Outstanding New Collection of 16 Autograph Letters Given to the MHS by Anonymous Donor

Dating from 1803 to 1823, the collection includes previously unknown letters written by James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Dolley Madison as well as letters by Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, Elbridge Gerry, and James Sullivan.


An anonymous donor recently gave an outstanding collection of letters to the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS). Of the 16 letters, 14 were written to William Eustis, a physician and statesman, and two were exchanged between Caroline Eustis and Dolley Madison. Correspondents include Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, James Madison, James Monroe, Dolley Madison, Elbridge Gerry, and the Marquis de Lafayette, among others. The letters pertain primarily to politics and include topics such as the Louisiana Purchase, foreign policy, the Burr Conspiracy, Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807, political parties, and the War of 1812. Thanks to documentary editing projects that track the existence of every known letter written to or from their subject, we know that five of the letters were completely unknown. Another four were known because there are retained copies of the outgoing correspondence but the location of the originals was unknown.

A Cambridge, Mass. physician and statesman, William Eustis served as an army surgeon during the American Revolution and was a founder and officer of the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati. He represented Massachusetts in Congress from 1801-1805 and again at the end of his career from 1820-1823. In between, he was secretary of war under James Madison from 1809 through the first few months of the War of 1812. He served as envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to the Netherlands, 1814-1818, and was governor of Massachusetts from 1823 until his death in 1825. He married Caroline Langdon in 1801; they had no children.

JQA to William Eustis, April 25, 1808Among the highlights is a previously unknown letter written by John Quincy Adams on April 25, 1808, in which he offers his reasoning for breaking with the Federalist Party on matters of foreign policy, in particular his support for Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo: “There is so much of self-delusion in human Nature, that I know not whether a man can always, and especially on trying occasions, answer with much more certainty for the purity of his own motives, than other men can answer for him. I can therefore only say that I believe myself to have acted solely and exclusively from considerations of a public nature, and with a single view to the real interests of the nation.” He continues, “I cannot yet bring myself very severely to censure a course of policy which I believe was dictated by the love of Peace.” Adams resigned from the Senate less than two months later after the state legislature, still controlled by Federalists, elected his successor.

Another previously unknown letter is one from James Monroe written September 24, 1816. Monroe inquires as to the health of the Marquis de Lafayette with whom the Eustis’s had stayed while in Paris: “…there remain very few, to whom I could address a friend, exept the Marquis of Lafayette…How is his health, & in what circumstances is he? The friends of our revolution must always take an interest in his welfare, especially those who participated with him in that glorious struggle.”

James Monroe to William Eustis, September 24, 1816

In a letter to her friend Caroline Langdon Eustis written May 17, 1816, Dolley Madison apologizes for not having written sooner: “But so it is, that my occupations have increased seven fold since you left me, & caused me to forget (allmost) the use of my pen.”

In a poignant letter written on October 1, 1823, John Quincy Adams sends his regrets and returns tickets to the theater in Portland because he wanted to spend as much time with his father as he could before returning to Washington. He writes: “The desire to spend with my father, all the time, which I can now, and perhaps ever dispose of to that purpose has induced me to renounce my contemplated tour to Portland, and I have remained with him instead of going there.” While the MHS holds a retained letterbook copy of this letter, the location of the recipient letter was unknown.

“This is truly an outstanding collection of letters,” commented MHS Vice President for Collections Brenda Lawson. She continued, “It is remarkable that such an important group of letters had been in private hands. Not only are they in pristine condition but it is wonderful to have found several previously unknown letters that contain newly discovered content. The enormous generosity of the donor has enabled us to make these letters available to the public.” The collection is fully digitized and available online at: www.masshist.org/collection-guides/view/fa0179.


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