letter more than seven decades after it was stolen. We are honored to return this extraordinary piece of history to the care of the Massachusetts State Archives so that the citizens of the Commonwealth can have the opportunity to get an up-close look at this document and learn about our country’s history,” said Joseph R. Bonavolonta, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Boston Division.
Said Healey: “This ruling is a resounding victory in our years-long fight to return this historic letter back to the Commonwealth where it belongs for all to see. We are grateful to our federal and state partners in this case, and to the First Circuit for affirming Massachusetts as the rightful owner of this precious artifact.”