To John Quincy Adams
Mount Vernon 25th June 1797
Your favour of the 11th of Feb: and a duplicate thereof, have been duly received; and I pray you to accept my best thanks for the trouble you have had in tracing to its origen, the history of the Sword which came to my hands last year, in the manner communicated in a former letter. As it is more than probable you will have left Holland before this letter can be received, I shall give you no further trouble in the affair than merely to inform you that I have never seen, or heard more of Alte than the account given of him in your letter of the above mentioned date.1
I am now, as you supposed the case would be when you then wrote, seated under my Vine & Fig-tree; where, while I am permitted to enjoy the shade of it, my vows will be continually offered for the welfare & prosperity of our country; and for the support, ease & honor of the Gentleman to whom the Administration of its concerns are entrusted. I have expressed to him my sentiments, & wishes that you may be induced to continue in the Diplomatic line, and these sentimts and wishes, are the result of the fullest conviction of its utility, as it relates to the public interest.
For the kind expressions which you have extended to me; and the approbation of those sentiments I took the liberty of submitting to my countrymen, in my late Valedictory, I have a grateful sense; and thank you for communicating them; as the approbation of good & virtuous men is the most pleasing reward my mind is susceptible of, for any Services it has been in my power to render my Country. With great truth & sincerity, I have the honor to be Dear Sir Your Most Obedt & Affecte Servt
ALS, MHi: Adams Papers; ALS (letterpress copy), NN: Washington Papers; LB, DLC:GW.
1. On 1 Sept. 1796 Joseph Vanmeter (Van Meter) wrote about the sword to GW from Fort Pleasant (Van Meter’s Fort) on the North Branch of the Potomac: “Am happy to hear that the sword I left with Mr Laurence Hooff pleases you. I ought to have wrote you respecting the manner in which I came by it, but being an indifferent pensman, and much herried with business, as also stateing the matter to Mr Hooff in full, whom I knew was a Gentleman you had an acquaintance with. These are the reasons I omited giving you a written detail of this matter. From the best Information I could collect the man I got the Sword of, was a Bremener, and had not a Word of English—myself being engaged in making Sale of my Stock at the time he was presenting the sword for Sale got the Land Lord to deal for it, as I found he could talk his Tongue—Some time after I call’d on the Tavern Keeper to see my bargain. I then discovered your Name on it, which was the first person that had. I then conceiv’d it valuable, and tryed to find out the man that sold it but never could. I was inform’d he made of into the Country which I believe was the case from what I could Collect. I believe that the sword was sent to you a Present. It appears to me from what I have discovered, that some disaffected creature had made him believe that you would give him a mere trifle for it. He was in the City some time before you left it. I gave for the Sword Thirty five Dollars. It was thought then to be worth one hundred and Fifty, some said Two hundred Dollars. But I shall cheeryly take any sum you may think the sword worth—and should the person be found out that sent it, I shall be happy in taking the sum I gave for it. I should suppose it to be uncertain coming as the man I bought it of, But should you think proper to bring him to a strict account, respecting it, I shall be happy in doing any thing that lays [in] my power to serve you in this, as he is the only person w⟨ho⟩ could give the necessary information of the Gentleman that should have sent it you. If it has been sent as a present, which I fully believe it has” (DLC:GW).
After receiving the sword from Lawrence Hooff, a butcher in Alexandria, GW wrote a letter of inquiry to John Quincy Adams at The Hague. GW’s letter to Adams, dated at Philadelphia on 12 Sept. 1796 and marked private, reads: “Dear Sir, To open a correspondence with you on so trifling a subject as that which gives birth to this letter, would hardly be justified, were it not for the singularity of the case. This singularity will, I hope, apologize for the act.
“Sometime ago—perhaps two or three months—I read in some Gazette, but was so little impressed with it at the time (conceiving it to be one of those things which get into News papers no body knows how, or why) that I cannot now recollect whether the Gazette was of American, or foreign production, announcing, that a celebrated artist had presented, or was abount to present to the President of the United States, a Sword of masterly workmanship as evidence of his veneration &ca ⟨&ca⟩.
“I thought no more of the matter afterwards, until a Gentleman with whom I have no acquaintance—coming from, & going to I know not where, at a Tavern, I never could get information of—came across this sword (for it is presumed to be the same) pawned for thirty dollars which he paid—left it in Alexandria (nine miles from my house [)] in Virginia with a person who refunded him the money and sent the Sword to me.
“This is all I have been able to learn of this curious affair. The blade is highly wrought, and decorated with many Military emblems; it has my name engraved thereon, and the following Inscription (translated from the Dutch) ‘Condemner of Despotism, Preserver of Liberty, glorious man, take from my Sons hands, this Sword I beg you’ a Sollingen. The hilt is either gold, or richly plated with that mettal, and the whole carries with it the form of a horsemans Sword, or long Sabre.
“The matter, as far as it appears at present, is a perfect enigma. How it shd have come into this country without a letter or an accompanying message; how, afterwards, it should have got into such loose hands; and whither the person having it in his possession was steering his course, remains, as yet to be explained; some of them, probably can only be explained by the Maker, and the Maker no otherwise to be discovered than by the Inscription & name ‘a Sollingen’ who, from the impression which dwells on my mind, is of Amsterdam.
“If Sir, with this clue you can develop the history of this Sword; the value of it; the character of the Maker, and his probable object in sending it—it would oblige me, and by relating these facts to him, might obviate doubts which otherwise might be entertained by him of its fate, or of its reception. With great esteem & regard I am—Dear Sir Your Obedient Servt Go: Washington” (ALS, MHi: Adams Papers).
Adams’s response from The Hague of 11 Feb. 1797, to which this letter of 25 June is GW’s response, reads in part: “Since I had the honour of writing you I have been informed that about a year ago a workman in the sword manufactories at Sohlingen⟨,⟩ a hilt founder by the name of Alte, was induced in consequence of the unsettled and distressed situation of that part of Germany to go to America and before he went had the sword made according to his own fancy, with the intention as I understand of presenting it to you upon his arrival in America, with the hopes that it might serve him as a recommendation of himself⟨.⟩ His Father is living and received a letter from him last May informing him of his arrival at Philadelphia. But since that time he has had no further accounts from him. He professes not to remember particularly the tenor of the inscription upon the Sword. Its value might be from four to five pounds sterling” (MHi: Adams Papers).
GW apparently at this time had not yet received a letter of 20 Jan. 1797 from the sender of the sword, Theophilus Alte, of Solingen in the Palatine. In that letter Alte tells GW of sending the sword by his son: “A natural inclination to a free Country, and principaly to that of america of which to the Knowledge of the Universe you were the founder and Protector, after Some reflection I found no place nor country to chuse for my Son, but to Send him thence in the year 1795. I took the liberty to Send by him a Sword mounted Which has been made in our fabrik destined it to you, as the only man I Know in this World Who acted in an uninterressted manner for the happiness of his Country. I hoped from time to time to get an advice from my Son, that he had delivered the mentionned Sword, and that he had been as happy as to have been accepted by you reverend President. I am therefore very anxious to Know Whether my Son has punctually executed his Commission or not, his letter Which informs us of his arrival at Philadelphia is the only I received till this moment, in the mean time a Marchant of this town, Whose name is Halbach his trade is of Some Consequence in those Countrys⟨:⟩ made Some malicious informations about that Sword, and the more he was absolutely to Know the intention I had had of Sending my Son to America, that I therefore believe my Son has not yet presented the above mentionned Sword to you. I have given to him a Second information. I believe that he as an unexperimented traveller has either been intimitated or frightened. Whowever he will very Soon executed my intention. I assure you upon my honnesty Reverend President that I took the liberty of Sending the Sword to you in no interressted manner, I only Sent it to you as to Whom who delivered a Country as yours from all Esclavage Known as you are in your Justice I Sent my Son thither as in a Country of liberty. Where I am persuaded under your protection he might live happy by What he intends to undertake, my intention was that he might Chuse the trade in different articles which our manufactures affords. but I give him his Choice, if he will be found capable as to Serve to the State he has to chuse, I don’t doubt he will in all manner work with fidelity. Pardon Reverend President that I make you loose so much time by reading my triffling whowever the veneration I have for you, and of What Great Author’s have told us of your incomparable Caracter has given me the liberty of expressing my Self so familiar” (DLC:GW).
Not receiving a reply from GW, Alte wrote again on 29 Nov. 1797: “I hope you’ll pardon my liberty I take to mention two Letters I Wrote to you in the february Last of the Same Continue, in Which I Explained my Self that only your generous heart and actions for Which you are known in Europe made me resolve to Send my Son Daniel Alte in the year 1795 in the authom, to Philadelphia with different Sorts of iron wares, of our manufacture, at the Same time I charged him to present you in an uninterrested manner, a Mounted Sword in my name Supplying to accept it. but I have been informed that my good intention has not been executed, I know my Son Who is yet Inexperimented and very timid has fallen into Some malicious hands of my Countrymen been Some months ago in those Country With the Same intention than I. I pray therefore your Excell. to be as Kind as to get any information for I Wished to know the reason Why my Son has neglected my Counsel. I Would be very happy if ever you would be kind enough to inquire after my Sons behavior and to let me know any advice. I take the Liberty to join his Last direction I got. [P.S.] the direction of my Son is Daniel Alte, at Mr Conrad Seybert Sicend Street, Campton, Philadelphia” (DLC:GW). No reply to this has been found.