George Washington Papers

From George Washington to James Mercer, 18 March 1789

To James Mercer

Mount Vernon, March 18. 1789

Dear Sir,

In receiving you cannot feel more pain than I do by communicating the following information; but as necessity, it is said, has no law, we both must submit to it.

It is now several years since I have been looking for payment of the debt which is due to me from the estate of your deceseased father John Mercer Esquire1—I have been promised it is true considerable sums from time to time by Colonel John Mercer; but it is equally true that I have either not received the money, or received, in such a manner, so disproportionable to his promises, as to be of very little service to me. and for the last twelve months I have not obtained a shilling, nor heard one tittle from him—although at his own request I agreed to receive money in small driblets merely to accomodate him—a mode by no means answering the most valuable purposes for which it was wanted.

This being a true state of the case, and my necessities growing more and more pressing (which I have repeatedly in a full and friendly manner communicated to that Gentleman) candor obliges me to declare to you that unless matters are placed upon a very different footing than what they now are and in a very short time too, I shall resort to other expedients than fruitless applications.

Did it suit my purposes to lend money at interest, that interest, it will be granted, ought to be paid with punctuality—but lending money is so far from being the case with me, that I have been obliged from dire necessity to borrow money at 6 perct, with very hard conditions annexed to it, and even under these disadvantages I am unable to supply my urgent wants 2—I am thus explicit for the purpose of evincing to you that necessity alone prompts me to make this plain, and unequivocal declaration, and because I would not if the bond &ca are put in suit have improper motives ascribed to the act—more especially as it can be proved that I have done, and am still willing to do every thing which in reason can be expected from me, under the circumstances I have mentioned to avoid it. with very great regard and esteem, I am Dear Sir &ca

G. Washington

P.S. If the deed of confirmation for the land on 4 mile-run which I bought from the attornies of your Brother Colo. George Mercer, is in your possession I should be glad to receive it 3—and if you can inform me from recollection whether Deeds passed to me, at the sale of the Shenandoah land, for the two lots I bought there it would oblige me 4—I can find none among my land papers, and could wish to have the title to it secured.


James Mercer (1735–1793), the son of John Mercer of Marlborough, was a Fredericksburg lawyer. Mercer was educated at the College of William and Mary and served in the French and Indian War as a captain. From 1762 to 1776 he was a burgess from Hampshire County.

1John Mercer (1704 –1768), a Stafford County, Va., attorney, legal scholar, and land speculator, lived at Marlborough on the neck between Aquia and Potomac creeks. GW had used his legal services on more than one occasion during the 1750s (ViHi: John Mercer’s account book, 64; Ledger A description begins Manuscript Ledger Book 1, 1750-72, in George Washington Papers, Library of Congress. description ends , 68), and until 1761 he was attorney for Daniel Parke Custis’s estate. This letter concerns GW’s long-standing attempt to collect the money owed to him by John Mercer’s estate from his sons James Mercer and John Francis Mercer. Before GW’s marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis, Mercer borrowed sums from the Daniel Parke Custis estate amounting to £1500 sterling (see Settlement of the Daniel Parke Custis Estate, 20 April 1759–5 Nov. 1761, Document IIIB). Mercer made no payments of the principal or interest on the debt before his death in 1768. In settling his father’s debt-burdened estate, James Mercer, who was executor, gave Martha Parke Custis a mortgage of £1109.11.6 in 1772 for the unpaid interest (GW’s Guardian Account Book, ViLxW; Ledger B description begins Manuscript Ledger Book 2, 1772-93, in George Washington Papers, Library of Congress. description ends , 221). At Miss Custis’s death John Mercer’s bond and the mortgage were accepted by GW as a part of his wife’s share in her daughter’s estate. GW made repeated attempts over the years to collect the residue. See, for example, GW to James Mercer, 12 Dec. 1774, and GW to John Francis Mercer, 8 July 1784, 20 Dec. 1785, 9 Sept. 1786, 5 Nov. 1787. In May 1791 the outstanding balance on the estate’s account was still £908.15.11 (Ledger B description begins Manuscript Ledger Book 2, 1772-93, in George Washington Papers, Library of Congress. description ends , 221). GW did not finally reach a settlement with the estate until April 1793 when he accepted in payment from John Francis Mercer a tract of 519 acres of land in Montgomery County, Md., “being part of a Tract called Woodstock Manor” (Ledger C description begins Manuscript Ledger in Morristown National Historical Park, Morristown, N.J. description ends , 4).

3In December 1774 GW negotiated for the purchase of two patents—for 378 acres and 790 acres—on Four Mile Run, a small stream flowing into the Potomac north of Hunting Creek. These lands were part of the sale of George Mercer’s Virginia lands. See GW’s Statement concerning George Mercer’s Estate, 1 Feb. 1789, and George Mason to GW, 21 Dec. 1773. In 1772 George and James Mercer became tenants in common of the lands, and in the same year George Mercer, living in London, mortgaged his moiety to John Henry Cazenove, a London merchant, and Elias Lindo, a London exchange banker. Mercer, Cazenove, and Lindo in 1772 appointed Neill McCoul and Alexander Blair of Fredericksburg “their Joint and several Attorneys in fact” with power to sell the Fairfax county lands. Blair and McCoul then sold George Mercer’s moiety of the Four Mile Run land to GW. James Mercer also agreed to sell his half to GW “and to become party to one and the same Deed to avoid Double expence” (Deed, 22 May 1787, Fairfax County Deed Book Q, no. 1, 1785–88, 407, Vi Microfilm). Another indenture was made between George Mercer, Lindo, and Cazenove on the one hand and GW on the other and proved in the General Court 15 Oct. 1775, at which time McCoul and Blair obtained a bond from GW for £450 to be paid to the holders of the mortgage. At some point James Mercer received payment for his moiety of the land (Ledger B description begins Manuscript Ledger Book 2, 1772-93, in George Washington Papers, Library of Congress. description ends , 84). At George Mercer’s death in 1784 GW’s bond was not yet paid, and the matter was placed in the hands of James Mercer, his brother’s heir. See also “An act for vesting in James Mercer, esq; certain lands whereof George Mercer died seized” (12 Hening description begins William Waller Hening, ed. The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619. 13 vols. 1819–23. Reprint. Charlottesville, Va., 1969. description ends , 365–69). In the course of settling the estate it appeared that certain legal technicalities required by Virginia law had been omitted in handling procedures in London. GW’s bond was not yet paid. James Mercer in fact doubted the validity of the original sale and agreed to a new deed to convey the tracts to GW, who then paid the purchase money—£729 current money for both tracts—to James Mercer in the spring of 1787 with the understanding GW would be indemnified against his bond to McCoul and Blair, acting for Cazenove and Lindo, and receive a deed of confirmation of his purchase. The sum was then credited to the estate of John Mercer (Deed, 22 May 1787, Fairfax County Deed Book Q, no. 1, 1785–88, 406–12, Vi Microfilm; Ledger B description begins Manuscript Ledger Book 2, 1772-93, in George Washington Papers, Library of Congress. description ends , 221).

4These lots lay in the 6,500–acres part of the Carter grant purchased in 1740 by Benjamin Harrison and sold by Harrison in the early 1760s to George Mercer. Most of the land lay in what is now Clarke County, Virginia. At the sale of George Mercer’s Virginia lands in 1774 (see Statement concerning George Mercer’s Estate, 1 Feb. 1789) GW purchased lot nos. 5 and 6 consisting, according to Francis Peyton’s original survey, of 571 acres. Later surveys indicated the two lots contained a total of 555 acres.

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