George Washington Papers

From George Washington to John Sinclair, 6 March 1797

To John Sinclair

Philadelphia 6th March 1797


On the 11 th of Decr I wrote you a long letter;1 and intended before the close of the last Session of Congress (which ended on the third instant, conformably to the Constitution) to have addressed you again; but oppressed as I was with the various occurences incident thereto, especially in the latter part of it, it has not been in my power to do so during its continuance; and now, the arrangements necessary to my departure from this City—for a more tranquil theatre, and for the indulgence of rural pursuits, will oblige me to suspend my purpose until I am fixed at Mount Vernon, where I expect soon to be; having resigned the chair of government to Mr Jno. Adams on friday last; the day on which I completed my second four years administration.

Under the circumstances here mentioned, I should not have troubled you, at this time, with so short a letter but for the purpose of accompanying it with two or three Pamphlets on the subject of Agriculture; one of which treats more extensively on Gypsum as a manure than any I have seen before. The other two will only serve to shew, that essays of a similar kind are making in this infant country.2

I am sorry to add, that nothing final, in Congress, has been decided respecting the institution of a National board of Agriculture, recommended by me, at the opening of the Session. But this did not, I believe, proceed from any disinclination to the measure, but from their limited sitting, and a pressure of what they conceived, more important business. I think it highly probable that next Session will bring this matter to maturity.3 With the highest esteem & respect I have the honor to be Sir Yr most Hble & obt Servt

Go: Washington

ALS, British Museum, Add. MSS 5757; ALS (letterpress copy), DLC:GW; LB, DLC:GW.

Sir John Sinclair (1754–1835) at the age of 16 inherited a large estate in Caithness, Scotland. After studying at universities in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Oxford and reading law, he in 1780 became a member of Parliament, where he played an active role until his resignation in 1811. Through the agency of William Pitt, Sinclair was made baronet in 1786. As a member of Parliament in the 1780s, he pressed for parliamentary and fiscal reform, but it was his interest in statistics and in the improvement of agriculture that led to this exchange of some forty letters with GW between 1792 and 1799. Sinclair succeeded in dramatically improving the methods of raising crops and breeding livestock on his own estates, and he took a particular interest in improving sheep breeding in Scotland. He collected statistics on the various parishes of Scotland, and between 1791 and 1799 he published twenty-one large volumes of The Statistical Account of Scotland. In 1793 Sinclair secured the passage of a bill by Parliament creating a national board of agriculture, of which he became the first president. Most of Sinclair’s letters to GW were written by him as a president of the Board of Agriculture, and he often enclosed pamphlets written by himself and published by the board. In 1795 GW was made a foreign honorary member of Britain’s Board of Agriculture. See particularly Sinclair to GW, 18 May 1792, 15 Aug. 1793, and GW to Sinclair, 20 July 1794, 10 July 1795.

1Sinclair opened his letter to GW from London on 11 Sept. 1796 with the sentence: “I do not much like the present aspect of Europe, and have some thoughts, in case of accidents, to secure on asylum for my family in america.” After discoursing briefly on what he thought to be the sorry state of Britain and the threat to it of France, Sinclair wrote: “I should be glad to be favoured with your opinion, respecting a purchase in america, on a moderate scale, from 2 to £3000. You wrote me that you had some farms to let in the neighbourhood of Mount Vernon [20 Feb. 1796]. Have any of them a tolerable good house, and instead of letting them on a short lease, would you grant, what in Scotland is called a feu, a species of perpetual lease, at a rent not augumentable, or would you sell them out right, as they seem to be in an eligible part of the country”(DLC:GW).

GW’s letter from Philadelphia of 11 Dec. 1796 was written in reply to Sinclair’s queries about his securing property in America. He begins with a lengthy description of the nature of the land, climate, and farming in the various regions of the United States from New England to Georgia and offers his estimate of the comparative cost of land in the different parts of the country. He concludes his description with the pronouncement that “the Lands on the Waters of Potomack will, in a few years, be in greater demand, and in higher estimation than in any other part of the United States” and suggests that Sinclair consider attempting to purchase the Fairfaxes’ Belvoir, “within full view of Mount Vernon.” As for Mount Vernon, GW provided Sinclair with a description of what he was willing to let and on what terms and explained: “to alienate any part of the Fee simple estate of Mount Vernon is a measure I am not inclined to, as all the Farms are connected, and are parts of a whole.”

2Sinclair wrote to GW on 14 May 1796 with inquiries about the use of manure and enclosed papers on the subject. GW referred Sinclair’s queries to Richard Peters of Philadelphia, with whom he had corresponded for many years on agricultural topics. See Peters to GW, 12 May 1796. The pamphlet on gypsum to which GW refers was Richard Peters’s Agriculture Enquiries on Plaister of Paris (Philadelphia, 1797), a copy of which Peters sent to GW on 21 Jan. 1797 with a promise to send others the next week for GW to “distribute some among his Friends,” and he did so on 26 January.

3As early as 15 June 1793 Sinclair began urging GW to have a national board of agriculture established in the United States. For GW’s early views on this proposal, see his letter to Sinclair of 20 July 1794. In his address to the U.S. Congress on 7 Dec. 1796, GW declared that “with reference either to individual or national welfare, Agriculture is of primary importance” and urged “the establishment of Boards, composed of proper characters, charged with collecting and diffusing information, and enabled by premiums and small pecuniary aids, to encourage and assist a spirit of discovery and improvement.”

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