George Washington Papers

To George Washington from George Skene Keith, 1 July 1791

From George Skene Keith

Keith hall by Aberdeen N. Britain July 1st 1791


A Clergyman of the Church of Scotland takes the Liberty of writing your Excellency on a subject interesting to mankind—and begs you will accept of the small publication which accompanies this Letter—The subject is at present under discussion in the Assembly of the United States: and the Author would not have troubled your Excellency, if he had not bestowed more labour on that subject than he believes any man existing has done.1

A Copy in Manuscript was sent you about 9 months ago to the Care of Dr Nesbit Principal of Carlisle College near Philadelphia as the author has been long in terms of intimacy with that Gentleman—But as it may have been miscarried, a copy of the publication is now forwarded to your Excellency.2

The writer of this is Nephew to the late Reverend Mr John Barclay, Rector of St Luke parish Maryland, who was honoured with the Friendship—or at least much indebted to the patronage, of your Excellency—Soon after his first settlement in Virginia he married a couple without the consent of their parents—Your Excellency saved him from the consequences; and though he lived not to see your Glory, in a public character, he spoke and wrote of you in a becoming manner3—His Nephew therefore has a private motive for writing you—And has the honour to be with very high Esteem Sir Your Excellencys Most Obedt Servt

Geo: Skene Keith


George Skene Keith (1752–1823), eldest son of James Keith of Aquhorsk in Mar, near Aberdeen, Scotland, was educated at Marischal College and the University of Aberdeen in the late 1760s. After the death of his uncle in 1772, Keith relinquished his plans of moving to America and pursued a clerical career in Scotland. He was ordained in May 1778 to the living of Keith-Hall and Kinkell, Aberdeen, “a very tolerable Benefice” and later claimed that during the Revolutionary War he “was one of the few Scotch Clergymen, who did not pray for the Destruction of the American Rebels” (Keith to GW, 14 Jan. 1792). Keith’s investigations into methods for equalizing weights and measures, based upon the adoption of the second’s pendulum as a standard, were presented to a committee of the British House of Commons in early 1790 and supported in Parliament by Sir John Riggs Miller on 13 April 1790. Miller’s speech was reprinted in the press and consulted by Thomas Jefferson in preparation of his own report on weights and measures (Parliamentary History of England, description begins The Parliamentary History of England, from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803. 36 vols. London, 1806–20. description ends 28:639–49; Jefferson to Speaker of the House of Representatives, 4 July 1790, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 41 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends 16:623–24).

1The enclosure was Keith’s 20–page Tracts on Weights, Measures and Coins . . . (London, 1791), two copies of which were in GW’s Mount Vernon library at his death (Griffin, Boston Athenæum Washington Collection, description begins Appleton P. C. Griffin, comp. A Catalogue of the Washington Collection in the Boston Athenæum. Cambridge, Mass., 1897. description ends 113–14). GW called congressional attention to the establishment of uniform weights and measures in his two 1790 addresses to that body, and both messages appeared in Britain shortly after they were delivered (GW to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, 8 Jan. and 8 Dec. 1790). See also Edward Newenham to GW, 31 Jan. 1791. On 15 Jan. 1790 the House ordered Jefferson to report on the subject, and Jefferson’s final draft was submitted on 4 July. The Senate committee to which it was later referred reported on 1 Mar. 1791 “that it would not be eligible, at present, to introduce any alteration in the measures and weights which are now used in the United States” (DHFC, description begins Linda Grant De Pauw et al., eds. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, March 4, 1789-March 3, 1791. 20 vols. to date. Baltimore, 1972–. description ends 1:517–18, 661, 3:265, 509–10, 634, 641; Jefferson to Speaker of the House of Representatives, 4 July 1790, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 41 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends 16:623–24). Keith also sent Jefferson a copy of his pamphlet on 1 July 1791, as well as an unpublished criticism of Jefferson’s report (see Keith to GW, 14 Jan., and Jefferson to GW, 14 June 1792).

2Keith had earlier sent a manuscript copy of his first tract, “Synopsis of a System of Equalization of Weights and Measures of Great Britain,” to Charles Nisbet (Nesbit) of Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., to be forwarded to GW, which was never done (see Keith to GW, 14 Jan. 1792). On 7 May 1792 Tobias Lear replied to Keith: “The manuscript Copy of this work which you mention in your letter to have been sent to the President some time ago, to the care of Doctor Nesbit, never came to his hands” (DLC:GW).

3Anglican clergyman John Barclay (d. 1772) served Cumberland Parish, Lunenburg County, Va., after he immigrated to the colony in 1756. He was pastor to All Hallows Parish, Anne Arundel County, Md., in the early 1760s before being appointed rector of St. Luke’s Parish, Queen Annes County, Md., in 1763. Barclay dined at Mount Vernon at least twice in August 1769 (see Keith to GW, 14 Jan. 1792, and Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 2:174–75). Keith might have been referring to Barclay’s reinstatement as minister to the 2d Virginia Regiment mentioned in William Byrd’s weekly return of 17 July 1758 (see James Glen to GW, 19 July 1758, n.4).

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