James Madison Documents
Appraised Value: $4,000 - $5,000 (1997)
$5,000 - $7,000 (2011)
IMAGE: 1 of 6
Appraisal Video: (2:55)
Books & Manuscripts
Books and Manuscripts Dept., Senior Vice President
GUEST: These belonged to my great-great-great-grandfather Benjamin Crowninshield. When my uncle died a couple of years ago, we found them in a trunk just with a bunch of papers and I've held them, and I've been curious as to what they are.
APPRAISER: So that's the Benjamin Crowninshield who's mentioned in the documents themselves?
APPRAISER: Have you read them? Do you have any idea of what they're about?
GUEST: From what I understand, it's from the War of 1812 or thereabouts and it's the government giving him the right... he owned merchant ships in Salem, and it's basically giving him the right to take British ships as a prize.
APPRAISER: Exactly right. Um, this document is called a letter of marque, and it really commissioned your great-great-grandfather-- or maybe it was three "greats"...
GUEST: Three "greats."
APPRAISER: And two of his brothers to become privateers.
APPRAISER: And a privateer, essentially, is a civil pirate. And this allowed merchantmen to arm their vessels and to go out and to seize British prizes and hopefully cause the British some problems. You've probably read this, but it's quite interesting. They're enabled to seize and take "any armed or unarmed British vessel, public or private, "which will be found within the jurisdictional limits of the United States." It's a terrific document to have signed by Madison because the War of 1812 is the pivotal event of his presidency. Not only did Madison sign it, but the secretary of state, who became the fifth president, has also signed it-- James Monroe. James Monroe, right. This is an accompanying document that would have been issued with the letters of marque and it's actually the instructions for how they should behave, issued by Congress, and explains while they were to get as much as they could, they were also to deal with their prizes in a humane manner. This is perhaps the most interesting document of all because it appears to be another letter of marque assigning another Crowninshield ship the right to do this, signed also by Monroe and Madison, but this is actually a clerical copy. If you compare the signatures, the Madison signature and the Monroe signature are virtually identical. It was not signed by the president and the secretary of state, but by a clerk.
APPRAISER: I'm sure you'd want to keep them in the family but have you ever thought about what the value is?
GUEST: Uh, not really, I have no clue.
APPRAISER: For the three together, which tie in, I would think a collector would certainly pay between $4,000 and $5,000.
GUEST: Wow. It's a lot more than I figured.
APPRAISER: I hope that made the long wait worthwhile.
GUEST: It did-- it's interesting.
APPRAISER: Thanks for coming in.
GUEST: Thank you.
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