Exploring the past: Examining George Washington's handwritten letters

CHARLESTON, S.C (WCIV) -- It's alive in our streets, in our buildings, and our souls: Charleston is well known for it's rich history, but some of the city's greatest treasures can't be seen by carriage ride.

Some are rarely seen at all, including a special set of letters penned by one of the founding fathers of this nation.

Under lock and key behind a six-inch thick metal door lies a variable treasure trove of history.

"We have letters dating back to the Colonial era. In fact, beyond; we have letters and manuscripts dating back to the 1400s," Charleston Library Society Assistant Researcher Robert Salvo said.

For nearly 200 years, the Charleston Library Society has made it their mission to collect, catalog, and preserve Charleston's past for future generations.

"Our work is in two parts," Salvo said. "The first; we preserve and protect everything that we have. The second part is that we are a library and we make it available to the public. Sometimes the letter will sit in the vault for 20 years. Sometimes it will sit in the vault for 100 years."

Inside the library society's vault of invaluable works protected from heat, fire, humidity and other dangers a certain collection is put on a pedestal -- handwritten letters from George Washington himself, right down to that famous signature and presidential seal.

It's a fact not lost on those who get to see it and handle the historic letters daily.

"To see his signature, to hold paper that he held, reading his thoughts, his ideas, fresh from his mind to paper you get a little awestruck sometimes," Salvo said.

The letters, the personal correspondence between Washington and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a prominent Charleston politician, called on Pinckney to take a position in Washington's cabinet.

"Basically, every time he offers Charles Cotesworth Pinckney a job, he declines," Salvo said as he delicately unwrapped the individual letters. "Until Washington's last year as president when the political situation between the United States and France had gotten into such a terrible state that he calls on Pinckney to be the ambassador to France, and he accepts."

The job turned out to be a position that would cement South Carolina's legacy as a dominant force in a fledgling nation.

"Charleston is one of the largest and most important cities in the United States during the Revolutionary era. It's right up there with Boston, New York and Philadelphia. It was truly a center of national power," Salvo said.

The letters were passed down from generation to generation of the Pinckney family and kept in a box in the attic. Salvo says the letters were eventually framed and displayed in a family office until they were donated to the library society in the 1970s.

The final piece of the collection was donated to the library society in 2005.{}

As part of the restoration process the letters were glued onto specialty backing paper. A process salvo likens to pasting news paper clip into a scrap book.{} Salvo said this was the way most historical manuscripts were restored in the 1970's

But that process nearly destroyed the priceless pieces of American history.

"That paste was later found to be slightly damaging to the letters," Salvo said. "It was acidic, which over time will break the letters down."

Thanks to a generous grant from the member, the letters were shipped to a specialty archivist in Chicago and restored for generations to come.

The Charleston Library Society is one of the oldest in the country housing some of the region's greatest historical treasures, which begs the question: why aren't they in a museum in Washington?

"The library society always in this town has been one that looks out for historical materials. And we hold onto those treasures pretty dearly," Salvo said.

If you would like to view the letters or any of the other historic wonders at the Charleston Library Society visit them at 164 King Street or on the web at