Meet us on:
Welcome to Read Print! Sign in with
to get started!
Entire Site
    Try our fun game

    Dueling book covers…may the best design win!

    Random Quote
    "Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information on it."

    Subscribe to Our Newsletter

    Follow us on Twitter

    Never miss a good book again! Follow Read Print on Twitter

    A Book of Autographs

    by Nathaniel Hawthorne
    • Rate it:
    Launch Reading Mode
    We have before us a volume of autograph letters, chiefly of soldiers and
    statesmen of the Revolution, and addressed to a good and brave man,
    General Palmer, who himself drew his sword in the cause. They are
    profitable reading in a quiet afternoon, and in a mood withdrawn from
    too intimate relation with the present time; so that we can glide
    backward some three quarters of a century, and surround ourselves with
    the ominous sublimity of circumstances that then frowned upon the
    writers. To give them their full effect, we should imagine that these
    letters have this moment been brought to town by the splashed and way-
    worn postrider, or perhaps by an orderly dragoon, who has ridden in a
    perilous hurry to deliver his despatches. They are magic scrolls, if
    read in the right spirit. The roll of the drum and the fanfare of the
    trumpet is latent in some of them; and in others, an echo of the oratory
    that resounded in the old halls of the Continental Congress, at
    Philadelphia; or the words may come to us as with the living utterance
    of one of those illustrious men, speaking face to face, in friendly
    communion. Strange, that the mere identity of paper and ink should be
    so powerful. The same thoughts might look cold and ineffectual, in a
    printed book. Human nature craves a certain materialism and clings
    pertinaciously to what is tangible, as if that were of more importance
    than the spirit accidentally involved in it. And, in truth, the
    original manuscript has always something which print itself must
    inevitably lose. An erasure, even a blot, a casual irregularity of
    hand, and all such little imperfections of mechanical execution, bring
    us close to the writer, and perhaps convey some of those subtle
    intimations for which language has no shape.

    There are several letters from John Adams, written in a small, hasty,
    ungraceful hand, but earnest, and with no unnecessary flourish. The
    earliest is dated at Philadelphia, September 26, 1774, about twenty days
    after the first opening of the Continental Congress. We look at this
    old yellow document, scribbled on half a sheet of foolscap, and ask of
    it many questions for which words have no response. We would fain know
    what were their mutual impressions, when all those venerable faces, that
    have since been traced on steel, or chiselled out, of marble, and thus
    made familiar to posterity, first met one another's gaze! Did one
    spirit harmonize them, in spite of the dissimilitude of manners between
    the North and the South, which were now for the first time brought into
    political relations? Could the Virginian descendant of the Cavaliers,
    and the New-Englander with his hereditary Puritanism,--the aristocratic
    Southern planter, and the self-made man from Massachusetts or
    Connecticut,--at once feel that they were countrymen and brothers? What
    did John Adams think of Jefferson?--and Samuel Adams of Patrick Henry?
    Did not North and South combine in their deference for the sage
    Franklin, so long the defender of the colonies in England, and whose
    scientific renown was already world-wide? And was there yet any
    whispered prophecy, any vague conjecture, circulating among the
    delegates, as to the destiny which might be in reserve for one stately
    man, who sat, for the most part, silent among them?--what station he was
    to assume in the world's history?--and how many statues would repeat his
    form and countenance, and successively crumble beneath his immortality?

    The letter before us does not answer these inquiries. Its main feature
    is the strong expression of the uncertainty and awe that pervaded even
    the firm hearts of the Old Congress, while anticipating the struggle
    which was to ensue. "The commencement of hostilities," it says, "is
    exceedingly dreaded here. It is thought that an attack upon the troops,
    even should it prove successful, would certainly involve the whole
    continent in a war. It is generally thought that the Ministry would
    rejoice at a rupture in Boston, because it would furnish an excuse to
    the people at home" [this was the last time, we suspect, that John Adams
    spoke of England thus affectionately], "and unite them in an opinion of
    the necessity of pushing hostilities against us."

    His next letter bears on the superscription, "Favored by General
    Washington." The date is June 20, 1775, three days after the battle of
    Bunker Hill, the news of which could not yet have arrived at
    Philadelphia. But the war, so much dreaded, had begun, on the quiet
    banks of Concord River; an army of twenty thousand men was beleaguering
    Boston; and here was Washington journeying northward to take the
    command. It seems to place us in a nearer relation with the hero, to
    find him performing the little courtesy of leaving a letter between
    friend and friend, and to hold in our hands the very document intrusted
    to such a messenger. John Adams says simply, "We send you Generals
    Washington and Lee for your comfort"; but adds nothing in regard to the
    character of the Commander-in-Chief. This letter displays much of the
    writer's ardent temperament; if he had been anywhere but in the hall of
    Congress, it would have been in the intrenchment before Boston.

    "I hope," he writes, "a good account will be given of Gage, Haldiman,
    Burgoyne, Clinton, and Howe, before winter. Such a wretch as Howe, with
    a statue in honor of his family in Westminster Abbey, erected by the
    Massachusetts, to come over with the design to cut the throats of the
    Massachusetts people, is too much. I most sincerely, coolly, and
    devoutly wish that a lucky ball or bayonet may make a signal example of
    him, in warning to all such unprincipled, unsentimental miscreants for
    the future!"

    He goes on in a strain that smacks somewhat of aristocratic feeling:
    "Our camp will be an illustrious school of military virtue, and will be
    resorted to and frequented, as such, by gentlemen in great numbers from
    the other colonies." The term "gentleman" has seldom been used in this
    sense subsequently to the Revolution. Another letter introduces us to
    two of these gentlemen, Messrs. Acquilla Hall and Josias Carvill,
    volunteers, who are recommended as "of the first families in Maryland,
    and possessing independent fortunes."

    After the British had been driven out of Boston, Adams cries out,
    "Fortify, fortify; and never let them get in again!" It is agreeable
    enough to perceive the filial affection with which John Adams, and the
    other delegates from the North, regard New England, and especially the
    good old capital of the Puritans. Their love of country was hardly yet
    so diluted as to extend over the whole thirteen colonies, which were
    rather looked upon as allies than as composing one nation. In truth,
    the patriotism of a citizen of the United States is a sentiment by
    itself of a peculiar nature, and requiring a lifetime, or at least the
    custom of many years, to naturalize it among the other possessions of
    the heart.

    The collection is enriched by a letter dated "Cambridge, August 26,
    1775" from Washington himself. He wrote it in that house,--now so
    venerable with his memory,--in that very room, where his bust now stands
    upon a poet's table; from this sheet of paper passed the hand that held
    the leading-staff! Nothing can be more perfectly in keeping with all
    other manifestations of Washington than the whole visible aspect and
    embodiment of this letter. The manuscript is as clear as daylight; the
    punctuation exact, to a comma. There is a calm accuracy throughout,
    which seems the production of a species of intelligence that cannot err,
    and which, if we may so speak, would affect us with a more human warmth,
    if we could conceive it capable of some slight human error. The
    chirography is characterized by a plain and easy grace, which, in the
    signature, is somewhat elaborated, and becomes a type of the personal
    manner of a gentleman of the old school, but without detriment to the
    truth and clearness that distinguish the rest of the manuscript. The
    lines are as straight and equidistant as if ruled; and from beginning to
    end, there is no physical symptom--as how should there be?--of a varying
    mood, of jets of emotion, or any of those fluctuating feelings that pass
    from the hearts into the fingers of common men. The paper itself (like
    most of those Revolutionary letters, which are written on fabrics fit to
    endure the burden of ponderous and earnest thought) is stout, and of
    excellent quality, and bears the water-mark of Britannia, surmounted by
    the Crown. The subject of the letter is a statement of reasons for not
    taking possession of Point Alderton; a position commanding the entrance
    of Boston Harbor. After explaining the difficulties of the case,
    arising from his want of men and munitions for the adequate defence of
    the lines which he already occupies, Washington proceeds: "To you, sir,
    who are a well-wisher to the cause, and can reason upon the effects of
    such conduct, I may open myself with freedom, because no improper
    disclosures will be made of our situation. But I cannot expose my
    weakness to the enemy (though I believe they are pretty well informed of
    everything that passes), by telling this and that man, who are daily
    pointing out this, and that, and t' other place, of all the motives that
    govern my actions; notwithstanding I know what will be the consequence
    of not doing it,--namely, that I shall be accused of inattention to the
    public service, and perhaps of want of spirit to prosecute it. But this
    shall have no effect upon my conduct. I will steadily (as far as my
    judgment will assist me) pursue such measures as I think conducive to
    the interest of the cause, and rest satisfied under any obloquy that
    shall be thrown, conscious of having discharged my duty to the best of
    my abilities."

    The above passage, like every other passage that could be quoted from
    his pen, is characteristic of Washington, and entirely in keeping with
    the calm elevation of his soul. Yet how imperfect a glimpse do we
    obtain of him, through the medium of this, or any of his letters! We
    imagine him writing calmly, with a hand that never falters; his majestic
    face neither darkens nor gleams with any momentary ebullition of
    feeling, or irregularity of thought; and thus flows forth an expression
    precisely to the extent of his purpose, no more, no less. Thus much we
    may conceive. But still we have not grasped the man; we have caught no
    glimpse of his interior; we have not detected his personality. It is
    the same with all the recorded traits of his daily life. The collection
    of them, by different observers, seems sufficiently abundant, and
    strictly harmonizes with itself, yet never brings us into intimate
    relationship with the hero, nor makes us feel the warmth and the human
    throb of his heart. What can be the reason? Is it, that his great
    nature was adapted to stand in relation to his country, as man stands
    towards man, but could not individualize itself in brotherhood to an

    There are two from Franklin, the earliest dated, "London, August 8,
    1767," and addressed to "Mrs. Franklin, at Philadelphia." He was then
    in England, as agent for the colonies in their resistance to the
    oppressive policy of Mr. Grenville's administration. The letter,
    however, makes no reference to political or other business. It contains
    only ten or twelve lines, beginning, "My dear child," and conveying an
    impression of long and venerable matrimony which has lost all its
    romance, but retained a familiar and quiet tenderness. He speaks of
    making a little excursion into the country for his health; mentions a
    larger letter, despatched by another vessel; alludes with homely
    affability to "Mrs. Stevenson," "Sally," and "our dear Polly"; desires
    to be remembered to "all inquiring friends"; and signs himself, "Your
    ever loving husband." In this conjugal epistle, brief and unimportant
    as it is, there are the elements that summon up the past, and enable us
    to create anew the man, his connections and circumstances. We can see
    the sage in his London lodgings,--with his wig cast aside, and replaced
    by a velvet cap,--penning this very letter; and then can step across the
    Atlantic, and behold its reception by the elderly, but still comely
    Madam Franklin, who breaks the seal and begins to read, first
    remembering to put on her spectacles. The seal, by the way, is a
    pompous one of armorial bearings, rather symbolical of the dignity of
    the Colonial Agent, and Postmaster General of America, than of the
    humble origin of the Newburyport printer. The writing is in the free,
    quick style of a man with great practice of the pen, and is particularly
    agreeable to the reader.

    Another letter from the same famous hand is addressed to General Palmer,
    and dated, "Passy, October 27, 1779." By an indorsement on the outside
    it appears to have been transmitted to the United States through the
    medium of Lafayette. Franklin was now the ambassador of his country at
    the Court of Versailles, enjoying an immense celebrity, caressed by the
    French ladies, and idolized alike by the fashionable and the learned,
    who saw something sublime and philosophic even in his blue yarn
    stockings. Still, as before, he writes with the homeliness and
    simplicity that cause a human face to look forth from the old, yellow
    sheet of paper, and in words that make our ears re-echo, as with the
    sound of his long-extinct utterance. Yet this brief epistle, like the
    former, has so little of tangible matter that we are ashamed to copy it.

    Next, we come to the fragment of a letter by Samuel Adams; an autograph
    more utterly devoid of ornament or flourish than any other in the
    collection. It would not have been characteristic, had his pen traced
    so much as a hair-line in tribute to grace, beauty, or the elaborateness
    of manner; for this earnest-hearted man had been produced out of the
    past elements of his native land, a real Puritan, with the religion of
    his forefathers, and likewise with their principles of government,
    taking the aspect of Revolutionary politics. At heart, Samuel Adams was
    never so much a citizen of the United States, as he was a New-Englander,
    and a son of the old Bay Province. The following passage has much of
    the man in it: "I heartily congratulate yon," he writes from
    Philadelphia, after the British have left Boston, "upon the sudden and
    important change in our affairs, in the removal of the barbarians from
    the capital. We owe our grateful acknowledgments to Him who is, as he
    is frequently styled in Sacred Writ, 'The Lord of Hosts.' We have not
    yet been informed with certainty what course the enemy have steered. I
    hope we shall be on our guard against future attempts. Will not care be
    taken to fortify the harbor, and thereby prevent the entrance of ships-
    of-war hereafter?"

    From Hancock, we have only the envelope of a document "on public
    service," directed to "The Hon. the Assembly, or Council of Safety of
    New Hampshire," and with the autograph affixed, that, stands out so
    prominently in the Declaration of Independence. As seen in the
    engraving of that instrument, the signature looks precisely what we
    should expect and desire in the handwriting of a princely merchant,
    whose penmanship had been practised in the ledger which he is
    represented as holding, in Copley's brilliant picture, but to whom his
    native ability, and the circumstances and customs of his country, had
    given a place among its rulers. But, on the coarse and dingy paper
    before us, the effect is very much inferior; the direction, all except
    the signature, is a scrawl, large and heavy, but not forcible; and even
    the name itself, while almost identical in its strokes with that of the
    Declaration, has a strangely different and more vulgar aspect. Perhaps
    it is all right, and typical of the truth. If we may trust tradition,
    and unpublished letters, and a few witnesses in print, there was quite
    as much difference between the actual man, and his historical aspect, as
    between the manuscript signature and the engraved one. One of his
    associates, both in political life and permanent renown, is said to have
    characterized him as a "man without a head or heart." We, of an after
    generation, should hardly be entitled, on whatever evidence, to assume
    such ungracious liberty with a name that has occupied a lofty position
    until it, has grown almost sacred, and which is associated with memories
    more sacred than itself, and has thus become a valuable reality to our
    countrymen, by the aged reverence that clusters round about it.
    Nevertheless, it may be no impiety to regard Hancock not precisely as a
    real personage, but as a majestic figure, useful and necessary in its
    way, but producing its effect far more by an ornamental outside than by
    any intrinsic force or virtue. The page of all history would be half
    unpeopled if all such characters were banished from it.

    From General Warren we have a letter dated January 14, 1775, only a few
    months before he attested the sincerity of his patriotism, in his own
    blood, on Bunker Hill. His handwriting has many ungraceful flourishes.
    All the small d's spout upward in parabolic curves, and descend at a
    considerable distance. His pen seems to have had nothing but hair-lines
    in it; and the whole letter, though perfectly legible, has a look of
    thin and unpleasant irregularity. The subject is a plan for securing to
    the colonial party the services of Colonel Gridley the engineer, by an
    appeal to his private interests. Though writing to General Palmer, an
    intimate friend, Warren signs himself, most ceremoniously, "Your
    obedient servant." Indeed, these stately formulas in winding up a
    letter were scarcely laid aside, whatever might be the familiarity of
    intercourse: husband and wife were occasionally, on paper at least, the
    "obedient servants" of one another; and not improbably, among well-bred
    people, there was a corresponding ceremonial of bows and courtesies,
    even in the deepest interior of domestic life. With all the reality
    that filled men's hearts, and which has stamped its impress on so many
    of these letters, it was a far more formal age than the present.

    It may be remarked, that Warren was almost the only man eminently
    distinguished in the intellectual phase of the Revolution, previous to
    the breaking out of the war, who actually uplifted his arm to do battle.
    The legislative patriots were a distinct class from the patriots of the
    camp, and never laid aside the gown for the sword. It was very
    different in the great civil war of England, where the leading minds of
    the age, when argument had done its office, or left it undone, put on
    their steel breastplates and appeared as leaders in the field. Educated
    young men, members of the old colonial families,--gentlemen, as John
    Adams terms them,--seem not to have sought employment in the
    Revolutionary army, in such numbers as night have been expected.
    Respectable as the officers generally were, and great as were the
    abilities sometimes elicited, the intellect and cultivation of the
    country was inadequately represented in them, as a body.

    Turning another page, we find the frank of a letter from Henry Laurens,
    President of Congress,--him whose destiny it was, like so many noblemen
    of old, to pass beneath the Traitor's Gate of the Tower of London,--him
    whose chivalrous son sacrificed as brilliant a future as any young
    American could have looked forward to, in an obscure skirmish.
    Likewise, we have the address of a letter to Messrs. Leroy and Bayard,
    in the handwriting of Jefferson; too slender a material to serve as a
    talisman for summoning up the writer; a most unsatisfactory fragment,
    affecting us like a glimpse of the retreating form of the sage of
    Monticello, turning the distant corner of a street. There is a scrap
    from Robert Morris, the financier; a letter or two from Judge Jay; and
    one from General Lincoln, written, apparently, on the gallop, but
    without any of those characteristic sparks that sometimes fly out in a
    hurry, when all the leisure in the world would fail to elicit them.
    Lincoln was the type of a New England soldier; a man of fair abilities,
    not especially of a warlike cast, without much chivalry, but faithful
    and bold, and carrying a kind of decency and restraint into the wild and
    ruthless business of arms.

    From good old Baron Steuben, we find, not a manuscript essay on the
    method of arranging a battle, but a commercial draft, in a small, neat
    hand, as plain as print, elegant without flourish, except a very
    complicated one on the signature. On the whole, the specimen is
    sufficiently characteristic, as well of the Baron's soldierlike and
    German simplicity, as of the polish of the Great Frederick's aide-de-
    camp, a man of courts and of the world. How singular and picturesque an
    effect is produced, in the array of our Revolutionary army, by the
    intermingling of these titled personages from the Continent of Europe,
    with feudal associations clinging about them,--Steuben, De Kalb,
    Pulaski, Lafayette!--the German veteran, who had written from one
    famous battle-field to another for thirty years; and the young French
    noble, who had come hither, though yet unconscious of his high office,
    to light the torch that should set fire to the antiquated trumpery of
    his native institutions. Among these autographs, there is one from
    Lafayette, written long after our Revolution, but while that of his own
    country was in full progress. The note is merely as follows: "Enclosed
    you will find, my dear Sir, two tickets for the sittings of this day.
    One part of the debate will be on the Honors of the Pantheon, agreeably
    to what has been decreed by the Constitutional Assembly."

    It is a pleasant and comfortable thought, that we have no such classic
    folly as is here indicated, to lay to the charge of our Revolutionary
    fathers. Both in their acts, and in the drapery of those acts, they
    were true to their several and simple selves, and thus left nothing
    behind them for a fastidious taste to sneer at. But it must be
    considered that our Revolution did not, like that of France, go so deep
    as to disturb the common-sense of the country.

    General Schuyler writes a letter, under date of February 22, 1780,
    relating not to military affairs, from which the prejudices of his
    countrymen had almost disconnected him, but to the Salt Springs of
    Onondaga. The expression is peculiarly direct, and the hand that of a
    man of business, free and flowing. The uncertainty, the vague, hearsay
    evidence respecting these springs, then gushing into dim daylight
    beneath the shadow of a remote wilderness, is such as might now be
    quoted in reference to the quality of the water that supplies the
    fountains of the Nile. The following sentence shows us an Indian woman
    and her son, practising their simple process in the manufacture of salt,
    at a fire of wind-strewn boughs, the flame of which gleams duskily
    through the arches of the forest: "From a variety of information, I find
    the smallest quantity made by a squaw, with the assistance of one boy,
    with a kettle of about ten gallons' capacity, is half a bushel per day;
    the greatest with the same kettle, about two bushels." It is
    particularly interesting to find out anything as to the embryo, yet
    stationary arts of life among the red people, their manufactures, their
    agriculture, their domestic labors. It is partly the lack of this
    knowledge--the possession of which would establish a ground of sympathy
    on the part of civilized men--that makes the Indian race so shadow-like
    and unreal to our conception.

    We could not select a greater contrast to the upright and unselfish
    patriot whom we have just spoken of, than the traitor Arnold, from whom
    there is a brief note, dated, "Crown Point, January 19, 1775," addressed
    to an officer under his command. The three lines of which it consists
    can prove bad spelling, erroneous grammar, and misplaced and superfluous
    punctuation; but, with all this complication of iniquity, the ruffian
    General contrives to express his meaning as briefly and clearly as if
    the rules of correct composition had been ever so scrupulously observed.
    This autograph, impressed with the foulest name in our history, has
    somewhat of the interest that would attach to a document on which a
    fiend-devoted wretch had signed away his salvation. But there was not
    substance enough in the man--a mere cross between the bull-dog and the
    fox--to justify much feeling of any sort about him personally. The
    interest, such as it is, attaches but little to the man, and far more to
    the circumstances amid which he acted, rendering the villany almost
    sublime, which, exercised in petty affairs, would only have been vulgar.

    We turn another leaf, and find a memorial of Hamilton. It is but a
    letter of introduction, addressed to Governor Jay in favor of Mr.
    Davies, of Kentucky; but it gives an impression of high breeding and
    courtesy, as little to be mistaken as if we could see the writer's
    manner and hear his cultivated accents, while personally making one
    gentleman known to another. There is likewise a rare vigor of
    expression and pregnancy of meaning, such as only a man of habitual
    energy of thought could have conveyed into so commonplace a thing as an
    introductory letter. This autograph is a graceful one, with an easy and
    picturesque flourish beneath the signature, symbolical of a courteous
    bow at the conclusion of the social ceremony so admirably performed.
    Hamilton might well be the leader and idol of the Federalists; for he
    was pre-eminent in all the high qualities that characterized the great
    men of that party, and which should make even a Democrat feel proud that
    his country had produced such a noble old band of aristocrats; and be
    shared all the distrust of the people, which so inevitably and so
    righteously brought about their ruin. With his autograph we associate
    that of another Federalist, his friend in life; a man far narrower than
    Hamilton, but endowed with a native vigor, that caused_ many partisans
    to grapple to him for support; upright, sternly inflexible, and of a
    simplicity of manner that might have befitted the sturdiest republican
    among us. In our boyhood we used to see a thin, severe figure of an
    ancient mail, timeworn, but apparently indestructible, moving with a
    step of vigorous decay along the street, and knew him as "Old Tim

    Side by side, too, with the autograph of Hamilton, we would place one
    from the hand that shed his blood. It is a few lines of Aaron Burr,
    written in 1823; when all his ambitious schemes, whatever they once
    were, had been so long shattered that even the fragments had crumbled
    away, leaving him to exert his withered energies on petty law cases, to
    one of which the present note refers. The hand is a little tremulous
    with age, yet small and fastidiously elegant, as became a man who was in
    the habit of writing billet-doux on scented note-paper, as well as
    documents of war and state. This is to us a deeply interesting
    autograph. Remembering what has been said of the power of Burr's
    personal influence, his art to tempt men, his might to subdue them, and
    the fascination that enabled him, though cold at heart, to win the love
    of woman, we gaze at this production of his pen as into his own
    inscrutable eyes, seeking for the mystery of his nature. How singular
    that a character imperfect, ruined, blasted, as this man's was, excites
    a stronger interest than if it had reached the highest earthly
    perfection of which its original elements would admit! It is by the
    diabolical part of Burr's character that he produces his effect on the
    imagination. Had be been a better man, we doubt, after all, whether the
    present age would not already have suffered him to wax dusty, and fade
    out of sight, among the mere respectable mediocrities of his own epoch.
    But, certainly, he was a strange, wild offshoot to have sprung from the
    united stock of those two singular Christians, President Burr of
    Princeton College, and Jonathan Edwards!

    Omitting many, we have come almost to the end of these memorials of
    historical men. We observe one other autograph of a distinguished
    soldier of the Revolution, Henry Knox, but written in 1791, when he was
    Secretary of War. In its physical aspect, it is well worthy to be a
    soldier's letter. The hand is large, round, and legible at a glance;
    the lines far apart, and accurately equidistant; and the whole affair
    looks not unlike a company of regular troops in marching order. The
    signature has a point-like firmness and simplicity. It is a curious
    observation, sustained by these autographs, though we know not how
    generally correct, that Southern gentlemen are more addicted to a
    flourish of the pen beneath their names, than those of the North.

    And now we come to the men of a later generation, whose active life
    reaches almost within the verge of present affairs; people of dignity,
    no doubt, but whose characters have not acquired, either from time or
    circumstances, the interest that can make their autographs valuable to
    any but the collector. Those whom we have hitherto noticed were the men
    of an heroic age. They are departed, and now so utterly departed, as
    not even to touch upon the passing generation through the medium of
    persons still in life, who can claim to have known them familiarly.
    Their letters, therefore, come to us like material things out of the
    hands of mighty shadows, long historical, and traditionary, and fit
    companions for the sages and warriors of a thousand years ago. In spite
    of the proverb, it is not in a single day, or in a very few years, that
    a man can be reckoned "as dead as Julius Caesar." We feel little
    interest in scraps from the pens of old gentlemen, ambassadors,
    governors, senators, heads of departments, even presidents though they
    were, who lived lives of praiseworthy respectability, and whose powdered
    heads and black knee-breeches have but just vanished out of the drawing-
    room. Still less do we value the blotted paper of those whose
    reputations are dusty, not with oblivious time, but with present
    political turmoil and newspaper vogue. Really great men, however, seem,
    as to their effect on the imagination, to take their place amongst past
    worthies, even while walking in the very sunshine that illuminates the
    autumnal day in which we write. We look, not without curiosity, at the
    small, neat hand of Henry Clay, who, as he remarks with his habitual
    deference to the wishes of the fair, responds to a young lady's request
    for his seal; and we dwell longer over the torn-off conclusion of a note
    from Mr. Calhoun, whose words are strangely dashed off without letters,
    and whose name, were it less illustrious, would be unrecognizable in his
    own autograph. But of all hands that can still grasp a pen, we know not
    the one, belonging to a soldier or a statesman, which could interest us
    more than the hand that wrote the following:

    "Sir, your note of the 6th inst. is received. I hasten to answer that
    there was no man 'in the station of colonel, by the name of J. T.
    Smith,' under my command, at the battle of New Orleans; and am,

    "OCT. 19th, 1833."

    The old general, we suspect, has been insnared by a pardonable little
    stratagem on the part of the autograph collector. The battle of New
    Orleans would hardly have been won, without better aid than this
    problematical Colonel J. T. Smith.

    Intermixed with and appended to these historical autographs, there are a
    few literary ones. Timothy Dwight--the "old Timotheus" who sang the
    Conquest of Cancan, instead of choosing a more popular subject, in the
    British Conquest of Canada--is of eldest date. Colonel Trumbull, whose
    hand, at various epochs of his life, was familiar with sword, pen, and
    pencil, contributes two letters, which lack the picturesqueness of
    execution that should distinguish the chirography of an artist. The
    value of Trumbull's pictures is of the same nature with that of
    daguerreotypes, depending not upon the ideal but the actual. The
    beautiful signature of Washington Irving appears as the indorsement of a
    draft, dated in 1814, when, if we may take this document as evidence,
    his individuality seems to have been merged into the firm of "P. E.
    Irving & Co." Never was anything less mercantile than this autograph,
    though as legible as the writing of a bank-clerk. Without apparently
    aiming at artistic beauty, it has all the Sketch Book in it. We find
    the signature and seal of Pierpont, the latter stamped with the poet's
    almost living countenance. What a pleasant device for a seal is one's
    own face, which he may thus multiply at pleasure, and send letters to
    his friends,--the Head without, and the Heart within! There are a few
    lines in the school-girl hand of Margaret Davidson, at nine years old;
    and a scrap of a letter from Washington Allston, a gentle and delicate
    autograph, in which we catch a glimpse of thanks to his correspondent
    for the loan of a volume of poetry. Nothing remains, save a letter from
    Noah Webster, whose early toils were manifested in a spelling-book, and
    those of his later age in a ponderous dictionary. Under date of
    February 10, 1843, he writes in a sturdy, awkward hand, very fit for a
    lexicographer, an epistle of old man's reminiscences, from which we
    extract the following anecdote of Washington, presenting the patriot in
    a festive light:--

    "When I was travelling to the South, in the year 1783, I called on
    General Washington at Mount Vernon. At dinner, the last course of
    dishes was a species of pancakes, which were handed round to each guest,
    accompanied with a bowl of sugar and another of molasses for seasoning
    them, that each guest might suit himself. When the dish came to me, I
    pushed by me the bowl of molasses, observing to the gentlemen present,
    that I had enough of that in my own country. The General burst out with
    a loud laugh, a thing very unusual with him. 'Ah,' said he, 'there is
    nothing in that story about your eating molasses in New England.' There
    was a gentleman from Maryland at the table; and the General immediately
    told a story, stating that, during the Revolution, a hogshead of
    molasses was stove in, in West Chester, by the oversetting of a wagon;
    and a body of Maryland troops being near, the soldiers ran hastily, and
    saved all they could by filling their hats or caps with molasses."

    There are said to be temperaments endowed with sympathies so exquisite,
    that, by merely handling an autograph, they can detect the writer's
    character with unerring accuracy, and read his inmost heart as easily as
    a less-gifted eye would peruse the written page. Our faith in this
    power, be it a spiritual one, or only a refinement of the physical
    nature, is not unlimited, in spite of evidence. God has imparted to the
    human soul a marvellous strength in guarding its secrets, and he keeps
    at least the deepest and most inward record for his own perusal. But if
    there be such sympathies as we have alluded to, in how many instances
    would History be put to the blush by a volume of autograph letters, like
    this which we now close!
    If you're writing a A Book of Autographs essay and need some advice, post your Nathaniel Hawthorne essay question on our Facebook page where fellow bookworms are always glad to help!

    Top 5 Authors

    Top 5 Books

    Book Status
    Want to read

    Are you sure you want to leave this group?