George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Jean Louis Le Barbier, 4 March 1785

From Jean Louis Le Barbier

Paris 4th March—1785
rue de Choiseul &c.


Vouchsafe to honor me with the acceptance of two copies of a work, in which, you will find the most unequivocal proofs, of the high opinion which its Author has so justly concieved of the virtues, and rare humanity of the American Heroe—Let not your modesty Sir, be alarmed at a truth, which I have so much pleasure in pronouncing; and for which, you have long since recieved the plaudits of the Universe—If you find Sir, the manner in which I have attempted to paint in my drama of Asgill, your character and love of your Country, to fall short of the sentiment which animated you in her defence; it is, because it belongs only to you, to express with unaffected warmth, a sentiment, which united with your great virtues, has secured you the most lasting fame—If I had the honor Sir, of being acquainted with you, you would not need to be assured, that I never felt a disposition to admire or love any, but beings, who like you have a real right to the homage of honest men—I hope Sir, you will not disapprove of my zeal, in publishing your sublime virtues in my performance; and be persuaded that nothing in the world will give me more pleasure, than to recieve an answer from you—I beg you to believe this, and that I am with every sentiment of respect Sir, Your very Hble & Obnt Servt

Le Barbier the younger—1

P:S: I have besought Mr Lee President of Congress, (to whom I have sent copies of my Drama, to be presented to the members of Congress) to send you the two I have addressed to you,2 I have not dissembled to him, the noble desire I had of tracing over again, by the assistance of painting, my profession; the brilliant exploits of the Americans, and the chieftains who took you for their model.

Translation, in David Stuart’s hand, DLC:GW; ALS, DLC:GW. A transcript of the ALS is in CD-ROM:GW.

Even though GW could not, and did not, read the play that Le Barbier sent him, the title page alone must have had an unhappy effect on him: “Asgill, Drame, en Cinq Actes, en Prose; Dédi—à Madame Asgill, par J. L. Le Barbier le jeune,” published in London and Paris in 1785. The death sentence that GW imposed in 1782 upon the young guardsman, Charles Asgill, became a cause célèbre which at the time brought GW much pain and criticism. In May 1782 Charles Asgill, a captain of the First Foot Guards and a prisoner of war, not yet 20 years old, was chosen by lot and ordered, by GW, to be executed in retaliation for the hanging of a New Jersey militia captain by Loyalists. Asgill was the son of Sir Charles Asgill, former lord mayor of London, and of Theresa Pratviel Asgill, the daughter of a wealthy French Huguenot émigré. At the time that word arrived in England of Asgill’s plight, his father lay seriously ill and his mother led the fight to save their son’s life. It was a letter from her to Vergennes that prompted the French foreign minister to intervene with GW on Asgill’s behalf, leading to Asgill’s release in November and his return to London (see particularly Vergennes to GW, 29 July 1782, and GW to Asgill, 13 Nov. 1782). The action of the play takes place at GW’s headquarters. Asgill and his faithful friend, Maj. James Gordon, are the heroes of the piece. GW is portrayed sympathetically, as one who is trapped by circumstances but in the end is magnanimous. Most of the important documents relating to GW’s involvement in the Asgill affair are quoted in Katherine Mayo’s book-length account, called General Washington’s Dilemma, published in New York in 1938. For GW’s guarded words of thanks for copies of the play, see GW to Le Barbier, 25 Sept. 1785. For GW’s angry reaction to reports in 1786 that Asgill was making charges of cruel treatment at the hands of the Americans, see GW to James Tilghman, 5 June 1786.

1Le Barbier, “Le jeune,” was the brother of the court painter Jean-Jacques-François Lebarbier, “l’ainé” (1738–1826).

2Richard Henry Lee sent the copies of the play to GW in July. See Lee to GW, 23–31 July 1785. In his response of 22 Aug., GW wrote Lee: “for want of knowledge of the language, I can form no opinion of my own of the Dramatic performance Monsr Servitieur [sic] la Barbier.”

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