George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Elijah Brainerd, 23 January 1799

From Elijah Brainerd

Randolph [Vt.] 23 January 1799

Honored Sir—

With great pleasure & deference do I contemplate your high character—Every true American must esteem & respect you as being raised upon the Kingdom of Providence, the political Father of our country—to fill the very first offices of public trust, with great respectability & the most distinguished usefulness to the ten thousands of our nation—and to fill a page in history, unequalled in lustre among the annals of mankind—which can never fail to communicate the most pleasing instruction to posterity—So much I beg leave to say with modesty, humility & gratitude—And pray dear Sir, permit me to lay before you a very short sketch of my life, which now is & has been for three years past, little else than a tale of woe & sorrow—Wish so to express myself as to be truly inoffensive.

The place of my nativity is a town called Haddons lying on and near the mouth of Connecticut river—From my 17th to my 22d year was chiefly in the service of my country—was taken prisoner twice A.D. 1779 at sea by the British, the first time was sat on shore in Virginia at the mouth of Chesepeak-bay—the second time was carried into New-york, & in November exchanged & sat on shore at Boston—having lost my little all of property.

In April 1780 began my studies for a public education at Dartmouth College—graduated Septemr 1785—was indented into the gospel ministry in Septemr 17861 by a public ordination over about 70 or 80 families newly settling this central town in Vermont, called Randolph—in population it has flourished gready, now there are 278 families & 1600 souls, but its finances are much embarrassed owing to the perplexed state of the proprietorship & its rapid settlement.

Served my people in good harmony and with general success for ten years—On the 3d day of January 1798 resigned my ministerial office among my people in an amiable manner, it being only on account of bodily infirmity—My people has been as kind as is usual in similar cases—They still wish to have me preach to them whenever able—and consequently have given them two or three sermons the late summer, but in great feebleness.

My family consists of a kind Partner whom I married January A.D. 1788 the daughter of Joseph Marsh Esqr. of Hartford in this State, and three daughters & two sons between the age of ten & three years—also an indented lad ⟨of⟩ 14 years of age—all sprightly & active, & in common health, except myself.

The history of my infirmity is truly affecting—In 1794 was taken with very distressing rheumatic pain in the goint of my left hip—It was severe by spells and disenabled me from walking, except by crutches, but not from performing my parochial duties till August A.D. 1796—when an able Surgeon laid my hip open, examined the bone, found it carious & judged my case remediless for some weeks—from that day to this the incisions have constantly discharged matter, distressing pain has attended me in that place every day, except intervals of relief obtained by the use of opium—and my situation has been very feeble & inervated, have been able only to ride abroad a little now & then till a few months of late, I have gained more strength & acquired a little more ease—My prospects are more animating, so that probably, within a year, or two I may attain to a comfortable state of health, should nothing more extraordinary befall me—But now I have continual pain except while under the operation of my anodyne & in constant need of dressings for my sores—Doctors I have dismissed & wait on nature & time with patience—The good hand of Providence which laid calamity on me, has given me great resolution and fortitude, so that I continue to this day, an object of sympathy & compassion—cannot adequately describe the scene of sorrow & distress which I have gone thro’ for three years past.

Confined from business, continually at expense—resources of support for my family impaired & cut off—benefactors have been kind, but still unavoidable bills of expense have accrued & still remain due—Creditors impatient for their pay—My little farm consisting of about 90 acres, about 35 of which under very indifferent & impaired cultivation—no property to hire labor with, the calls of my family still continue—we study the most prudent œconomy & industry, and admit of nothing superfluous, or ostentatious—nevertheless we are reduced to a state of indigency which is truly distressing and pitiable—it shakes my resolution at times—it draws forth the most fervent supplications for relief—Five hundred dollars would enable us soon to attain to that decent & plain style of living beyond which my heart does not aspire, after my late scene, which has taught me contentment with small things—A less sum from the benevolent hand of charity would awaken every sentiment of gratitude in my breast—& give us relief accordingly.

Pray dear Sir, if agreeable & consistent let your kind hand of benevolence lend us some small relief—perhaps a good word with some other great characters, may dispose them to become kind benefactors & send me a little relief also—No one can hardly conceive what a thankful, obedient & grateful object you would relieve in such a case—how it would rejoice my heart & awaken every sentiment of respect & gratitude—I would be a faithful & responsible steward & endeavor to make such calculations & arrangements as to obtain the approbation & confidence of my benefactors.

Thus I have frankly & with sincerity opened my life & feelings—documents & testimonials of full authenticity are at hand of what ⟨I⟩ have written—at least, hope to obtain your sympathy & if guilty of any indelicacy or error, your forgiveness & patience.2

Shall consign this to Mr Payne our Senator now ⟨in⟩ whose seat is only 12 miles from me, & whom I have reason ⟨to⟩ confide in as a good friend.

That the great Parent of all good may ever grant you his heavenly benedictions, prosperity & great felicity is the most fervent prayer of your dutiful, most obedient and humble servant

Elijah Brainerd

ALS, DLC:GW. The letter is docketed “Answd March 2d. 99.”

Elijah Brainerd (1757–1828) gave up his pastorate at the Congregational church in Randolph, Vt., on 4 Jan. 1798; in 1810 he was installed as the minister of the Presbyterian church in Pelham; later he took orders in the Episcopal church in Warrenton, N.C.

1Brainerd mistakenly wrote 1795 and 1796.

2GW responded on 2 Mar.: “Sir, Your letter of the 23d of January has been received.

“While I sympathize with you in your Calamities, and most sincerely com⟨miser⟩ate the distresses which you have undergone—I regret that it is not in my power at present to afford you any pecuniary relief; for I can truly say, that I feel myself at times much embarrassed to discharge my engagements and unavoidable expenses; owing to repeated disappointments in receiving monies due to me for property sold (as the income of my estate does at this time hardly meet my current expences) and upon which I confidendy relied. Besides these, I have daily calls upon me similar to the one in your letter, from those of my acquaintance or neighbourhood as well as for public institutions. These I conceive it my duty first to releive or aid, as far as is in my power. To extend relief further would be truly grateful to my feelings; but I have not the means of doing it. And to ask a contribution for these purposes from others when I do not contribute myself, does not appear to me to be consistent. I therefore pray you, my good Sir, to be assured that in not complying with your wishes I act from necessity and not from choice.

“Your prayers and good wishes for my health & happiness I receive with gratitude and most sincerely reciprocate them. I am, Sir, Your most Obedt Servt” (Df, ViMtvL).

This brought a reply from Brainerd on 3 April: “Your good letter I gratefully received—Your sympathy gives me no small consolation. Altho’ numerous & important attentions daily await you, yet pray permit me to write a word more and I will not intrude again. Your reasoning and the information of frequent solicitations similar to mine, of which I was ignorant, perfectly satisfy me—another wish on the subject I have not. Perhaps ere long I may be able to go abroad—serve my country, in some way, honorably and myself profitably. May tranquility and great prosperity never fail you—And may you ever felicitate yourself in the full & glowing confidence of our nation, born in a day. . . . Since writing my first letter, have pretty certainly found the primary cause of my almost unparalleled scene of sorrow and distress. On that day we retreated from New York—September A.D. 1776, the company in which I was a soldier, was obliged to take cover on a small side hill on the bank of east river—A round top of a British ship played on & killed some of the company—A certain ball, perhaps a two pound shot, striking a few rods before me, bounded into the air and fell on my hip, where the seat of my sore & distress has ever been. This accident we conclude of late must be the origin of my present calamity. Therefore think I have a most ⟨just⟩ and reasonable demand on my country, at least in some measure—But the day for solicitation of such a nature is, perhaps, over forever—I relate this only to show what a son of calamity I am—My study is patience & humble resignation under the good hand of almighty God” (DLC:GW).

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