Thomas Jefferson: The Actions at Bunker Hill Changed the History of Mankind

On the Global Importance of the American Revolution, Independence, and All that Followed: The First Great Battle of the American Revolution "forms an epoch in the history of mankind"

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In a letter to Edward Everett, he praises Lafayette as a hero who shared the “toils and dangers which followed the event”

Public sale records show no letters of Jefferson about the battle that sparked the war; nor one in which he describes with such emotion Lafayette’s role in the Revolution

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Thomas Jefferson: The Actions at Bunker Hill Changed the History of Mankind

On the Global Importance of the American Revolution, Independence, and All that Followed: The First Great Battle of the American Revolution "forms an epoch in the history of mankind"

In a letter to Edward Everett, he praises Lafayette as a hero who shared the “toils and dangers which followed the event”

Public sale records show no letters of Jefferson about the battle that sparked the war; nor one in which he describes with such emotion Lafayette’s role in the Revolution

This letter was collected by the grandnephew of the fallen hero of Bunker Hill, General Joseph Warren, and has never before been offered for sale

In 1825, Thomas Jefferson was, with John Adams, the foremost surviving statesman of the American Revolution. Whereas Adams’s great contribution had been to see that separation with Britain was inevitable and help bring the conflict on, Jefferson’s was to write the stirring words of the Declaration of Independence that constituted both a charter of liberty and reason to pursue the war, and made the American Revolution a catalyst for the cause of freedom around the world. By July 1825, Jefferson was 83, and both men had less than a year left to live.

Edward Everett was then an aspiring public servant, who would go on to become a U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator, Governor of Massachusetts, Minister to Great Britain, and Secretary of State. He was a great orator, and spoke just before Abraham Lincoln at the consecration of the battlefield at Gettysburg. Everett’s topic was Bunker Hill.

On June 17, 1775, the British army under General William Howe, supported by Royal Navy warships, attacked the defenses the colonists had erected on Bunker and Breeds Hills. The British troops moved up Breeds Hill in perfect battle formations. Patriot leader William Prescott allegedly encouraged his men “not fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” Two assaults on the colonial positions were repulsed with significant British casualties; the third and final attack carried the position after the defenders ran out of ammunition. The colonists retreated to Cambridge over Bunker Hill, leaving the British in control of Charlestown but still besieged in Boston. The battle was a tactical victory for the British because they held the ground, but it proved to be a sobering experience, involving more than twice the casualties than the Americans had incurred, including many officers. The battle had demonstrated that inexperienced Continental militia could stand up to regular British army troops in battle, at a time when the British were considered to have the finest army in the world. It encouraged revolutionaries throughout America, and made the success of such a revolution actually seem possible.

In 1823, Everett, Daniel Webster, famed physician John C. Warren, and others co-founded the Bunker Hill Monument Association, which sought to memorialize that battle with a grand monument. They petitioned the Massachusetts House and Senate for recognition and support and a subsequent Act was passed giving both. Then began the work to draw interest, raise money, design the monument, and build it, a years-long effort that created the first major monument to the American Revolution, and the first public obelisk in the United States. In 1824 and 1825 they began notifying the public of their work, elected their officers, and then wrote a circular eliciting donations, and elected prominent men honorary members. They informed these men, and the responses the committee received back were from many great men of the era, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Oliver Wolcott, Joseph Story, and the Marquis de Lafayette.

During Lafayette’s celebrated return to America in 1824-5, he visited all 24 states, traveling more than 6,000 miles. He toured the northern and eastern states in the fall of 1824, then went south. It was businessman and future congressman Abbott Lawrence who first suggested to the Bunker Hill Monument Association that it enlist the Marquis de Lafayette and invite him to lay the cornerstone of the monument during his trip. At the end, Lafayette would lay the cornerstone. But first, he made a stop to visit John Adams at Quincy, Mass., and then was received by President James Monroe at the White House. At every town he visited, he was greeted by the veterans of the Revolution. Lafayette arrived at Monticello to see Jefferson on November 4, 1824, in a carriage provided by Jefferson with a military escort of 120 men. Jefferson waited outside on the front portico. By this time some 200 friends and neighbors had also arrived for the event. Lafayette’s carriage pulled up to the front lawn where a bugle sounded the arrival of the procession with its revolutionary banners waving. Lafayette was advanced in age and slowly stepped down from the carriage. Jefferson was then 81 and in ill health, and he slowly descended the front steps and began making his way towards his old friend. His grandson Randolph was present and witnessed the historic reunion: “As they approached each other, their uncertain gait quickened itself into a shuffling run, and exclaiming, ‘Ah Jefferson!’ ‘Ah Lafayette!’, they burst into tears as they fell into each other’s arms.” Everyone in attendance stood in respectful silence, many of them stifling sobs of their own. Jefferson and Lafayette then retired to the privacy of the house and began reminiscing over the many events and encounters which they shared years before.

On March 25, 1825, Edward Everett wrote Jefferson to inform him that he had been named an honorary member of the association: “By order of the standing committee of the Bunker Hill Monument Association, I beg leave to inform you that you were this day elected an honorary member of that institution. Its object is, by the creation of a permanent monument, to commemorate an event highly interesting in its consequences to the cause of American freedom. Should, as is hoped, it be agreeable to you to be thus united with the association, a certificate of member ship in due form will be forwarded to you.”

Jefferson responded, accepting the honor, praising Lafayette, recalling the dangers of the Revolutionary War years, while thinking proudly of the role it (and implicitly he) had played in launching a new epoch, one that saw the triumph of liberty in the United States and the rise of freedom in many countries throughout the world.

Autograph letter signed, Monticello, July 21, 1825, to Everett. “I am very thankful to the Bunker Hill monument association for the honor they have done me in electing me an honorary member of that institution. The occasion, which has given birth to it, forms an epoch in the history of mankind, well worthy of the splendid ceremonies with which its first stone was lately laid and consecrated. The coincidence of circumstances too was truly fortunate, which permitted it to be laid by the hand of one so illustrious in his participation of the toils and dangers which followed the event it signalizes.”

“While I gratefully accept the honorable association proposed to me, I cannot be unaware that age, infirmities, and distance will deprive me of all the means of usefulness to the society. I can only offer them, for the object of the institution, my best wishes for its success; into its members the homage of my great respect and esteem.”

In this sense, Jefferson is using the word “epoch” to mean the beginning of a distinctive period in the history of someone or something.

This is a deeply interesting personal view of Jefferson about the Revolution and its legacy, the dangers and toils that had to be braved to achieve victory, and his admiration for Lafayette. It is the only letter about Bunker Hill by Jefferson that we have ever seen reach the market.

This comes from the archive collected for George Washington Warren’s work on the history of the committee to commemorate the Battle, some of which he published but much of which he did not. It then passed to Richard Frothingham, historian, who succeeded Warren as Mayor of Charlestown, MA, and from there down through his family. We recently obtained it, and it has never before been offered for sale.

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