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Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

November 2009

ATF Transfers Historic Alexander Hamilton Letter To National Archives

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Handle With Care — Acting Director Kenneth Melson and Adrienne Thomas, Acting Archivist of the United States, during the Hamilton letter transfer ceremony. Photo by ATF

Another small piece of American history was preserved for posterity on September 24 when Acting Director Kenneth Melson transferred, to the National Archives, a 219-year-old letter written by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. The document had been in ATF’s possession for more than three decades.

The manuscript is dated December 18, 1790, barely 14 months into Hamilton’s term as Secretary. In the document, Hamilton discusses a device that can be used by customs agents to determine, for tax purposes, the alcohol content of imported spirits such as St. Croix rum.

“The letter is highly significant for ATF, because it is one of the foundation documents of our bureau, enabling us to trace our beginnings all the way back to 1790,” Melson said during the transfer ceremony at the National Archives.

According to the letter’s authenticator, autograph expert James Lowe of New York, the manuscript may actually be Hamilton’s very first attempt to use a tax on alcohol to collect revenue for the U.S. Government. In 1789 and again in 1790, Congress imposed alcohol tariffs to help pay off the new nation’s Revolutionary War debts.

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton

In his letter, Hamilton states that he is providing each port with a hydrometer, a device used to determine the gravity and density of liquids, so that customs officers can more accurately determine the proof of imported beverages.

Taking no chances, Hamilton goes on to note that he intends to provide an additional hydrometer to every port; one to be used as a standard, or gauge.

“But it is not possible in the first instance to send both,” he writes. “Hence one only will accompany this letter.” In a postscript, he adds that he is also sending along a tin cylinder to hold the liquor while its alcohol content is being carefully measured.

In the mid-1970s, ATF employee and avid autograph collector Howard Criswell Jr. bought the letter from an autograph dealer in New York City. He purchased it for $100, intending to include the document in an ATF exhibit celebrating the Nation’s bicentennial. The letter remained in an ATF safe for about 35 years, until it was rediscovered during the agency’s 2005 move to its new National Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

ATF Historian Barbara Osteika, who works tirelessly to preserve the little bits and pieces of the bureau’s past, quickly realized the letter’s importance and contacted the National Archives. “I knew we’d found something big,” she said.

The rest is history.

“We managed to keep this rare item safe and secure all these years,” Melson said during the transfer ceremony. “Now it’s time to return it to its rightful owners, the American people.”