George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Henry Lee, Jr., 2 April 1797

To Henry Lee, Jr.

Mount Vernon 2 Aprl 1797

Dear Sir,

If this letter should happen to find you in Philadelphia, the intention of it is to bring you acquainted with the situation of Messrs Reed & Ford’s engagement to transfer (after the 28th of March) seventy shares in the Bank of Columbia on your account for my benefit.

On my way home, I placed their obligation in the hands of a Gentleman within the District of Columbia, for the purpose of having this transfer made. The following extract of his letter to me was received on friday last, but not in time to forward it by the Post of next morning, although I instantly wrote, & took the chance of a letters getting to Messrs Reed & Ford by the Mail of that day; & now enclose a duplicate—open for your perusal before it is delivered.

“Inclosed is Reed & Fords obligation wch you left with me, but on application to one of the Officers in the Bank to transfer to you the shares in question, he informed me it could not be done without a power of Attorney from them to some person in this town to make the transfer. It is suspected by some persons here, they have failed, and to day I was told by a Director they had no shares in the Bank of Columbia; Perhaps you may think it advisable to write on immediately that you may secure yourself in this business.”

This business, my good Sir, you will recollect well, was not of my seeking; that it was not agreeable to me to be paid in that way (because it was the money I wanted)—and that it was to accomodate you, under strong assurances that the obligation of Reed and Ford was as good as the Bank &ca &ca that I yielded to the measure. How far this assertion was well founded, may, (while you are on the Spot) be worthy of enquiry; as my confidence in, and disposition to oblige you, has involved this result.1

I would fain hope that that part of the extract which relates to the failure, is without foundation; and for the honor of honest men, & fair dealing,2 I also hope it will not be found that they have been selling property to which they had no right, & of wch they were not possess’d. At any rate I shall lose what I ought not, & what I should not, if the money had been properly paid for from my unacquaintedness in these matters and from the motives mentioned before I have allow’d forty dollars a share when at the time, and now, the money (if I had been disposed to apply it so) would have procured these shares at thirty three dollars each by which means in twenty eight hundred dollars I sustain a loss of 490—besides loosing the interest on the former sum from the 24th of February until the transfer is made.3 I am Dear Sir Your Very Hble Servt

Go: Washington

ADfS, PHi: Washington Manuscripts; LB, DLC:GW.

1In February 1793 when Gov. Henry Lee was seeking to arrange for the purchase of the Dismal Swamp Land Company by foreign investors, GW wrote a memorandum for him, which begins: “G. Washington is one of a Company who took up, in or about the year 1762, all the ungranted land lying in the Great dismal Swamp; in the vicinity of Norfolk, Portsmouth & Suffolk; and holds two twenty one parts of the Interest therein. Forty thousand Acres of the interior and richest part of this Swamp has been (as the Subscriber is informed) patented in the names of the Members of said Company; and probably, is all they will ever obtain, altho’ it is far short of what they expected.” After then describing the assets of the swamp—its soil, vegetation, waterways, and geographical location—GW concludes his memorandum: “The Company have a Plantation, marked on the plat herewith, Dismal Plantation; which is seperate and distinct from the 40,000 acres, on this there are, or were a number of Negros . . . besides some money in hand, or in the loan Office.... For the whole of this Interest, be it little or much, and it cannot be less than 2/21, parts of the 40,000 Acres, I will take Five thousand pounds Virginia Currency . . . provided the bargain is now struck . . .” (ADS, DLC:GW). For references to the key role that GW played in the establishment and early development of the Dismal Swamp Company, see Dismal Swamp Land Company Articles of Agreement, 3 Nov. 1763, and notes, and Resolutions of the Dismal Swamp Company, 2 May 1785, and notes.

Nearly three years after GW wrote his memorandum, in November 1795, Lee, in a land speculation frenzy, bought GW’s interest in the Dismal Swamp Company. He agreed to pay $20,000 for it in three annual installments, beginning 1 Dec. 1796 (Ledger C description begins Manuscript Ledger in Morristown National Historical Park, Morristown, N.J. description ends , 59; see also Lee to GW, 7 Nov. 1795, and GW to Dismal Swamp Company, 16 Nov. 1795). In February 1797 GW received from Lee in Philadelphia as part of the first payment $700 in cash (Ledger C description begins Manuscript Ledger in Morristown National Historical Park, Morristown, N.J. description ends , 27) and seventy shares of stock in the Bank of Columbia in Georgetown at forty dollars a share, title to which was to be transferred to GW before 28 Mar. 1797 by the mercantile firm of Reed & Forde. On his way from Philadelphia to Mount Vernon, GW spent the night of 14 Mar. at the house of Thomas Peter in the Federal City and asked him to arrange the transfer of the bank stock from Reed & Forde as the firm had authorized. When the bank refused to make the transfer, Thomas Peter wrote GW from Georgetown on 29 Mar. (DLC:GW) the letter which GW quotes in full here.

Upon receiving this letter from Thomas Peter, GW wrote Reed & Forde from Mount Vernon on 31 Mar. demanding the immediate transfer of the seventy shares of Columbia Bank stock: “Gentn The time for transfering to me seventy Shares in the Bank of Columbia agreeably to your obligation dated the 24th of Feby having elapsed, I have to request a compliance therewith which I presume will immediately take place especially as I recd these shares at forty dollars each, to accomodate Genl Lee in a payment which he was to have made to me, when the same may be bought for 33 dollars each. Your early attention to this business & immediate ansr to this will oblige Gentln Your most Obt St Go:Washington” (LB, DLC:GW).

On 7 April Lee wrote GW from Philadelphia: “I had the honor to receive yesterday your le[tte]r with its enclosure—I waited directly on Mr [Standish] Ford—He says all is right: that on Saturday he will hear from Mr Lingan on the subject of the transfer, when he will reply to your letr. I hear nothing here of failure as applied to the house of F[orde] & R[eed]” (DLC:GW). James Maccubbin Lingan, one of the largest owners of land in the nation’s new capital, at this time was a director of the Bank of Columbia and the agent for Reed & Forde in Washington. He was killed and Henry Lee was severely injured in the Baltimore riots of 1812.

Returning from Philadelphia, Henry Lee on 15 April wrote to GW from Georgetown with the news that Reed & Forde had made arrangements for the transfer of forty-one of the seventy bank shares and had indicated that the transfer of the remaining twenty-nine would follow. Reed & Forde wrote from Philadelphia on 20 April to confirm the transfer of the forty-one shares. At Lee’s suggestion, GW on 22 April turned to Gustavus Scott, one of the commissioners of the Federal City, to manage the transfer. Scott wrote GW on 25 April to report that this had been achieved and volunteered to pursue for him the transfer of the other twenty-nine shares (see Scott to GW, 23 and 25 April). Not until July 1797, after an exchange of a number of letters and a visit by Scott to the Reed & Forde offices in Philadelphia, was the transfer of the bank stock to GW completed (see Scott to GW, 29 April, 11 May, 16, 22, 25 June, 4, 19 July, GW to Scott, 12,19, 24 June, GW to Reed & Forde, 19 May, and Reed & Forde to GW, 5 June). The Bank of Columbia in Georgetown was chartered by the legislature of the state of Maryland on 28 Dec. 1793.

On 2 Mar., shortly before leaving Philadelphia, GW had written Lee: “Sir, In answer to your enquiry concerning the Land I Sold to you, last year, I can inform you from my own Knowledge. It is part of the great dismal swamp, about [ ]Miles from Norfolk convenient to the Canal now Cutting, its soil extremely rich covered with Cypress & Juniper, the under growth Cane &. I am sir Yrs &c. Go:Washington” (LB, DLC:GW).

2John Reed and Standish Forde in recent years had concentrated the resources of their firm, Reed & Forde, on the development of trade with Spanish New Orleans. The company prospered in the early 1790s, but the loss of several ships in 1793 and 1794 and its involvement, like Lee’s, in the land speculation of Robert Morris and John Nicholson, among others, had left the company in perilous shape. This may account for the rumor that it was bankrupt. Among its creditors was the Bank of Columbia (Whitaker, “Reed and Forde,” Pa. Mag., description begins Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. 138 vols. to date. 1877—. description ends 61 [July 1937], 237–62).

3For the company’s response to this particular complaint, see Reed & Forde to GW, 20 April.

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