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A Missing Link Letter

While we’ll never know how many Madison letters don’t survive, sometimes we can spot a missing link in a chain of correspondence. Nineteenth-century writers often mentioned the letter they were replying to, as when New York customs collector David Gelston wrote to James Madison on July 11, 1810, “Your letter of 29th ultimo with $20- I have recieved, the box of hams I have forwarded to Chancellor Livingston.”[1] “Ultimo” means “last month,” which tells us that Madison had written to Gelston on June 29, 1810.

Unfortunately, Madison’s letter was nowhere to be found when the Papers of James Madison published Madison’s correspondence from 1810, and the editors simply noted it as “Letter not found.” Perhaps Gelston read it, answered it, kept the $20, and threw the letter away.

When we have specific information about a letter that once existed and is now unlocated, we create a Source record for it in the Montpelier Research Database. Even though we don’t have an image or a transcription of the letter, we can link the Source record to the Name records of the sender (Madison), the receiver (Gelston), and anyone mentioned in the letter (Chancellor Livingston). We can see how it relates to other letters by date, and make notes as to what the letter might be about (something about ham, with $20 enclosed).

Sometimes the story ends there, with an incomplete Source record in the MRD. But a missing letter can sometimes surface unexpectedly.

What’s Lost is Found

One day in 2014, an interesting item appeared on an online auction site: a James Madison letter dated June 29, 1810. The Research team went to work, and found the MRD Source record that had been created when the letter was still unlocated. A puzzle piece had fallen into place!

Now we knew exactly what Madison had written to Gelston:

Dear Sir

                The articles referred to in your favor of May 30. came safe to hand. I must add to my thanks, the trouble of receiving a Box of Virga. Hams, which will be delivered according to the inclosed bill of lading. They are intended for Chancellor Livingston, and you will further oblige me by having them forwarded, in case a proper oppy. should offer. The inclosed $20 is intended to pay the amount of $5.79 already due to you and the freight & charges of the Box of Hams; the surplus, you will oblige me by having applied to the discharge of one years receipt of the Mercantile Advertiser & of the price of a Book brought me by your son from Paris, which I have hitherto forgotten.

                Accept my friendly respects

                                                                James Madison[2]

We could now see that Madison had enclosed the $20 to pay Gelston for shipping the hams to Chancellor Livingston, with the surplus to pay for a newspaper subscription and a book. But why was Madison sending hams to Livingston?

The Puzzle Solved

A little more searching in the MRD revealed an explanation, in a letter Madison wrote to Livingston a few days later: “It has been my wish to find some specimen of manufacture within my domestic precincts worthy of being presented to your daughter Mrs. Livingston … by resorting to Mrs. M’s Smokehouse, from which are forwarded a few Virginia Hams…”[3] So it appears that the hams were intended for Chancellor Livingston’s married daughter, or possibly daughter-in-law, since she was also named Livingston. But why did Madison seem to feel that he owed Mrs. Livingston a gift?

A little more searching for Mrs. Livingston’s Name record showed that (a) the Chancellor’s daughter had married a cousin, making her Elizabeth Livingston Livingston, and (b) Elizabeth Livingston Livingston had woven wool from her father’s merino sheep, and sent the cloth to James Madison for part of the suit that he wore when he was sworn in as President on March 4, 1809.

It was significant to Madison to show support for American home manufactures at his inauguration, by wearing cloth produced on an American farm, from a breed of sheep that was expected to improve the quality of American wool. Apparently, Madison wanted to make a reciprocal gesture of thanks, by giving Mrs. Livingston a similar example of home production: hams that had been cured on his own plantation. (Although Madison clearly considered the smokehouses to be within “Mrs. M’s” purview, the hams were undoubtedly prepared by members of the enslaved community.) These smokehouses have been found and reconstructed at James Madison’s Montpelier, and sit within the Enslaved Domestic South Yard. Read the archaeology reports here.

One last question that we still can’t answer: Where had this letter been for the last two hundred years? It was sent to Gelston in New York, and so It was never part of the James Madison Papers at the Library of Congress, which primarily came from Madison’s files at Montpelier. Gelston probably saved the letter initially because of the financial transactions documented in it. At a later point, when the transactions had faded in importance, Gelston or his heirs may have valued the letter for the President’s autograph, and either passed it down in their family, or sold it to a collector.

Montpelier hams, merino wool, James Madison’s first inauguration – this missing link letter tied it all together! We were thrilled to flesh out its Source record in the MRD, and ultimately to acquire the letter for the Montpelier collection.

[1] David Gelston to James Madison, with enclosure, July 11, 1810, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, MRD-S 13844.

[2] James Madison to David Gelston, June 29, 1810, MF2014.45.1a-b, Montpelier Foundation, Orange, Virginia, MRD-S 42344.

[3] James Madison to Robert R. Livingston, July 3, 1810, Robert R. Livingston Papers, The New-York Historical Society, New York, New York, MRD-S 31193.