George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Walter Minto, 24 August 1787

From Walter Minto

Erasmus-Hall near New York 24th Aug. 1787


The reverend Doctor Mason my friend will present to you a small Tract on the Theory of the Planets. Its chief merit consists in the discovery of a mathematical truth—that the circular orbit of a planet may be determined by two observations only—which had not been thought of before. I beg you will do me the favor of receiving it as a small testimony of the esteem & veneration I have for the Man who has done so much for the rights & happiness of humankind.1 I have the Honor to be, Sir, Your most humble Servt

Walter Minto

ALS, PHi: Gratz Collection; Sprague transcript, DLC:GW.

Walter Minto (1753–1796), a native Merse County, Scotland, and former professor of mathematics at the University of Edinburgh arrived in the United States in August 1786. In the spring of 1787 he was appointed principal at the Erasmus Hall Academy in Flatbush on Long Island, New York. According to one advertisement of the opening of that academy, Minto was said to be “highly esteemed among the learned in different parts of Europe where he has travelled” (The New-Jersey Journal, and Political Intelligencer [Elizabeth], 11 April 1787). The trustees of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) elected Minto professor of mathematics and natural philosophy in September 1787, and in the spring of the following year, John Witherspoon, the president of that College, noted that Minto had "given great and general Satisfaction to the Students the other officers of College & even to the Neighbourhood," and described Minto’s method of instruction as "very good" (Luther P. Eisenhart, "Walter Minto and the Earl of Buchan," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 94 [June 1950], 289). In addition to being a scholar, Minto engaged in humanitarian endeavours; in the spring of 1787 he was admitted as a member of a New York society, of which John Jay was president, "for promoting the MANUMISSION of SLAVES" (Independent Journal [New York], 23 May 1787).

1After the discovery of the planet Uranus in 1781, Minto wrote and published his Researches into Some Parts of the Theory of the Planets; In Which Is Solved the Problem, to Determine the Circular Orbit of a Planet by Two Observations; exemplified in the New Planet (London, 1783). Five sections of Minto’s work are predominantly mathematical, and contain many equations. Section 4 treats the problem listed on the title page, while section 5 lists various scientists’ observations of Uranus. GW was not the only major figure to receive the work; Minto inscribed one copy of the book to Benjamin Franklin (see Luther P. Eisenhart, “Walter Minto and the Earl of Buchan,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 94 [June 1950], 284). “The reverend Doctor Mason” is probably John Mason, from 1761 until his death in 1792 pastor of the Scotch Presbyterian Church (Associate Reformed Church), on the south side of Little Queen (Cedar) Street in New York. During the Revolution he was an ardent Patriot and served as chaplain to the garrisons on Hudson River.

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