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Washington Irving Letterbook

Identifier: GTM-GAMMS247

Collection-level Scope and Content Note

The Washington Irving Letterbook (1 box, 0.25 linear feet) consists of one bound letterbook containing handwritten copies of outgoing letters dated from 1842 to 1844 written by Irving (1783-1859) while he served as U.S. Minister to Spain (1842-1846). Although most of these letters were copied in the hand of Irving's secretary, a number of them seem to have been copied by Irving himself in his own hand. Irving's richly descriptive writing style shines through in these letters as he analyzes in impressive detail important events in Spanish political history.

Addressed to both American and Spanish officials; including U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster, Spanish Minister of State Count Almodovar, U.S. Minister to Britain Edward Everett, Commodore Matthew C. Perry, and U.S. Consuls in Spain and beyond; these letters provide valuable documentation on U.S. diplomatic and economic relations with Spain in the early 1840s. Moreover, this collection adds to the primary source material available on this nineteenth century American literary giant. Irving's letters trace the tumultuous political events taking place in Spain between 1842 and 1844. His letters follow the struggle of Joaquin Baldomero Hernandez Alvarez Espartero to remain in power as Regent in the face of the insurrections and factionalism which ultimately led to his overthrow. Irving described the intrigues of the court of Isabella II and the contest to win her hand in marriage. The instability and violence experienced in Spanish politics during these years are vividly portrayed in this letterbook by this ever-observant diplomat. Eighteen letters were sent as detailed status reports from Irving to U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster, who was known to drop all other work and read Irving's dispatches when receiving a letter from his literary diplomat (cite). Eight of the letters in this collection were sent by Alexander Hamilton Jr., the Secretary of the Legation in Madrid and the grandson of the first U.S. Treasury Secretary. The younger Hamilton penned these letters when Irving was on leave in France recovering from a skin ailment. Three of Hamilton Jr.'s letters were sent to U.S. Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur, providing information about the insurrections of 1843 against Spanish rule and about Queen Isabella II's being declared of age to rule.

Although all 94 letters in this letterbook are still physically bound together, each letter has been cataloged as a separate folder. The original chronological order has been maintained. The pages of the letterbook are numbered. The individual who penned the first 50 letters numbered pages 1-98. The cataloger numbered in pencil pages 99-187. Each catalog entry indicates the pages on which that particluar letter is found.

This letterbook must have been used in the U.S. Legation in Madrid as an archive for retained copies of Irving's correspondence. The inside front cover of this letterbook bears an original label: "Establecimiento de Papeles y Libros rayados E IMPRENTA. Calle del Arenal, numero 11. Madrid." Just beneath that label appears the following handwritten inscription: "Dispatch Book of Washington Irving of Sunnyside while Minister to the Court of Spain." Letters 1 through 50 were presumably written in the hand of Irving's secretary, perhaps Hector Ames, a secretary in the Madrid Legation who departed for America on June 13, 1843 (Williams, p. 378). Alternatively, perhaps Alexander Hamilton Jr. (1816-1899), Secretary of the Legation (1842-1844), copied these letters. The "Dictionary of American Biography" describes Minister to Spain Irving as living "surrounded by secretaries, within a stone's throw of the palace" in Madrid ("Dictionary of American Biography." Vol. 9. New York: Scribner's, 1932, p. 510). Therefore, the letters may have been copied into this letterbook by one of several individuals. Letters 51 through 64 seem to be in the hand of Washington Irving himself. It is not known exactly why Irving was copying his own letters into this letterbook at this point between June 22, 1843 and September 6, 1843. Perhaps his secretary was ill or on leave. It is known that Alexander Hamilton Jr., who was periodically ill, was on leave starting in June 1843 (Williams, Stanley T. "The Life of Washington Irving." Vol. 2. New York: Octagon Books, 1971, p. 160). Hamilton had returned to his post in Madrid by September 1843 (Williams, p. 161). It is also known that Irving battled a recurring herpetic ailment during his posting as minister, and he was struck with a flare-up in February 1843 (Williams, p. 159). Williams makes note of Irving's "weakness during the first six months of 1843" (Williams, p. 159). There were even accounts of him as being too ill to write. Williams says of Irving during this period: "For at times he could only dictate his dispatches; at others, he could not even read" (Williams, p. 159). These references make it even more curious why Irving would have copied his own letters at this time. Irving did take leave of the legation from September 8, 1843 to November 30, 1843 to go to France to recover from the ailment.

Letters 65 through 94 were written in a hand which matches neither letters 1-50 nor letters 51-64. The letters from Alexander Hamilton Jr. (folders 65 through 72) and subsequent ones (folders 73 through 94), may be in the younger Hamilton's own hand. Or, these letters may have been copied by another secretary. This fascinating mystery of who copied these letters and why gives some indication how the legation in Madrid operated and coped with staff turnover, illness, and lack of supplies. Most of the letters written by Irving in this collection appear in published form in Ralph M. Aderman's "The Complete Works of Washington Irving: Letters, Volume III, 1839-1845" (Boston: Twayne, 1982). Although slight variations are present when comparing the manuscript copies found in this letterbook to those published by Aderman, the letters have essentially the same content. Other manuscript copies of many of these same letters are found in Record Groups 59 and 64 at the National Archives. What makes Georgetown's letterbook particularly interesting is the fact that letters 51-64 seem to have been copied by Irving in his own hand, not by a secretary.

The Georgetown University Library Special Collections Division possesses over 40 rare books by or about Washington Irving. The Irving Levy Book Collection, in particular, includes a number of first editions of Washington Irving. The Alexander Hill Everett Collection, a manuscript collection, contains material related to U.S. diplomatic relations with Spain. As U.S. Minister to Spain from 1825 until 1829, Everett convinced Irving to journey to Spain and encouraged him to pursue literary interests there. Two other manuscript collections provide substantial documentation on aspects of Spanish History: the America Magazine Archives, which include a large quantity of material on the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), and the Foreign Affairs Oral History Program transcripts, which cover the experiences of various U.S. foreign service officials from the mid-twentieth century to present.

Among the many libraries preserving Washington Irving letters, the following have noteworthy collections: The Seligman, Hellman, and Berg collections at the New York Public Library; the Clifton Waller Barrett Collection at the University of Virginia; Yale University; Harvard University; Columbia University; the Historical Society of Pennsylvania; and the archives of John Murray (Irving's primary British publisher). Washington Irving's official diplomatic correspondence is housed at the National Archives. Included among his papers at National Archives is a letterbook containing copies of his dispatches and letters written as Minister to Spain. The National Archives' Irving letterbook is very similar to Georgetown University's Irving letterbook. The Historic Hudson Valley Library (in Tarrytown, New York) holds the Hamilton Family Papers (1768-1906), which contain correspondence dated from 1843 to 1844 of Alexander Hamilton Jr. while he was Secretary to the U.S. Legation in Madrid under Washington Irving.


Aderman, Ralph M. (Ed.), et al. "The Complete Works of Washington Irving: Letters, Volume III, 1839-1845." Boston: Twayne, 1982.

"Dictionary of American Biography." Vol. 9. New York: Scribner's, 1932.

Hellman, George S. "Washington Irving Esquire: Ambassador at Large from the New World to the Old World." New York: Knopf, 1925.

"Who Was Who in America: Historical Volume, 1607-1896." Chicago: Marquis, 1963.

Williams, Stanley T. "The Life of Washington Irving." Vol. 2. New York: Octagon Books, 1971.

ABBREVIATIONS: AL - Autograph Letter. ALS - Autograph Letter Signed.


  • 1842 - 1844

Collection-level Access Restrictions

Most manuscripts collections at the Georgetown University Booth Family Center for Special Collections are open to researchers; however, restrictions may apply to some collections. Collections stored off site require a minimum of three days for retrieval. For use of all manuscripts collections, researchers are advised to contact the Booth Family Center for Special Collections in advance of any visit.

Biographical note

Best known as an outstanding American author, Washington Irving (1783-1859) was born in New York City on April 3, 1783, the son of Deacon William and Sarah (Sanders) Irving. After entering the law office of Henry Masterson in 1798, Irving was admitted to the New York bar. Seeking a more creative profession, he turned to writing and soon began contributing to the "Morning Chronicle," in which he published the first installment of "The Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent." (1802). Irving's well-chronicled literary career took off soon thereafter. He poured out such classics as "Salamagunde" (1807-1808), "History of New York" (1809), the "Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent" (1819-1820), and many others. Irving's diplomatic career officially began in 1826, when he was attached to the U.S. Embassy in Madrid, Spain. It was Alexander Hill Everett (1790-1847), U.S. Minister to Spain (1825-1829), who encouraged Irving to join him in Spain and gave him reign to pursue literary interests. Before Irving's first tour of duty in Spain ended in 1829, he had learned much of Spanish culture and history and had made a positive impression on a wide segment of the Spanish populace. His publication of "The History of the Life and Voyages of Columbus" in 1828 won him election into the Real Academia de la Historia. Of note, he also proved his worth an interpreter of Spanish legend and culture by writing "A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada" (1829) and "The Alhambra" (1832). Many years after a brief stint as Secretary of the U.S. Legation in London in 1829 under U.S. Minister to England Louis McLane, Irving resumed his foreign service career as U.S. Minister to Spain, a post he held from 1842 until 1846. Sixty years old as he embarked on this mission, Irving was on hand in Madrid when many important events developed involving Queen Isabella II, the Queen-Mother Maria Cristina De Borbon, and dictator Joaquin Baldomero Hernandez Alvarez Espartero. At this time Irving befriended, among others, statesman Agustin Arguelles and English Minister Sir Henry Bulwer. Although Irving's service as Minister to Spain slowed his progress on his biography of George Washington, he served his nation well in that capacity. Washington Irving died on November 28, 1859 in Tarrytown, New York.


0.25 Linear Feet (1 box)

Language of Materials


Washington Irving Letterbook
Scott S. Taylor. Georgetown University Library Booth Family Center for Special Collections
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
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Repository Details

Part of the Georgetown University Manuscripts Repository

Lauinger Library, 5th Floor
37th and O Streets, N.W.
Washington DC 20057