J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

“To become private secretary to General Washington”?

The Rev. Thaddeus Mason Harris (1768-1842) grew up from a poor childhood to regain his family’s place in the cultural establishment of greater Boston. He was the librarian at Harvard College for several years before becoming a Unitarian minister in Dorchester.

And whenever I read the man’s early life life story, I come away feeling dubious.

All the profiles of Harris seem to derive from a letter that the Rev. John Pierce wrote on 1 Mar 1849. One of the anecdotes in that letter is:
On leaving College, he taught a school for a year at Worcester; and, at the end of that time, was applied to, to become General [George] Washington’s Private Secretary. He had consented to serve; but, in consequence of taking the small pox, he was prevented from entering at once on the duties of the place, and it was filled by Tobias Lear.
Using Pierce’s letter, the Rev. Nathaniel L. Frothingham wrote a longer reminiscence for the Massachusetts Historical Society. Here’s his version of the same anecdote:
He was graduated at Harvard College in July, 1787, at the age of nineteen. . . . After completing his collegiate course, he became the teacher of a school in Worcester. In this service he remained for a year; and here he formed the acquaintance of Miss Mary, the only daughter of Dr. Elijah and Mrs. Dorothy Dix, who was to be the partner of his whole life.

Immediately on leaving this pleasant town, he was honored by an application to become private secretary to General Washington. His heart leaped at such a proposal, which promised to bring him into connection with the greatest man of his nation and time, and with the leading events of a wonderful era in the fortunes of his country and the destinies of the earth. His patriotism and his skill with the pen, his love of history and of poetry both, conspired to recommend such a preferment, and promised to open a career for his highest aspirations. Now the course of his life seemed to be beaten out for him in high places, and the motto of his ring was translating itself into distinct prophecy.

But no sooner had he signified his acceptance of the appointment than he was struck down with that terrible malady, the small-pox, which at that time had been relieved of only the smaller half of its original terrors. Public affairs cannot wait for the slow recoveries of sickness and for private convenience; and before he was able to arrive at his post the place was filled by Tobias Lear, a gentleman who left the University the same year that young Harris entered it, and who afterwards went through a long course of diplomatic service as Consul-General at St. Domingo and at Tripoli.
In 1788, Lear had already been Washington’s secretary for four years; he wasn’t second choice to Harris. Lear also remained in Washington’s employ through 1793, moving with the first President to New York and Philadelphia, so there’s no sign of an opening.

I’ve seen no mention of Harris in Washington’s correspondence. And if someone at Mount Vernon wrote to Harris asking him to become the general’s closest employee, as Pierce and Frothingham understood, that would surely have left a paper trail.

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