George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Mary Mason, 30 March 1790

From Mary Mason

March 30, 1790.


MARY MASON and family, being the widow and children of the late Charles Mason, deceased, respectfully wait on you, and solicit your friendly assistance, towards paying their passage to England. The character of Mr. Mason, as an eminently useful Astronomer, is well known in Europe and America. He was for several years assistant to Dr. Bradley, the British Astronomer Royal, at Greenwich,: From thence he was sent, in 1764, to the Cape of Good Hope, to observe the transit of Venus. On his return to Europe, he was sent, in company with Mr. Dixon, to America, to run the boundary line between Pennsylvania and Maryland: And after being appointed to observe the second transit of Venus in Ireland, in 1769; he engaged in the correction of Mayer’s Lunar Tables, and brought them to a degree of perfection, exceeding the most sanguine expectations of the best astronomer; nevertheless he began and completed a second and still more accurate set of tables, from which the British and French nautical Almanacs, for finding the Longitude at sea, are now calculated; the utility whereof is well known to every maritime nation in the world, but especially to those trading to the East-Indies. He received 800[£] from the British government for the first set of tables, but nothing for the second; as they were under consideration of the board of longitude, when he sailed with his family for Halifax, in Nova-Scotia, with an appointment to survey the lands given by the British government to the royalists; but this business, through a variety of circumstances, being delayed, whereby what little cash he had was exhausted, and there appearing no probability of being supplied in time from England, he resolved to remove with his family to Philadelphia, where he was well acquainted with Drs. Franklin, Rittenhouse, Ewing, &c. and whose friendship he had formerly experienced. But being worn out with disappointments, and laying the same much to heart, he fell sick before he reached Philadelphia, and died four weeks after his arrival there, without meeting a friend he had ever seen before, except Dr. Ewing.1 He left behind him, in the deepest poverty and distress, the widow and eight children, the youngest two months old, and eldest scarce thirteen years; who must inevitably have perished, were it not for the benevolent interposition of Dr. Franklin, Mr. Robert Morris, Mr. Phineas Bond, Drs. Rittenhouse, Ewing, White, &c. who have raised subscriptions for their support since the time of Mr. Mason’s decease, in October 1787.2

With an intention of returning home to her native country and friends, and with a desire of living no longer on the generosity of benevolent strangers, besides hopes of receiving some gratuity from the British government, for Mr. Mason’s second set of tables, she has came to New-York to embark for England; if, through humanity, and respect for the memory of a good man, who spent his life-time in promoting useful knowledge, she should be so fortunate as to raise a sum sufficient to pay the family’s passage to England. For which, Sir, your kind contribution is solicited.


P.S. Your Excelly will please to send your Subcription, to Sir John Temple Queen Street, or to Mrs Mason at her lodgings No. 17 Maiden Lane.3

L, DLC:GW. All of this letter, except the postscript, is taken from a printed broadside.

Mary Mason was the widow of Charles Mason (1728–1786), the English astronomer who, with the assistance of Jeremiah Dixon, surveyed the disputed boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland. Mason returned to England in 1768 where he continued his astronomical and geodetic work. His first wife having died in 1759, Mason married again sometime between 1768 and 1770. In 1778, while working under the auspices of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich and the Board of Longitude, he published Lunar Tables in Longitude and Latitude according to the Newtonian Laws of Gravity and completed an improved set of the same tables in 1780. Mason arrived in Philadelphia from Nova Scotia with his second wife, Mary, and eight children in September 1786. On 27 Sept. 1786 he wrote to Franklin that financial reverses had left them in a helpless condition (Mason to Benjamin Franklin, PPAmP: Franklin Papers). Having fallen ill during the trip, Mason died on 25 Oct. 1786. No reply from GW to this letter has been found, nor any evidence that he contributed to the family’s passage. Mary Mason nonetheless managed to return to England, where she sought to obtain compensation for her husband’s later work. In 1791 she sent a memorial to the Board of Longitude, and in response she was awarded £50 and was paid another £50 for two manuscript books. After an interview with the commissioners of the Board of Longitude on 3 Mar. 1792, she was paid a total of £120 for other papers, but she apparently did not receive any further compensation (Robinson, “A Note on Charles Mason’s Ancestry and His Family” description begins H. W. Robinson. “A Note on Charles Mason’s Ancestry and His Family.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 93 (1949): 134–36. description ends ).

1John Ewing (1732–1802) was a Presbyterian clergyman and provost of the University of Pennsylvania. Born in Maryland, Ewing was educated in a school kept by Dr. Francis Alison at New London Cross Road, Pa., and at the College of New Jersey, from which he graduated in 1754. After serving as a tutor at the college, he returned to Dr. Alison, who prepared him for the ministry. In 1759 he became pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, a post he held for the rest of his life. Ewing had a particular interest in natural philosophy, astronomy, and mathematics and probably befriended Charles Mason during the latter’s stay in Pennsylvania between 1763 and 1768. Their friendship evidentally was resumed between 1773 and 1775, while Ewing was in England in an unsuccessful effort to solicit funds for an academy in Delaware. In 1779 Ewing was appointed provost of the University of Pennsylvania, where he also served as professor of natural philosophy. When Charles Mason died in Philadelphia in 1786, he left all the manuscripts and scientific papers in his possession to Ewing (Cope, “Collecting Source Material about Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon” description begins Thomas D. Cope. “Collecting Source Material about Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 92 (1948): 111–14. description ends ).

2This is undoubtedly a printer’s error. Charles Mason died on 25 Oct. 1786. See the Pennsylvania Gazette, 8 Nov. 1786.

3The postscript was added to the printed form by hand. Sir John Temple was British consul general at New York.

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