George Washington Papers

From George Washington to John Dalton, 15 February 1773

To John Dalton

Mount Vernon Feby 15th 1773


I am obligd to you for the notice you have given me of an intended meeting of your Vestry on Tuesday next—I do not know however that it will be in my power to attend, nor do I conceive it at all necessary that I should, as I am an avowd Enemy to the Scheme I have heard (but never till of late believd) that some Members of your Vestry are Inclind to adopt.

If the Subscription to which among others I put my name was set on foot under Sanction of an Order of Vestry as I always understood it to be, I own myself at a loss to conceive, upon what principle it is, that there should be an attempt to destroy it—repugnant it is to every Idea I entertain of Justice to do so; And the right of reclaimg the Pews by the Vestry in behalf of the Parish (which have been Built by Private contribution granting the Subscription Money to be refunded with Interest) I most clearly deny—therefore, as a Parishioner who is to be sadled with the extra charge of the Subscription Money I protest agt the Measure—As a Subscriber who meant to lay the foundn of a Family Pew in the New Church I shall think myself Injurd; For give me leave to ask, can the raising of that £150 under the present Scheme be considd in any other light than that of a deception? Is it presumable that this money would have been advanc’d if the Subscribers could possibly have conceivd, that after a Solemn Act of Vestry under faith of which the Money was Subscribd the Pews would be reclaimd? Surely not! the thought is absurd! and can be stated in no better point of view than this—Here is a Parish wanting a large Church, but considering the Circumstances of its Constituents is content with a Small one till an offer is made to enlarge it by Subscription (under certain Previleges) which is acceded by the Vestry and when Effected and the Parish better able to bear a fresh Tax what does it want? why to destroy a solemn Compact & reclaim the Previledges they had granted: for I look upon the refunding the Money as totally beside the question—and for what purpose, I beg leave to ask, is this to be done? I own to you I am at a loss to discover; for as every Subscriber has an undoubted right to a Seat in the Church what matters it whether he Assembles his whole Family into one Pew, or, as the Custom is have them dispers’d in two or three; and probable it is, these Families will Increase in a proportionate degree with the rest of the Parish, so that if the Vestry had a right to annul the agreement no disadvantage would probably happen on that acct.

Upon the whole Sir, as I observd to you before, considering myself as a Subscriber, I enter my Protest against the measure in Agitation—As a Parishioner, I am equally averse to a Tax which is intended to replace the Subscription money—These will be my declard Sentiments if present at the Vestry; if I am not I shall be obligd to you for Communicating them.1 I am Sir with very great esteem Yr Most Obedt Servt

Go: Washington


1Although he usually attended Pohick Church in his own parish of Truro, GW sometimes attended the church in Alexandria (now called Christ Church), which was in the newer Fairfax Parish. For the division of Truro Parish and the controversy over which parish Mount Vernon would fall into, see the notes to Vestry Elections in Truro and Fairfax Parishes, 25–28 Mar. 1765. In November 1766 the Fairfax Parish vestry ordered two new churches to be built in the parish, one to replace the old structure near Four Mile Run, called Falls Church, and the other to replace the small chapel of ease in Alexandria. On 1 Jan. 1767 the vestry made an agreement with James Parsons to build a 40 by 60 foot church at Alexandria for £600 using plans drawn by James Wren.

On 14 May 1767 the vestry answered a petition by “sundery Inhabitants” requesting a 10 foot addition be made in the width of the church, and stating “that they make such addition Agreable to there contract with Mr James Parsons the present Undertaker. Who has agreed to build the said church and lay of the pews, by a plan produced, and Numbered 4, 5, 15, 18, 29, 14, 19, 28, 13 and 20 which said pews are to be sold by the said James Parsons, for his benefit but with this exception. that no one is permited to be a purchaser but Inhabitants in this parish or those that pays Taxes in the same” (this and all other quotations in this note are taken from the Fairfax Parish Vestry Minutes description begins Manuscript in Christ Church Archives, Alexandria, Va. description ends ). GW was thus eligible to purchase a pew, since part of his Mount Vernon property lay in Fairfax Parish. The church was still not finished on 25 May 1772, when James Parsons was called before the vestry to inform them “whether, he would proceed to finish the Church or whether they should take upon them at the expence of the parish to finish it. And to reimburse the parish out of the sale of the ten pews, that he had a right to dispose of, for his own Advantage when the church is finished and refund him the Ball[an]ce if any—To which the said James Parsons Answered that he did not think proper to give a direct Answer, but he did not think if the Vestry did proceed in the manner they proposed that it would be taken Notice of—Therefore it is ordered that the Church Wardens Advertise that the finishing the said Church is to be let to the lowest bidder.” On 8 June the low bid was made by John Carlyle who was to be paid £220 and was to complete the church by 25 Dec. “according to the plan and agreement with James Parsons.”

At a meeting of the vestry on 23 Nov. 1772 the vestry “Ordered that Colo. [John] West Majr [Charles] Broadwater and Mr William Paine Apply to James Parsons to know the subscribers for the Addition of ten feet in width of Church at Alexandria and after they are informed who the subscribers are⟨,⟩ that they apply to the different s[u]bscribers to know whether they will be reimburst there money advanced to James Parsons by them from the parish ⟨or⟩ Whether they will have the pews sold and reimburs the parish Two hundred and Twenty pounds which they have advanced over and above the sum agreed for with the said Parsons for building the said Church and take the different accots properly certified from the different subscribers who chuse to be reimbursed the money by them advanced in stead of seling the pews provided there Accots dont amount to above fifteen pounds and report to the next Vestry.” The “next vestry” met on 16 Feb. 1773, the day after GW wrote this letter to John Dalton. Despite GW’s protest against the proposed measures, the church wardens were ordered to “Advertise the ten pews which were subscribed for in Alexandria Church to be sold to the highest bidders or so many of the said pews as the subscribers shall c[h]use on the 27th Instant and that the purchasers be acquainted with the terms which are the same as was agreed to with the Vestry on the fourteenth day of May 1767 with this difference only That the purchase money must be paid to the Church wardens of this parish towards Reimbursing the parish and subscribers in proportion instead of James Parsons—as Parsons faild to finish the Church and thereby the parish and subscribers was obligd to be at a Considerable expence.” Two of the vestrymen, William Payne and James Wren, registered their disagreement with this decision.

The vestry received the completed church from the builder, John Carlyle, on 27 Feb. 1773, satisfied that the building was finished “in a workmanlike manner,” and proceeded to lay down the conditions for the sale of the ten pews. Among these conditions was the stipulation that “Whatever the amount of sales are if it falls short of what the parish are in advance in finishing the Church—The ten Pews are Chargeable with one fifth part of the said sum deficent.” All ten pews were then sold to the highest bidders, with GW purchasing pew no. 5 for £36.10, the highest price paid. John Dalton purchased a pew for only £20, the lowest price. The total, £298.10, was considerably more than the £220 the parish had advanced for completion of the church. GW seems to have held the pew until his death.

In 1785 when the church and minister were no longer supported by taxes, GW and seven other subscribers signed an agreement dated 25 April 1785, stating that “the pews we now hold, in the Episcopal Church at Alexandria, shall be for ever, charged with an Annual Rent of five pounds Virginia Money each, and we hereby promise to pay . . . annually forever, to the Minister and Vestry of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Fairfax Parish or, if the Parish shou’d be divided, to the Minister and Vestry of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Alexandria, the said sum of five pounds for each Pew for the Purpose of supporting the Ministry in the said Church.”

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