George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Francis Willis, Jr., 24 September 1788

From Francis Willis, Jr.

Septr 24th 1788

May it please your Excellency

I took the liberty formerly to address you on some business that still remains unsettled, therefore must again be troublesome & request yr determination on the matter. at the decease of Mrs Washington Colo. Saml Washington wife she left some negros to her son that were given her after his decease, the child also died, & I who was her Executor from my own ill Judgment & being also ill advised sold them, as supposing they were vested otherwise than it is now thought, Sir I learn the right is in you, as I have wrote you before, & then requested that I might be directed to pay the amount of the sales to your Brothers Heirs unto whom our present Governour1 wrote me you intended to give it, & he also wrote me you would direct me not to be molested for my Error, as you judged what I had done was with good intentions; I humbly thank your Excellency for yr good opinion, & assure you upon my honour it was the case, for notwithstanding it appeard impossible to me that the law should take from Mrs Washingtons own children what she never had till after her widowhood, still I got advice on the matter as Mr Whiting will shew you & yet still err’d, so now have only to entreat you to end the matter by directing whom I shall pay, upon which the bearer my Friend Mr Whiting will settle the matter, for untill that is done I cannot but be in an uneasy state, for in case of my death my innocent family would suffer for my doing what I thought, & was advised was right, should yr Excellency not choose to end the matter as he proposed, I must try to buy the negroes again tho suppose that would be difficult. there is another matter waits your will respecting these negroes, when I made sale of them to Colo. Henry, he had not seen them, nor I except the mother of the 4 children, which I told Colo. Henry, & advised him to enquire particularly of their father whom he ownd, concerning their sex age, health &c. &c. which he did & agreed to give £240 for the 5, I deliverd them without ever seing them, & in about 18 months Colo. Henry wrote me the eldest was an Idiot, & refused to settle for him as instead of a profit, he was a charge; & by his statement of the matter which Mr Whiting has he has deducted £60 for the boy; if you think that deduction too much I will go over to Colo. Henrys & propose to get disinterested gentlemen to examine into the matter & give their opinion, unto which I am convinced Colo. Henry will agree2—My friend Mr Whiting who does me the favour to call on Yr Excellency on the business is acquainted with the circumstances of both these matters unto whom I beg & intreat you to be so good as to give your full determination that I may end a matter for which my only reward is a great deal of trouble & anxiety. The present Governour whose advice I took after I found I was in an error, told me the sale was good to the purchaser, tho I was liable to an action for my proceedings; for it is a well known maxim that ignorance is no plea in law, so I remain altogether at yr mercy of which Ive no doubt, from Yr Excellencies Most Obedt & hbl. Servt

Francis Willis jr.

P.s. Should the mode of settlement I propose not be agreeable, I will oblige myself to carry gentlemen of judgment & character to Colo. Henrys, shew them the Negroes, & will buy of equall value & deliver them to yr order, which I suppose would be equally agreeable to whoever you intend to give the Negroes as there can be no attachment to those I soled being unknown to the children; F.W.


This letter concerns one of the numerous problems arising out of GW’s involvement in the complicated affairs of his deceased younger brother Samuel Washington (1734–1781). Samuel left Ferry Farm in the mid–1750s and settled on a 600–acre plantation in the Chotank area of Stafford County, Va., later moving to Berkeley County (now W.Va.) where he built his home Harewood. At his death he left his family numerous debts but little money. GW was one of his executors and over the years was compelled to assume responsibility for the surviving children of Samuel and his fourth wife Anne Steptoe Washington (see Charles Washington to GW, 7 Jan. 1789). He advanced considerable sums (according to his will “near five thousand dollars over and above the sums furnished by their Estate”) for the education of Samuel’s two surviving sons, George Steptoe Washington (c.1773–1809) and Lawrence Augustine Washington (1775–1824), first at academies in Georgetown and Alexandria and later at the University of Pennsylvania. Samuel’s daughter Harriot (1776–1822) was also largely dependent upon GW for support. After some years of being shunted about from one relative to another, including some time at Mount Vernon, she went in 1792 to live with GW’s sister Betty Washington Lewis in Fredericksburg, Va., but until her marriage in 1796 many of her expenses were borne by GW. See also Charles Washington to GW, 7 Jan. 1789.

Francis Willis, Jr. (1744–1797), of Whitehall, Gloucester County, Va., was the brother-in-law of Susannah Perrin Holding Washington (d. 1783), Samuel Washington’s fifth wife. Willis’s difficulties stemmed from the fact that Susannah, because of the “high opinion I have of his morals and obliging disposition,” named him one of the executors of her estate and the guardian of her only son, John Perrin Washington (1781–1784). In May 1783 Willis posted a bond of £1500 with the Berkeley County court as surety for his administration of the estate (Berkeley County, W.Va., Will Book No. 1, 311). According to Susannah’s will, dated 5 Dec. 1782 and proved in the Berkeley County court in May 1783, “my first Husband Mr George Holding left me by his will any Negro that I should think proper to Chose out of his whole Estate & I have in consequense thought proper to chuse a young wench by the name of Molly” (Berkeley County, W.Va., Will Book No. 1, 310–11). The slaves discussed by Willis in this letter were probably Molly and her four children. After John Perrin Washington’s death, shortly after that of his mother, Willis sold the slaves for the benefit of the estate. See also GW to James Nourse, 22 Jan. 1784. Willis’s earlier letter on the subject has not been found, but GW received this letter of 24 Sept. on 12 October. In his diary for this date he noted: “A Mr. Whiting of Berkeley, on his way from Gloucester (with a letter from Mr. Francis Willis Junr.) called here—& dined, after which he proceeded to Alexandria. This Gentleman was requested to inform Mr. Willis, in answer to his letter to me—dated 24th. of Septr. last—that if the sum for which he sold the Negroes (of which Mrs. Washington the Widow of my deceased Brother Saml. Washington died possessed, & by Will gave to her Son, by him, to whom I am heir) with Interest thereon from the time of her death and my interest therein commenced that I shall neither reclaim the Negros—nor give him any trouble for the illegality of the Act of disposing of them” (Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 5:405). The matter rested there until 1793 when Willis wrote to GW on 4 Aug. that he had discovered Susannah Washington’s brother had not made a proper conveyance of the slaves and consequently the proceeds from their sale should go to Perrin’s heirs. GW replied on 25 Oct. stating his dismay that “it should be Discovered at this late hour that, that lady herself had no right to the Negros—which, by the bye, I believe possession alone would give her. If I had ever intended to avail myself of the Law for my own benefit (which made me heir to those Negros) I would not have relinquished my claim without a thorough investigation of the subject of defective title. For presuming that all Law is founded in equity and being under a conviction that if Mrs Washington had survived her husband she would have released nothing to which she would have been entitled by law, I saw no injustice or impropriety upon the ground of reciprocity of receiving for my Brothers Children that which in the other case would have been taken from them—But not having finally resolved in my own Mind (as you may readily infer from my long silence) whether to take from Mrs Washingtons family for the benefit of my Brothers only daughter (who from the involved State of his affairs had left her by his Will a very small pittance; and the obtainment of that, even doubtful) the whole or only part of what the law entitled me to, I let the matter rest till your second letter had revived the subject.” In order to end the affair, GW agreed that if Willis would pay him £100, which he would use for the support of Harriot, he would relinquish all claims to the slaves.

1Edmund Randolph (1753–1813) was elected governor of Virginia in November 1786. He had served as attorney general of the state from 1776 until he became governor, and in September 1789 GW appointed him attorney general of the United States.

2Willis may be referring to Patrick Henry (1736–1799), who retired as governor of Virginia in 1786 and was now living on his 1,700–acre farm in Prince Edward County.

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