What's In The Alexander Hamilton Papers Being Auctioned By Sotheby's?

Jan 13, 2017
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

It's been a big year or so for Alexander Hamilton. The Broadway musical about him cleaned up at the Tonys. There was a prime-time PBS special with commentary from Barack Obama, an 800-plus-page biography on the best seller list. What more could possibly be learned about Alexander Hamilton?

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A lot, at least...

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

SIEGEL: ...According to Hamilton scholar Joanne Freeman. Next week, Sotheby's will auction a rarely viewed collection of Hamilton effects held by his descendants for more than 200 years. And Freeman, a Yale historian who just edited a book of Hamilton's letters, jumped at the news.

JOANNE FREEMAN: And of course as soon as I heard that there was going to be a cache of Hamilton letters and materials and that some might not have been seen before, I immediately (laughter) contacted Sotheby's and said essentially I have to see those materials.

MCEVERS: And there is a lot to get excited about - new finds, like letters from Hamilton's wife, Eliza, his sister-in-law Angelica and father-in-law, Philip Schuyler, many written right after Hamilton's death, and some that are well known but rarely held.

FREEMAN: There are a lot of sort of old familiar friends. So I would see some of the love letters that Hamilton wrote to Elizabeth, and I would think oh, wow, this is the original of that letter that I've read so many times.

SIEGEL: And it's not all correspondence. The trove includes the commission making Alexander Hamilton George Washington's aide-de-camp and even a lock of Hamilton's hair. Sotheby's estimates the collection will bring in somewhere between $1.4 million and $2.1 million.

MCEVERS: Why sell now after holding onto the documents for more than two centuries?

FREEMAN: I can only assume that given the Hamilton mania that we are in at the moment, if you had a lot of documents like this and you were hoping to really profit off of their sale, now might be the moment to do that.

MCEVERS: The documents are on display to the public before the auction. Joanne Freeman says she hopes archives or museums will bid on some of the documents so the public will have longer to experience them.

FREEMAN: Seeing the actual letter, you know, the thing that's created in the moment that the person sat down and composed it - I am sitting in camp, you know; I am thinking of the woman I'm about to marry, and so let me compose a love letter - you know, that brings you into a moment of history that even reading about it in a book just doesn't.

SIEGEL: In fact, she is so taken with some of the materials that she's thinking of placing a bid of her own next week. But there's one thing Freeman definitely will not raise her paddle for.

FREEMAN: I will not bid on the hair ball (laughter). Yeah, I - as much as it's really intriguing and interesting to see a little piece of the person one writes about, I'm always slightly put off by that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NON-STOP")

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: (Singing) Why do you write like you're running out of time? Write day and night like you're running out of time. Every day you fight like you're running out of time. Keep on fighting in the meantime.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Nonstop.

MIRANDA: (Singing) Corruption's such an old song that we can sing along... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.