George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Clement Biddle, 27 April 1789

From Clement Biddle

Philad. April 27. 1789

I have frequently called to see Billy he continues too bad to remove—Doctor Smith was uneasy without some other experienc’d Surgeon or Physician to look at his knee, and I called on Doctor Hutchinson They are of opinion that the present Sore reaches to the joint and that it would be very improper to remove him at least for a week or two, by which time he probably may be fit to send on by the Way of Bordentown but at present that he ought to be kept as still as possible And this prevents his being put to a private House, but you may depend on my care of, and attention to him, and that he shall be sent on without delay when his Surgeons think it safe.1

I have bespoke the Scythes and Spades and Shovels, which will be ready by the arrival of a Vessel which is expected this week from Alexandria, and returns there immediately, by which Opportunity they shall be Shipped—Will you have the News papers continued to Mount Vernon or sent to you at Newyork—with the greatest respect I have the Honor to be your excellency’s Most Obed. sert

Clement Biddle

LB, PHi: Clement Biddle Letter Book, 1789–92.

1William Lee, also called Billy and Will, was GW’s mulatto body servant whom he purchased in 1767 from Mary Lee, widow of Col. John Lee of Westmoreland County, Va., for £61.15 (Ledger A description begins Manuscript Ledger Book 1, 1750-72, in George Washington Papers, Library of Congress. description ends , 261). Billy accompanied GW throughout the Revolution. In April 1785, while acting as a chain bearer for GW who was surveying land he had purchased on Four Mile Run, Billy fell and broke his kneepan (Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 4:125), and in 1788 he broke the other knee, leaving him a cripple. Billy wanted to accompany the president to New York in 1789, and GW gave in to his wishes. However, on 19 April Tobias Lear, who was on his way to New York with Billy, wrote to Clement Biddle in Philadelphia: “Will appears to be in too bad a state to travel at present; I shall therefore leave him—and will be much obliged to you if you will send him on to New York as soon as he can bear the journey without injury, which I expect will be in two or three days—I shall pay his expences. . . . He dresses his knee himself and therefore will stand in no need of a Doctor unless it should grow worse” (PHi: Washington-Biddle Correspondence). Billy’s condition did indeed worsen, and on 3 May Lear wrote to Biddle from New York that the president “would thank you to propose it to Billy to return to Mount Vernon when he can be removed for he cannot possibly be of any service here, and perhaps will require a person to attend upon him constantly. if he should incline to return to Mt Vernon you will be so kind as to have him sent in the first vessel that sails for Alexa. after he can be removed with safety—but if he is still anxious to come on here the President would gratify him altho’ he will be troublesome. He has been an old & faithful Servt. This is enough for the Presidt to gratify him in every reasonable wish” (ViMtvL). Apparently Billy’s determination to go to New York was unshakable. While he was in Philadelphia Biddle had his knee examined by several local physicians including Dr. William Smith (d. 1793), who had received his medical degree in 1780 from the College of Philadelphia, and Dr. James Hutchinson (1752–1793), who was educated in medicine in Philadelphia and London. Hutchinson was married to Lydia Biddle, Clement Biddle’s sister. Billy improved under the ministrations of the two doctors, and Biddle wrote to Lear, 25 May: “I shall have a Steel made this Day by directions of Dr Hutchinson to strengthen Billy’s Knee which will not only render his traveling more safe but Enable him in some measure to walk & I shall send him on some Day this Week by way of Bordentown & Amboy of which I shall advise” (PHi: Clement Biddle Letter Book). Treatments were apparently not cheap. “I hope that Billy got safe to New York without accident,” Biddle wrote Lear on 19 June. “I have not been able to get in all the Bills yet but have paid some & shall have the whole Closed to day & shall send them by next post—it will be a heavy expence but I have desired all Concerned to be as moderate as possible but they Exceed my Expectations in their Charges” (ibid.). On 22 June Lear wrote Biddle that “Billy arrived here safe & well on Wednesday Morning; he seems not to have lost much flesh by his misfortunes” (PHi: Washington-Biddle Correspondence).

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