George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Tobias Lear, 21 September 1791

From Tobias Lear

Philadelphia September 21st 1791


I had the honor of writing to you on the 18th; since which nothing has transpired among us worth relating. The arrival of a Vessel from Liverpool brings European Accounts down to the 28th of July. I have not learnt that she has brought any other intelligence than what is contained in the enclosed papers. An insurrection of the Negroes in Hispaniola seems to have put the inhabitants and property of that Island in a most alarming & distressed situation. Report says 4000 whites have been killed there; but as no such account appears in the papers with the general statement of the situation of things, I presume it must be only a report.1

In looking over the debates of the Senate of this State on Monday, on the subject of erecting a House for the President &ca I observed Mr Smilie asserted that Mr Morris received a rent of 700£ per Annum for this house2—and no contradiction was made to the assertion, altho he was answered by Mr Powel who must have known that the rent was fixed at 500£—In order to place this matter upon indubitable ground, as well as to ascertain the day when the rent becomes due, and to whom it must be paid, I wrote a letter to Mr Fisher, a copy of which I have now the honor to enclose.3 I did not think it best to notice, in this letter, the observation respecting 700£, lest it should afford ground to Mr Fisher to beleive that I had misunderstood him respecting the rent, or that I had forgotten the sum which he had mentioned to me.

Yesterday about noon Mr Powel called upon me, accompanied by the Mayor of the City; and after requesting that he & Mr Barclay might have some private conversation with me, he told me in a very formal manner, that he had several interrogatories to put to me, which he requested I would answer4—After assuring him that I would if they were such as I could answer with propriety—he observed, that a Gentleman of the house of Representatives of this State had informed him that I had, in a conversation with another member of that house, mentioned “that you was well satisfied with the accommodations of your present residence, and that you was very sorry to find the matter of building a house for the President of the United States, seemed to have been taken up on the ground of your not being satisfied with the house which you now occupy—and further, that if a house was built you should not think of removing into it”—and wished to know if I had communicated things of this nature to any person. I informed him I had—and, more over, that I was very glad of the present opportunity of repeating the same to him; which I did, in the same or nearly the same words of the enclosed copy of a letter to him.5 Mr Powel turned to the Mayor, & observed that this was precisely the same which they had heard as coming from one of the members of the Assembly; to which the Mayor assented. Then addressing himself to me, said he had no doubt of Mr Gallatin’s veracity in relating the conversation; but as it had passed through others before it reached him (Mr P.) he was apprehensive there might have been some mistake in the matter, & had therefore called upon me to be satisfied, which he now was, that I had communicated these sentiments to Mr Gallatin.6 Altho Mr P. would not venture to say that these were not your sentiments; yet he seemed to intimate that I might have mistaken your meaning—as I might have heard it in a transient way—or something to that effect—I was then under the necessity of saying, that you had made the observations to me, and in so direct a manner that I could not mistake them. He took his leave with the Mayor; but did not appear well pleased. Reflecting on the subject, & the manner in which Mr Powel appeared to receive the information, I thought it would be best (in order to prevent any mis-apprehension or misconstruction of what I had related to him) to communicate the same in writing⟨;⟩ which I did in the afternoon, by a letter, a copy of which I do myself the honor to enclose.

I have not yet received an Answer from Mr Fisher on the points mentioned in the letter to him. He sent a verbal reply, that the corporation would meet in a few days when the matter should be brought before them.7

Mrs Lear unites with me in sentiments of the highest respect for yourself & Mrs Washington—love to the children—and best wishes to all the family. I have the honor to be, with the greatest respect & most sincere Attachment Sir, Your obliged & obedt Servt

Tobias Lear.


1For the slave uprising that broke out on 22–23 Aug. in northern Saint Domingue, see Samuel Wall to GW, 16 Sept., n.1.

2John Smilie (1741–1812), a native of Ireland, immigrated to America in 1760 and settled in western Pennsylvania. He was a member of the state assembly from 1784 to 1786 and of the state senate from 1790 to 1793. Smilie was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1793 and served again in Congress from 1799 until his death.

3The enclosed copy of Tobias Lear’s letter of 20 Sept. to Miers Fisher reads: “As one year has nearly elapsed since the President of the United States first occupied Mr Morris’ house in High Street, I shall be much obliged to you to inform me of the day when the Rent commenced—the annual amount of the Rent—and to whom it must be paid; in order that a settlement for the first year may take place when that year expires. I have taken the liberty, Sir, of requesting this information from you; because all my communications on this subject have hitherto been with you. . . . P.S. You informed me in the spring that the Rent would be five hundred pounds currency; and I only mention it now to be clearly ascertaind with the other points” (DLC:GW).

4John Barclay (d. 1816), a native of Ireland, immigrated to Pennsylvania before 1779 and established himself in Philadelphia as a merchant. He served as president of the Bank of Pennsylvania, as alderman, and as mayor of Philadelphia in 1791–92.

5The enclosed copy of Lear’s letter of 20 Sept. to Samuel Powel reads: “In order to prevent any misapprehension of the purport of the conversation which I had the honor to hold with you today, I beg leave to communicate, in this way, the observations of the President which I before conveyed verbally. Upon reading in the papers the debates of the Legislature of Pennsylvania, upon the bill for granting a sum of money to defray the expenses of building a House for the President of the United States &ca—The President observed to me, that he was sorry to find some of the Gentlemen had taken up an idea that he was not accommodated to his satisfaction in the house which he now occupies; and seemed on this ground to urge the necessity of having a house erected for the President. But he wished the Gentlemen to be informed that this was not the case; for he felt himself perfectly satisfied with the house in which he resides. The President further observed, that if the house in question was even now finished he should not go into it; for he had, at a very considerable expense, accommodated his furniture to his present residence, and it was not probable that it coud be made to suit another house so well; and as the time for which he was elected to his present station would expire within two years, his getting new furniture answerable to a house which might be built, was out of the question—And again repeated that he was perfectly satisfied with his present accommodations, and should not remove into any other house (if he was permitted to occupy this) during the term of his Presidency. These sentiments the President wished might be known, by some indirect communication, to the Legislature. But at the same time wished them to be conveyed as sentiments relating to himself personally; for he was apprehensive, from the idea held up in the House of Representatives, that measures might be taken to build a house for the President, at this moment, with a view to accommodate him, when, otherwise, it might be thought best to delay or defer it. The President likewise wished it to be impressed, that he could not have the most distant intention of interfering in anything which the legislature of Pennsylvania thought proper to do on the subject, by conveying these sentiments; but finding the matter had been taken up on the ground of his not being well accommodated, he thought it necessary to give this explanation in order to do away that opinion. In a conversation with Mr Gallatin, I communicated these things to him. He informed me that the bill had passed the House of Representatives and was then before the Senate; and wished to know if he might be at liberty to relate the substance of our Conversation. I told him he might; and find that he has done it accordingly. I will take this opportunity to mention, that some time before my conversation with Mr Gallatin, I had, by the President’s order, conveyed the same sentiments to Miers Fisher Esquire, in answer to some inquiries he had made respecting the President’s accommodations—building a house &ca. The trouble of this letter needs some apology to you, Sir, which I hope will be found in my wish to give a clear explanation of the subject of it” (DLC:GW).

6Albert Gallatin (1761–1849), a native of Switzerland, immigrated to the United States in 1780 and settled in western Pennsylvania in 1784. He was a member of the Antifederalist Harrisburg convention in 1788 and of the Pennsylvania constitutional convention of 1789–90. Gallatin served in the Pennsylvania house of representatives from 1790 to 1792. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1793 but was deprived of his seat in 1794 on the grounds that he had not been a citizen of the United States for nine years prior to his election. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1794 and served in that body until his appointment by Thomas Jefferson as secretary of the treasury in 1801.

7The efforts of the Pennsylvania legislature to secure the permanent residence of the federal government in Philadelphia by erecting federal buildings there would defeat the intention of the Residence Act, which called for the removal of the federal government to the Potomac after ten years. GW earlier met this challenge to the establishment of the Federal City on the Potomac with deliberate aloofness, maintaining that his term would end before he could be called upon to occupy the proposed presidential mansion in Philadelphia (see GW to Jefferson, 1 April 1791). For further correspondence on this matter, see Lear to GW, 25, 30 Sept., and GW to Lear, 26 Sept. 1791.

Index Entries