George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Tobias Lear, 19–20 June 1791

From Tobias Lear

Philadelphia June 19[–20]th 1791.


I have had the honor to receive your letters of the 12th & 15th of this month. The former of which I should have acknowleged by the last post had I not been absent on a journey to New York when it arrived in this City. The cause of my Journey to New York was to attend my mother to this place where she proposes to spend a week or two on a visit to Mrs Lear & myself. She had a favorable opportunity of coming to New York, from whence (unexpectedly) I received a letter from her requesting that I would, if it was in my power, come to that place & accompany her to Philadelphia. I accordingly sat off in the Stage on Tuesday last & returned with her by the same conveyance, yesterday. I have provided lodgings for her at Mrs Houses which makes it very convenient for Mrs Lear to be much with her.1

It is really unlucky, as you did not return by the way of Taylor’s Ferry, that Letters were directed to you at that place. Mr Jefferson gave me a list of the Stages by which you proposed to return, but the time of arrival at those Stages was not fixed; he therefore advised directing letters, until the last of may, to Taylor’s ferry by the way of Petersburg, between which places he observed there was a constant intercourse & that a week would hardly ever elapse without presenting an opportunity of sending letters from the latter to the former.2 I accordingly directed three letters to that place for you—viz.—may 15th—22d & 29th. The last, however, with directions to the Post master of Petersburg, if he should have no opportunity of sending it to Taylor’s ferry before a certain day, to return it to Fredericksburg to wait your arrival there. That of the 22d appears to be the only one missing. It enclosed one of Mr Paine’s pamphlets, & gave the sketch of a conversation which took place between Colo. Beckworth & myself relative to the dedication of that work.

Agreeable to your directions contained in Major Jackson’s letter I informed the Secy of War of your arrival at Mount Vernon, and of the necessity there was of transmitting duplicates of such dispatches as he might have directed to you at Taylor’s Ferry, provided such dispatches contained anything of a particular or pressing nature.3 The Secretary of State has not yet returned from his northern tour; but is expected this evening, when I will communicate the above to him. He & Mr Madison arrived in N. York on thursday last, where I saw them. They express themselves very much gratified by their journey & observations, and both appear to have been benefited in their health by it. Mr Madison does not intend to return immediately to this place, and is not certain but that he shall pay a visit to Boston & the maritime parts of the eastern States before he sets his face to the Southward.4

In conformity to the opinion of the Secretary of the Treasury I have the honor now to enclose 12 Commissions for the Cutters to receive your Signature.5

The persons whom I have heard mentioned as being more likely to come to view in selecting a successor6 to Judge Hopkinson are, Mr Lewis, the Attorney, Mr Peters, Mr Ingersoll and a Mr Lawrence who married Gen. Sinclair’s daughter. Judge Shippen has likewise been spoken of. The first mentioned Gentleman is thought to stand on the highest ground in every point of view. But it is said that his practise at the bar is so much more lucrative that he would not accept it. However it is thought that he will have it in his power to accept or decline. The second Gentleman is pretty generally thought of. Altho’ he has not been in the habits of practise at the Courts; yet it is said that he has a good stock of Law knowledge, and his merit is unquestionable. The 3d is spoken of as a gentleman learned in the law—respectable & meritorious. Of the 4th I have heard but little said—and the 5 Gentleman is said to have been respectable on the bench for many years.7

Of all the Gentlemen who have been brouqht to view for the Comptroller’s place Mr Kean was thought, on every account, to be the most suitable man to fill that office unless the Auditor should be advanced (which was thought the most likely step and such were his merits that few, besides the applicants or their friends, expected any other person). But there seem to be two obsticles to this Character—first a doubt whether he would accept it—and secondly whether he could be removed from his present office without removing at the same time all expectation of having the business of that board brought to a close; for he is considered as the principal agent in that business. He has attended to it closely & indefatigably. Mr L. from New Hampshire went home in the beginning of April and has not yet returned.8

I have not heard Mr Richmond spoken of here with a view to either the Comptrollers or Auditors office. Colo. Pickering was mentioned as a person highly qualified for the discharge of either; but whether he would accept the latter or not I have not understood. Colo. Drayton & Colo. Forrest I have not heard named. I have understood that Mr Smith of Baltimore who was in Congress last winter would accept it (the Auditors office) & his qualifications are said to be very competent to the duties thereof. His respectability is well known.9

I shall not fail to use every indirect means, in my power, to ascertain the public opinion with respect to the fittest Character to fill these offices and shall communicate whatever I may learn on that head.

There has been a Holy day at the College for the week past, and it happend at a lucky season for Washington, for he has been so much indisposed with the Chicken pox, and, since that has left him, with biles, that has not been able to attend his school near a fortnight.10 Mr Fentham, I am informed, is certainly to quit his place in the latin school, which, it is said, will thereby suffer an almost irreparable loss; for he is considered as a good Scholar, and has more authority in the School than any of the other masters.

I am in hopes that the Servants of the family, finding a steady determination on the part of their immediate inspectors to have regularity & industry established in the house, and an assurance from higher powers that they will be supported in their just & reasonable measures, will be induced to act as they ought.

It is a matter of serious regret that the prospects of the farmer are so bad from a want of rain. Appearances have been rather unfavorable here for a few days past; but we have just now been blessed with a fine & an abundant shower which very much alters the face of things.

Permit me, sir, to do in this part of my letter what I ought to have done in the first line—that is, to congratulate you upon your safe return to Mount Vernon in the full enjoyment of your health to express the pleasure which that event gives me—and to add my prayers & wishes for as happy a termination of your journey at this place.

Colo. Smith arrived from London a short time since, & was in this place last week. He reports that there were strong assurances from the British ministry that a diplomatic Character would be sent out here in a few months. Colo. Beckworth reports also that his letters confirm that Account; but who will be the man was not then known.11

Colo. Walker arrived in New York while I was there after a passage of 43 days from Bristol—I saw him.12 He says the ministerial party in England declare there will be a war between G. Britain & Russia; unless the Empress makes peace with the Turks—upon the terms proposed by the mediating powers; but the people at large beleive no such thing—they reprobate the idea of a war with Russia from which nothing is to be expected—and they have been so much in the habit of a profitable commerce with that Country that such a step would be so unpopular that the minister would fall in consequence of it.

Mr Dandridge will have the small pox very lightly—this is the 15th day of his inoculation—and but two or three pustules have yet made their appearance.

Mrs Lear is grateful for your kind remembrance of herself and the Child—and with me unites in sentiments of the highest respect & most sincere Attachment with which I have the honor to be Sir, Your most Obedt & very grateful Humble Servant

Tobias Lear.

Monday morning 8 O’Clock

P.S. The Commissions which I mentioned within are not sent herewith. All that were struck off for the Cutters were done under Colo. Hamiltons direction & sent to his office, from whence those came which were filled & received your signature. I have sent twice for some of the blanks but as the Office is not yet opened I cannot get them & this is the last moment of the Mail for this day. They shall be forwarded by the next post.13


ALS, DLC:GW; ALS (letterpress copy), PWacD. Only the receiver’s copy has the postscript.

1Mary Stillson Lear (1739–1829), the widow of Tobias Lear IV (1737–1781) and mother of Tobias Lear, had come to Philadelphia to see her new grandson, Benjamin Lincoln Lear. Lear left the capital on 14 June and returned with his mother on 18 June. The two-week-long Philadelphia visit that followed initiated a lifelong friendship between Mrs. Lear and Martha Washington (Decatur, Private Affairs of George Washington, description begins Stephen Decatur, Jr. Private Affairs of George Washington: From the Records and Accounts of Tobias Lear, Esquire, his Secretary. Boston, 1933. description ends 242).

2For Thomas Jefferson’s unsuccessful attempts to maintain contact with GW during the Southern Tour, see Jefferson to GW, 1, 8 May.

3William Jackson’s letter of 14 June from Mount Vernon reads: “The President of the United States requests that you will inform the Secretaries for the departments of State and war that he is arrived at Mount Vernon, to which place they will address their letters to him until the 27th of this month when he proposes meeting the Commissioners at Georgetown, by appointment with them before he went to the southward. As the letters for the President were sent from Fredericksburg to Taylor’s ferry, by which route he did not return, he has not received any Letters from the Secretaries or from yourself between the 15th and the 30th of May—Should the dispatches to him within that time have contained any thing of a particular or pressing nature it will be necessary for his information that duplicates of them should be forwarded immediately, as it is uncertain when he may receive the originals. The President thinks he may write to the Heads of departments by the next post, in the meanwhile he wishes you to acquaint them of his return—He writes to Colonel Hamilton by this post” (DLC:GW).

4James Madison relinquished his planned trip to Massachusetts because of ill health and a lame horse and remained in New York City until the third week of August, returning to Philadelphia around 23 Aug. with the intention of accompanying Jefferson home to Virginia (see Madison to Jefferson, 24 July, Daniel Carroll to Madison, 24 July, Jefferson to Madison, 18 Aug., and Madison to Joseph Jones, post 23 Aug. and source note, Madison Papers, description begins William T. Hutchinson et al., eds. The Papers of James Madison, Congressional Series. 17 vols. Chicago and Charlottesville, Va., 1962–91. description ends 14:52–54, 54–55, 71–72).

5These commissions were not actually enclosed (see postscript, and Lear to GW, 23 June and note 5).

6Lear inadvertently wrote “succcessor.”

7Jared Ingersoll was a distinguished lawyer of Philadelphia and served as state attorney general. John Lawrence was married to Elizabeth St. Clair, daughter of Arthur St. Clair. Edward Shippen was president of the court of common pleas of Philadelphia County from 1784 to 1791 and sat as a special judge on Pennsylvania’s high court of errors and appeals until 1791, when he was appointed to the state supreme court.

8GW had reappointed John Kean a commissioner for settling accounts between the United States and the individual states in August 1790. See Commissioners for Settling Accounts to GW, 21 July 1790, n.1. Oliver Wolcott, Jr., hoped that Kean would be named auditor (see Lear to GW, 23 June), and Peter Van Brugh Livingston wrote GW from Elizabethtown, N.J., on 1 June “in behalf of my Friend Mr John Kean, whose losses by three recent Insolvencies have been very considerable, as the office he now enjoys by your favor is like to be of no long Duration, that your Excellency would be pleased to confer on him one more permanent,” specifically, the comptrollership (DLC:GW). GW appointed Kean to neither office, and Kean resigned from the board of commissioners in October to become cashier of the Bank of the United States (see Kean to GW, 31 October). The “Mr L.” to whom Lear refers might have been his early patron and his father’s cousin, U.S. Senator John Langdon of New Hampshire.

9GW appointed former congressman William Smith auditor on 16 July, according to the State Department memorandum book (DNA:PCC, item 187) and that day’s Federal Gazette and Philadelphia Daily Advertiser. Smith declined the office, and GW nominated on 25 Nov. Richard Harrison in place of Oliver Wolcott, Jr., who had been promoted to comptroller (Harrison to GW, 8 May 1789, n.2). The Senate confirmed the appointment of Harrison on 29 Nov. after GW provided, upon request, further information about him (GW to the U.S. Senate, 25, 29 Nov., both LS, DNA: RG 46, Second Congress, 1791–1793, Records of Executive Proceedings, President’s Messages—Executive Nominations; U.S. Senate to GW, 28 Nov., DLC:GW; Executive Journal, description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States of America: From the commencement of the First, to the termination of the Nineteenth Congress. Vol. 1. Washington, D.C., 1828. description ends 1:90, 91).

10Lear reported on 23 June that George Washington Parke Custis had recovered from his illnesses. After GW’s return to Philadelphia, however, Custis became so “very ill with a fever” that he was attended by doctors William Shippen, Jr., and Adam Kuhn, and “The President sat up with him last night” (Benjamin Rush to Julia Stockton Rush, 16 July, in Butterfield, Rush Letters, description begins L. H. Butterfield, ed. Letters of Benjamin Rush. 2 vols. Princeton, N.J., 1951. description ends 1:599–601). Jefferson wrote Madison on 24 July that Custis “has had a long & dangerous fever. He is thought better to-day” (Madison Papers, description begins William T. Hutchinson et al., eds. The Papers of James Madison, Congressional Series. 17 vols. Chicago and Charlottesville, Va., 1962–91. description ends 14:55). Martha Washington wrote of his recovery to Fanny Bassett Washington on 29 Aug.: “dear little Wash is quite well and has a very good apetite and gains flesh and strength every day he is now well enough to go to school” (Fields, Papers of Martha Washington, description begins Joseph E. Fields, ed. “Worthy Partner”: The Papers of Martha Washington. Westport, Conn., and London, 1994. description ends 233).

11Maj. George Beckwith had conversed on 15 June with Alexander Hamilton about the appointment of a British minister to the United States (Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 8:475–77). He may also have communicated with Lear directly.

12At the end of August 1790, GW granted Benjamin Walker, federal naval officer for New York, a leave of absence from his post until March 1791, and Walker traveled to Paris as agent for the Scioto Company. William Duer later informed Walker that Hamilton said no notice would be taken of his staying “a few months beyond” the expiration of his official leave (see Hamilton to GW, 28 Aug. 1790 and note 2).

13For Lear’s reasons for not sending the commissions in the next post, see Lear to GW, 23 June and note 5.

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