George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Robert Lewis, 15 October 1791

To Robert Lewis

Mount-Vernon, October 15th 1791.

Dear Sir,

Enclosed is a letter for Mr Muse, requesting him to put my papers into your hands, and to give you such information with respect to the business, as is necessary to bring you acquainted with the present state of it—After you have read the letter, and noticed the contents, seal and deliver it to him.1

Receive from Mr Muse all the blank leases with which I have furnished him, as well as those which have been filled up and executed—It will be indispensably necessary for you to get the precise state of the rents, which are due on each tenement—the ability of the tenants, and the prospect of receiving the rents. Make yourself Master also of the disputes—if any there be—to which the Tenements are subject.

From long experience I have laid it down as an unerring maxim that to exact rents with punctuality is not only the right of the Landlord, but that it is also for the benefit of the Tenant, that it should be so—unless by uncontroulable events, and providential strokes the latter is rendered unable to pay them—in such cases he should not only meet with indulgence, but, in some instances with a remittal of the rent. But, in the ordinary course of these transactions, the rents ought to be collected with the most rigid exactness, especially from my Tenants who do not, for most of the farms, pay a fourth of what the tenements would let for if they were now in my possession—If it is found difficult for a Tenant to pay one rent, it is more difficult for him to pay two—when three are due he despairs, or cares little about them—and if it runs to a greater number it is highly [probable] that to avoid paying any he leaves you the bag to hold. For these reasons, except under the circumstances before mentioned, it is my desire that you will give all the Tenants timely notice that you will give no indulgences beyond those allowed by the covenants in the leases—If they find you strict, they will be punctual—if otherwise, your trouble will be quadrupled, and I can have no dependence upon my rents which are now my principal support, since by the diligence of Mr Muse the Tenants are brought into a proper way of thinking and acting respecting them; and my crops are almost continually failing me.

As there have been many transfers, and some without any privity of mine, altho’ it is contrary to a covenant in the Leases, it is a matter which will claim your particular attention—and, as I have already observed, as the leases of old date are given for less than one fourth of their present value, it is my particular request that you will endeavor to investigate, with great accuracy, and inform me of the result what lives still remain in each lease throwing the proof (unless you are advised by able Counsel that it cannot be done) where the Lessees are not to be produced, upon the Tenant to shew that they are actually in existence.

As all the rents become due on or before the first day of January in every year, and distrainable at the expiration of a certain number of days thereafter I shall expect that in some short and reasonable time after the days of grace expire the amount of your collection will be paid into the hands of Major Geo: A. Washington, my present Attorney, or whosoever hereafter may have the superintendence of my business in this State during my absence in the service of the public.

Although I flatter myself there is no occasion for the admonition, yet I will accompany this appointment with suggesting to you, that business is rarely well executed that is not diligently pursued—and that the same consequences of neglect will happen to you that would to any idle, inattentive, or defective Collector; if any of these should appear in your conduct—and the more so as it is owing to the attentive and close watchings of Muse that this resource has been productive and useful to me, and that many rents have been recovered, which appeared to be desperate, by his activity and perseverance.

If they are admitted in the first instances, you will have a thousand pleas to forbearance; but considering the low and easy rents, at which my Tenants stand, I know of none which ought to be admitted except losses by fire—by storms—or such droughts, as are apparent and well attested; for bad crops proceeding from idleness, may, and will be a constant plea as they ought to be inadmissable.

It is of essential consequence that you should examine accurately whether the covenants in the leases, with respect to the buildings to be erected—Orchards to be planted—meadows to be made—and woods to be preserved, have been complied with.

These were important objects with me at the time the leases were granted—and are so still—well knowing how much they would contribute to enhance the value of the lots at the expiration of the term for which the leases were given.2 My best wishes attend Mrs Lewis and yourself and I remain Your affectionate Uncle.

G. Washington.

P.S. If, as I have heard, you should not conceive the collection of my rents to be an object sufficient to engage your attention, the letter for Mr Muse is not to be given to him.



1GW’s letter to Battaile Muse of this date reads: “As you have intimated at different times your inclination to give up the collection of my Rents, and as Mr Robert Lewis, a Nephew of mine, is now settled in Frederick and is willing to undertake it; I request you will put the leases, and other Papers belonging to that business into his hands. And I would thank you for giving him such a statement of matters respecting the circumstances under which the several tenements are—the Rents due thereon—and the train in which things are to obtain them as your knowledge of facts will enable you to do. To do this will be an essential and pleasing service to me, and I have no doubt of your dispositions to comply with the request. As my Leases in the early stages of them were given upon very low Rents but with Covenants to erect certain buildings and to make other improvements which were specified, & which I knew would add vastly to the value of the Lots when they should revert to me again—I wish, as far as you are enabled to do it, that you would in cases of their non-compliance give the reasons to Mr Lewis of their failure, & the steps you had taken, or were about to take, to enforce the measure or—to annul & set aside the lease” (ALS, NhD).

2Robert Lewis replied to his “Honored Uncle” from Log Hall in Frederick County, Va., on 7 Feb. 1792: “Your letter of the 15th of October, together with one inclosed for Mr Muse, I received; but not until the 12th of Decr—If I had answered it sooner it could only have been to acknowledge the receipt of it, to tender my most grateful thanks for the appointment and this further proof of your kindness. The contents of your letter to Mr Muse I have noted well, and as you required, received from him all the blank leases, as well as those which have been executed; together with a precise statement of the Rents that are due on each tenament—the ability of the tenants—and the prospect of receiving the Rents. As to disputes, there are none that I can learn. The Rents being due on Cristmas day, which was Sunday, I set out the ensuing morning to Fauquier and Loudon Counties in order to make my collection, and to examine into the state of improvments made, and to expedite the erection of those to be made as soon as possible. My success in the first instance, is perhaps, unparrelleled; for in this circuit among twenty odd tenants, I could only procure one Rent, which was from a Mr [J.] McDonald. To obviate this bad fortune, I was informed, that it had always been customary with them to take advantage of every previledge allowed in the Leases, and particularly that article which specified, ‘that no Collector or person otherwise employed, shall distrain for the Rents before the expiration of one callender month after they shall become due.[’] The callender month having expired, I again essayed, but with much the same success; as I could only get two more. The Berkley Tenants have been very puntual in the discharge of their Rents, with one or two exceptions only. They have also more than complied with the covenants in the Leases, as it respects improvments—Some of them to the value of one hundred pounds, & more, perhaps, than the Leases calls for. In the Counties of Loudon and Fauquier, again, the case is very different—I do not know of more than five tenants who have complied with their agreements in every respect. The residue of them are very poor, and by no means adequate to what they have stipulated to perform. Most of those who hold Leases for lives, have satisfied me that the lives are still in existence—Others again are uncertain, and say the lives are in Kentuckey or Georgia—They have all agree’d to produce certificates of this truth, from respectable authority. The amount of your Rents is not so inconsiderable as has been suggested to me—Cousin George [Augustine] Washington advised me not to be concerned with the collection, as the profits would by no means compensate for the fatigues attendant on such an Office. If you allow me what Mr Muse tells me he has been accustomed to receive (that is ten per Cent, including travelling expences) it will amply pay me. I desire no other previledges. I would not have intimated any thing of this kind, had you taken notice of it in your letter. My Rentroll will be completed in a day or two, when I shall set out for Mount Vernon with what money I have, and hope as soon as the replevy bonds are out, to be able to pay in the residue of the Rents in a short time. All communication between this County and Alexandria, has been prevented for some time past, in consequence of the deepness of the Snow, and intense cold weather. My letter also would have been written long since had my knowledge of the business been such as to answer your expectation and desire. I hope that ere Congres⟨s⟩ adjourns, to be able to give you a more satisfactory account of your affairs in this Country than at present. Mrs [Judith Walker Browne] Lewis has been very ill for some time, but is much better. Her indisposition proceeded from a late fright which she had in riding out to see one of our neighbours, and which caused a premature increase of our family. She joins me in affectionate regards to you and my Aunt” (ViMtvL).

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