ALBANY — The public is getting a rare opportunity to see some of New York state’s most significant artifacts, including the documents that first exposed Benedict Arnold as a traitor and an original handwritten draft of George Washington’s Farewell Address.
The artifacts are going on display this week in the State Capitol’s Red Room as part of a two-day “Freedom’s Treasures” exhibit. The exhibit is open for a reservation-only tour 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday, followed the next day, Veterans Day, with a showing during the same hours. No reservations are required Thursday.
The Revolutionary War era and the early 19th century items are from the collections at the New York State Library, Archives and Museum in downtown Albany. Mainly for preservation reasons, they are only rarely displayed in public, according to Jeffrey Cannell, the state Education Department’s deputy commissioner for cultural education.
“They just can’t be on display all the time,” Cannell said.
But giving the public the opportunity to view such historical documents and artifacts in person, even if it’s only for two days, helps New Yorkers appreciate their state’s role in American history, he said.
“So much of what we think as American history happened in New York state,” Cannell said.
Among the documents are the so-called “spy papers” found on British Maj. John Andre in 1780, when he was captured by American soldiers near Tarrytown. Andre was hanged as a spy soon after. The papers, signed “B. Arnold,” included Arnold’s detailed descriptions of the West Point fortifications he commanded. Arnold went over to the British side the day after learning of Andre’s capture.
“To see the documents that (Andre) had on his person when he was captured, when I first saw them a chill went up and down my spine,” Cannell said. “This makes history real.”
The draft of Washington’s Farewell Address, dated May 15, 1796, was among the artifacts in the Washington collection rescued from the fire that heavily damaged the Capitol in 1911. A dress sword given to Washington by Frederick the Great of Prussia will also be on display.
“Veterans Day, on which we honor those who have protected and defended our nation, is a particularly auspicious time for us to reflect on the history of the United States through this remarkable collection,” Gov. David Paterson said in announcing the exhibit last week.
Other artifacts on display will include a writing desk used by Gov. DeWitt Clinton, builder of the Erie Canal, and the original copy of the U.S. Constitution sent to New York state for ratification.