George Washington Papers

To George Washington from David Stuart, 14 July 1789

From David Stuart

Abingdon 14th July—1789

Dear Sir,

Being just returned from a journey to the lower parts of the State, I am much distressed, to find your indisposition has been much more severe than appeared from the Public papers1—I hope I may now congratulate you on your perfect recovery.

Tho’ you were pleased at your departure, to desire to hear from me occasionally, yet knowing how much you are oppressed in this way, it was not my intention to increase your list of Correspondents, unless business required it; or, I had some information of the Public opinion respecting the operations of the government to communicate, which, if not usefull, or important, might be satisfactory—Both these motives concur in dictating the present address—Nothing could equal the ferment and disquietude, occasioned by the proposition respecting titles—As it is believed to have originated from Mr Adams & Lee, they are not only unpopular to an extreme, but highly odious—Neither I am convinced, will ever get a vote from this State again.2 As I consider it very unfortunate for the Government, that a person in the second office should be so unpopular, I have been much concerned at the clamor and abuse against him—Perhaps I feel it more sensibly, from being reminded of my insignificant exertions for him, as an Elector—The Opponents to the government affect to smile at it, and consider it as a verification of their prophecies about the tendency of the government. Mr Henry’s description of it, that it squinted towards monarchy, is in every mouth, and has established him in the general opinion, as a true Prophet3—It has given me much pleasure to hear every part of your conduct spoke of, with high approbation, and particularly your dispensing with ceremony occasionally, and walking the streets; while Adams is never seen but in his carryage & six—As trivial as this may appear, it appears to be more captivating to the generality, than matters of more importance—Indeed, I believe the great herd of mankind, form their judegments of characters, more from such slight occurrences, than those of greater magnitude; and perhaps they are right, as the heart is more immediately consulted with respect to the former, than the latter, and an error of judgement, is more easily pardoned, than one of the heart—I find the Senate in general, to be unpopular, and much censured for keeping their doors shut—Nor do they appear more fortunate for their disagreement with the lower House, on the subject of a discrimination4—I can only say that I think, from what I have been able to learn, it would be a measure highly gratefull to every part of the State, but with the British Merchants—But it may possibly be founded more in prejudice & resentment, than sound policy; and if experience should prove it so, know it would be readily forgot, that it was a measure of their own and censure in abundance would follow—But without it, it is asked, what inducement can the British Court have to enter into any treaty at all with America, when her commerce is as much favored without one, as that of any nation which has a treaty?

In passing through Yorck to the Eastern Shore, I was much concerned to unde[r]stand, that the family of so virtuous and Patriotic a man, as Genl Nelson was left in so destitute a condition. His numerous Creditors had just presented their claims, which it seems amount to the enormous sum of 35000£—At the low rates at which property sells, it is thought little will be left for his family, after the debts are paid—As I know you are better acquainted with the Father’s virtues, than myself, I hope, you will think these a sufficient justification for my mentioning his son Thomas to you for some office. He has been well educated, and bred to the law, and been two or three years attending as a practitioner at the Genl Court—From the number of old Competitors there, his profits from his profession are but small and insufficient—I expect, that some place in your family would be agreeable5—If you have no occasion for more, I should suppose that the office of Clerk to the Secretary of foreign affairs would be one, to which he is well fitted from his profession—It is a piece of justice due to the family, that I should observe, that I have mentioned the subject, without any application or suggestion on their part; prompted alone by my feelings for the distress of the family and my high respect for the virtues of the Father—Mr Page will be able to give you more information respecting the qualifications of the young man than I am, if you should think the reasons I have given deserve any attention. I must now confess my awkardness on this subject, and appeal to the motives which influenced me, for venturing to harrass you on a subject, on which, I know you were tired out, months before you left home.

Mr Claiborne informed me sometime ago, by Mr Basset, and lately himself, that he concieved he had a right to the land in King William purchased by Mr Custis’s Father, from his Uncle, and containing about twenty five hundred acres. He concieves the lands to have been entailed, and wishes to know, if you have any information respecting it’s being docked—I can discover no instrument of that sort among the papers—In the deed of conveyance to Mr Custis, I observe that it was sold by a decree in Chancery of the Court of King-William, to pay Mr Claybornes debts. This is a very encouraging circumstance to me, as I cannot suppose the Court would have taken such a step, without the best opinions, that it was not entailed. I likewise find, that Mr Powers an able lawyer of that time, as an Executor, joins in the conveyance, as also Philip W: Claiborne Father of the present claimant—I can hardly think the former would have made himself liable and the latter conveyed away his right, without the fullest conviction of their being some defect in the entail—I have informed Mr Claiborne of these circumstances, but he does not appear to think them of any weight—He tells me, the lawyers he has consulted, think it a good entail—I have consulted no one yet but Coll Innes, who is of the same opinion with Mr Powers—Tho’ it is not probable, you have any information, which the papers do not furnish, yet, I could wish to know it certainly—I am told by Mr Moor, that Claiborne’s Father used to talk much of his right, and of suing for it—You may have heard of this, and the reasons which prevented him.6

I shall have little to do the remainder of the year but attend the different Courts—The weighty suit in chancery with Robert Alexander, will be determined in August,7 and with Coll Basset in September, at Williamsburg—Mr W: Dandridge informs me, it is necessary there should be a deed of conveyance from you to Mr Custis’s heir, for the lands you purchased in King William—You will determine whether it be so, or not, to prevent any claim from your heirs8—Mr J: Dandridge has informed me of an order for a considerable sum, due from his Father’s estate, to Mr Custis’s, which he has sent to you—When informed, of it’s being complied with, I shall give him credit for it.9

I must now desire my best Compts to Mrs Washington. Mrs Stuart and the girls are well, and desire their love to each of you, and beg to congratulate you on your recovery. I am Dr Sir, with great respect Your Affecte Servt

David Stuart

P:S: Our prospect for crops is very bad—We have had no good rain for some weeks—the corn at this advanced season, is scarce knee high. D:S:


GW answered most of the points raised in this letter in his reply to Stuart, 26 July 1789.

1For GW’s illness, see James McHenry to GW, 28 June 1789, n.1.

2For the Senate debate on titles for the president and vice-president, see GW to John Adams, 10 May 1789, source note. Adams and Richard Henry Lee were widely criticized for their support of titles for the executive and for what was viewed as advocacy of display in the new government. “This Whole silly Business,” William Maclay declared, “is the Work of Mr. Adams and Mr. Lee, Izard follows Lee, and the New England Men who always herd together follow Mr. Adams. . . . a Court our House seem determined on, and to run into all the foolerries, fopperies finerries and pomp of Royal etiquette and all this for Mr. Adams” (Bowling and Veit, Diary of William Maclay, description begins Kenneth R. Bowling and Helen E. Veit, eds. The Diary of William Maclay and Other Notes on Senate Debates. Baltimore, 1988. description ends 29).

3Stuart is referring to Patrick Henry’s comments during the 5 June 1788 session of the Virginia Ratifying Convention: “This Constitution is said to have beautiful features; but when I come to examine these features, sir, they appear to me horribly frightful. Among other deformities, it has an awful squinting; it squints towards monarchy; and does not this raise indignation in the breast of every true American?” (Elliot, Debates, description begins Jonathan Elliot, ed. The Debates in the Several State Conventions, on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, as Recommended by the General Convention of Philadelphia, in 1787. 2d ed. 5 vols. Philadelphia, 1896. description ends 3:58).

4The House of Representatives, led by James Madison, originally included the principle of discrimination in both the impost and tonnage bills. Distilled spirits imported from countries having a commercial treaty with the United States would have less duty imposed on them and such nations would pay less tonnage. Both clauses were struck down by the Senate.

5Gov. Thomas Nelson died on 4 Jan. 1789. See Warner Lewis to GW, 11 Mar. 1789, n.1. GW added Thomas Nelson, Jr., to his staff as a secretary in October 1789 (GW to Nelson, 27 July 1789; Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 5:448).

6Stuart is referring to the plantation called Claiborne’s in King William County on the Pamunkey River. The plantation was located just above Burwell Bassett’s plantation Eltham. Daniel Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s first husband, purchased it in 1750 from Philip Whitehead Claiborne (d. 1771) and the other executors of William Claiborne (d. 1746). The estate was originally part of the Claiborne family’s Romancoke plantation. See Harris, Old New Kent County, description begins Malcolm Hart Harris. Old New Kent County. 2 vols. West Point, Va., 1977. description ends 2:586–94. Martha Washington acquired Claiborne’s as part of her dower rights, and after their marriage GW had, with some restrictions, operated it as his own property. For a discussion of GW’s connection with the Custis estate, see Settlement of the Daniel Parke Custis Estate, 20 April 1759–5 Nov. 1761, and supporting documents. In October 1778 GW leased Claiborne’s, along with other Custis lands in King William and York counties, to John Parke Custis for an annual payment of “525£ Virga Currency in Gold & Silver” (bond with John Parke Custis, 12 Oct. 1778, ViHi: Custis Papers; deed of release, 12 Oct. 1778 [photocopy], ViMtvL; GW to James Hill, 27 Oct. 1778, and to Burwell Bassett, 30 Oct. 1778). The current claim against the estate was brought by Philip Whitehead Claiborne’s son Philip. Colonel Innes may be James Innes who had served with Stuart in the general assembly and was elected attorney general of Virginia in 1786. James Power, a New Kent County lawyer, was an attorney for John Custis, Daniel Parke Custis’s father, and served as executor of William Claiborne’s estate (Harris, Old New Kent County, description begins Malcolm Hart Harris. Old New Kent County. 2 vols. West Point, Va., 1977. description ends 1:115, 2:586, 701). Mr. Moor may be Thomas Moore, who lived on the Pamunkey River in the neighborhood of the Custis property in King William County and had been heavily in debt to the Custis estate. See also Bartholomew Dandridge to GW, 13 Mar. 1784, and notes.

7In 1778 John Parke Custis purchased from Robert Alexander a plantation on the Potomac River above Four Mile Run, renamed it Abingdon, and settled there with his new wife Eleanor Calvert Custis. Young Custis had agreed to pay Alexander “£12 per acre, and at the Experation of twenty four years, to pay Him the Principal with compound Interest.” GW was outraged at the agreement. “As a friend & one who has your welfare at heart, let me entreat you to consider the consequences of paying compound Interest. . . . £12,000 at compound Interest amounting to upwards of £48,000 in twenty four Years” (John Parke Custis to GW, 15 July 1778; GW to Custis, 3 Aug. 1778). John Parke Custis died in 1781, and his wife married Dr. David Stuart in 1783. In 1785, after Bartholomew Dandridge’s death, Stuart succeeded Dandridge as administrator of the Custis estate. In 1788 a suit between the estate and Alexander was entered to determine whether interest on the principal could be paid before the specified twenty-four-year period and whether payment in specie was mandated. Although by the late 1780s the terms of the original agreement were open to dispute, Custis in his letter to GW of 15 July 1778 had specified that Alexander “cannot during the twenty-four-years, demand of Me a Farthing, either Principal or Interest.” Stuart contended that by the terms of the mortgage, advance payments were authorized. In November 1789 the Virginia legislature passed “An act to enable David Stuart to reconvey a tract of land purchased by John Parke Custis, of Robert Alexander.” According to the terms of this act Alexander agreed, upon being paid a suitable compensation, to take back the land “which will be greatly to the interest of the children of the said John Parke Custis.” Since George Washington Parke Custis, the heir at law, was a minor under GW’s guardianship and no contract could be made without the consent of the legislature, the assembly agreed “that any agreement or contract which the said David Stuart, by and with the consent of George Washington, esquire, to be expressed under the hand and seal of the said George Washington, esquire, shall make or enter into, respecting the surrendering the said lands to the said Robert Alexander, shall be deemed and taken to be valid” (13 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 99–100). For a description of the contentions of both parties and the terms offered by Stuart to Alexander, see Stuart to GW, 11 Mar. and 2 April 1790, GW to Stuart, 23 Mar. and 11 April 1790. In December 1790 Stuart and Alexander agreed to submit the dispute to a board of arbitration consisting of Thomas West, Thomas Middleton, John Moss, Thomas Pollard, and Bryan Fairfax. The arbiters stipulated that Stuart should pay Alexander £70 per hundred acres as annual rent for the tract for a term of 12 years “during which term the said John Parke Custis & the said David Stuart have had the use and occupation thereof amounting in the whole to the sum of twenty four hundred pounds” (recorded 17 July 1792, Fairfax County Deed Book U, 257–59).

8Stuart is probably referring to the land in King William that had been part of William Claiborne’s Romancoke plantation and that GW purchased for John Parke Custis in December 1773 from William Black for £5375 Virginia currency. Custis later repaid GW the purchase price. In his reply to Stuart’s letter GW noted: “I am much mistaken if I did not in the year 1778 convey both the King William and the King and Queen Lands to Mr Custis by Deeds exe⟨cuted at Camp⟩ . . . in the presence of Mr Custis.” GW did make a conveyance at that time, probably during young Custis’s visit to headquarters in October 1778 (see note 6); in any case a second conveyance was executed in favor of George Washington Parke Custis in August 1795 (conveyance from GW and Martha Washington to George Washington Parke Custis, 3 Aug. 1795 [photocopy], ViU). W. Dandridge may be William Dandridge, the son of Martha Washington’s brother Bartholomew. See also GW to Robert Cary, 10 Nov. 1773.

9John Dandridge informed GW of this payment on account of his father’s debt to the Custis estate in a letter to the president of 3 June which has not been found. On 24 June Tobias Lear wrote Dandridge: “The indisposition of the President of the United States prevents his acknowledging the reception of your letter of the 3d Inst. enclosing an Order on the Honble John Brown in his favor for Eight Hundred pounds Virginia money; he has, therefore, directed me to do it, and to inform you that Mr Brown has since arrived in this place. Your letter to him, under cover to the President, has been delivered and the Order presented to him. Mr Brown says he expected to have met you in Philadelphia upon the busines⟨s⟩ of the Order when he passed through that City, but as he did not, he thinks you will be there soon when the Order can be accommodated” (ViHi). On 1 July Lear again wrote to Dandridge concerning his order on John Brown: “I wrote to you on the 24th Ulto by direction of the President of the United States, acknowledging the reception of your letter to him of the 3d of June; and informing you that Mr Brown expected some further advice respecting your Order on him in favor of the President for eight hundred pounds Virginia money before he could discharge it. I am now directed to inform you that Mr Brown says he has recd a letter from the Gentleman in Philadelphia on whom Mr Innes’s bill is drawn advising him that he has not effects in his hands to enable him to discharge the bill, and it will therefore be regularly protested. Your Order on Mr Brown is herewith returned to you, by direction of the President, that you may take such steps in the matter, on your own part, a⟨s⟩ you shall think best” (ViHi).

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