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By George, He Got It

updated 07/01/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/01/1996 01:00AM

JUST BEFORE HE BECAME THE first President of the United States in April 1789, George Washington wrote a 64-page inaugural address in which he told the new nation's citizens that "the mind must dilate with the dimensions of a Continent and extend with the revolutions of futurity" and promised a democracy "built on the information and virtue of the people."

Washington's vision of a grassroots democracy was radical, if a bit rambling, which is probably why his advisers convinced him to deliver a far briefer (11 pages) and less fiery address about the day-to-day running of the new government. Set aside, the undelivered speech found its way to 19th-century historian Jared Sparks, the first editor of Washington's papers, who, in the mistaken belief that it was in the President-elect's handwriting but was not of his composition, gave pages to souvenir-hungry friends.

Since then, to historians' dismay, only 13 of the original double-sided leaves came to light. Last November, Simon Roberts, 35, an appraiser with the Phillips auction house in London, was invited to the North Sea coastal town of Aldeburgh, to examine some books once owned by Charles Lyell, a 19th-century geologist who was Sparks's friend. Roberts found little of interest until, as he was leaving, the gardener pointed to a stained silk bag beneath a sofa. Inside, Roberts found an antique leather-bound album containing a browned sheet of paper with writing on both sides. Although he recognized Washington's script, Roberts says, "To be completely honest, I didn't realize at first what it was." But the auction house's manuscript consultant Felix Pryor did. "I said, 'Gor blimey!' " recalls Pryor, 46. "To scholars of American history, this is the Holy Grail."

And a blockbuster for the auctioneers: On June 13 the double-sided leaf—numbered 35 and 36 in Washington's hand—was sold in London for $307,230, a new record for a Washington leaf. For now the buyer—and his intentions—are unknown. For Pryor the significance of the leaf is obvious: "The more often I read it, the more powerful it becomes," he says. "Washington is not a natural orator. This comes from the heart."

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