Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from William Thornton, 28 July 1802

From William Thornton

Washington 28th: July 1802—


The Secretary of State received the enclosed this morng. which he desired me to forward to the President.—

I found on my arrival at Mount Vernon, that I was precluded from the pleasure I anticipated in purchasing for you the Terrestrial Globe, which formerly belonged to General Washington; & which you wished to possess, as a Relick.—It was considered as belonging to the Library, &, consequently, the Property of Judge Washington, but the Legatees made him pay dearly for another Globe, which he considered himself in Duty bound not to part with. I mean the Head of the Testator; & this, after I had informed them, that as many Heads of him as there were Heads in the Army he commanded could be had for two or three Guineas each. The Judge did not know this, but declared he would give what any other Gentleman would give. Upon this a young man was advised (as I heard him afterwards acknowledge) to bid 250 Dollars, and the Judge was accordingly obliged to give that Sum.—I was sorry that the Heirs of such a man should have acted so unworthily—But it was unknown to some of them. The Legatees then retired to a chamber & cast Lots for his Garments! There was something in the whole Scene, & in the general Proceedings that shocked me. But it was a Scene, which, although devoid of feeling, was not without Interest.—

Accept, Sir, my sincerest good wishes & highest Consideration.—

William Thornton

RC (DLC); at foot of text: “President of the United States”; endorsed by TJ as received 31 July and so recorded in SJL. Enclosure not identified.

Martha Washington’s will, probated on 21 June 1802, a month after her death, stipulated that the contents of her estate, with the exception of a few specific bequests, should be sold as soon after her death as possible. The executors advertised a public sale to be held at MOUNT VERNON beginning on 20 July (John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Last Will and Testament of George Washington and Schedule of his Property [n.p., 1960], 59, 62; Washington Federalist, 2 July 1802).

TERRESTRIAL GLOBE: George Washington purchased several globes over the course of his life (Washington, Papers, Pres. Ser. description begins W. W. Abbot, Dorothy Twohig, Philander D. Chase, Theodore J. Crackel, and others, eds., The Papers of George Washington, 1983– , 55 vols.  Colonial Ser., 10 vols.  Confederation Ser., 6 vols.  Pres. Ser., 15 vols.  Retirement Ser., 4 vols.  Rev. War Ser., 20 vols. description ends , 3:479; 4:149–50; Eugene E. Prussing, The Estate of George Washington, Deceased [Boston, 1927], 416–17, 433).

JUDGE WASHINGTON: the first president bequeathed his library and papers to his nephew, Bushrod Washington, one of his executors as well as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. Upon Martha Washington’s death, Mount Vernon, which he had left to her in a life tenancy, became part of this nephew’s legacy (Fitzpatrick, ed., Last Will and Testament of George Washington, xiii, 1, 14, 19).

George Washington’s LEGATEES, some of whom were direct descendants of the Custis family and others who were Washington relations, continued to dispute possession of the general’s personal effects and whether they belonged with the house inheritance or were free to be sold at auction. Samuel L. Mitchill reported that Washington had not disposed of his clothing by will so the twenty-three “Claimants parcelled out his Wardrobe into as many Bundles, and then drew lots for the Choice!” (Samuel L. Mitchill to Catharine Mitchill, 22 Dec. 1802 in NNMus).

CAST LOTS FOR HIS GARMENTS: for the allusion to Roman soldiers vying for Jesus’s clothing at the time of his crucifixion, see John 19:23–4.

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