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, May 13, 2015

George Washington Makes Himself Clear

I’ve been tracing the relationship of George Washington and George Muse, an older Virginia planter who had served (badly) at Fort Necessity but then became a partner in real-estate speculation.

In late 1773 Muse wrote a letter about their business dealings which Washington didn’t like. How much did he dislike it? Here’s what Washington wrote back on 29 Jan 1774:

Your impertinent Letter of the 24th ulto [i.e., of last month], was delivered to me yesterday by Mr [Charles] Smith—

As I am not accustomed to receive such from any Man, nor would have taken the same language from you personally, without letting you feel some marks of my resentment; I would advise you to be cautious in writing me a second of the same tenour; for though I understand you were drunk when you did it, yet give me leave to tell you, that drunkeness is no excuse for rudeness; & that, but for your stupidity & sottishness you might have known, by attending to the public Gazettes, (particularly [William] Rinds of the 14th of January last) that you had your full quantity of ten thousand acres of Land allow’d you; that is, 9073 acres in the great Tract of 51,302 acres, & the remainder in the small tract of 927 acres; whilst I wanted near 500 acres of my quantity, Doctr [James] Craik 300 of his, and almost every other claimant little or much of theirs.

But suppose you had really fallen short 73 acres of your 10,000, do you think your superlative merit entitles you to greater indulgences than others? or that I was to make it good to you, if it did? when it was at the option of the Governor & Council to have allowed you but 500 acres in the whole, if they had been inclin’d so to do.

If either of these should happen to be your opinion, I am very well convinced you will stand singular in it; & all my concerns is, that I ever engag’d in behalf of so ungrateful & dirty a fellow as you are. But you may still stand in need of my assistance, as I can inform you that your affairs, in respect to these Lands, do not stand upon so solid a basis as you may imagine, & this you may take by way of hint. . . .

I wrote to you a few days ago concerning the other distribution, proposing an easy method of dividing our Lands; but since I find in what temper you are, I am sorry I took the trouble of mentioning the Land, or your name in a Letter, as I do not think you merit the least assistance from

G: Washington

This letter was my starting-point for looking into Washington’s relationship with George Muse. What, I wondered, could have caused someone so determined to keep his emotions in genteel check to write so bluntly?

I wasn’t surprised to learn that Washington had a reason to resent Muse from way back. I was surprised to see that they had continued to do business together for so long.

And I was even more surprised to find that their business relationship survived this letter in January 1774 to go on for several more years. They exchanged more polite business letters that year. In March 1783, as the war wound down, Muse asked to be reimbursed for expenses. The next year, Washington made Muse’s son his agent in the west. Evidently, real estate trumped rancor.


Xathos said...

This exchange hints at something in Washington's character. He could get angry at someone, but he also would put that to the side in pursuit of better interests. He seems to have done that with Muse. He would do that politically as well and militarily. That is fascinating considering the high responsibilities he often had.

Steve MC said...

Such a great find. I read earlier today that Washington thought drunkenness was the worst vice, and here we see that well.

I'm tempted to memorize key lines for the next time I'm insulted at a bar.

Steve Mark said...

Having read so many of Washington's letters, including some highly critical of the recipient, it is surprising, yet refreshing, to note Washington could be so blunt. Was there a letter of apology or response of any kind? Great series of posts.

J. L. Bell said...

The correspondence between Muse and Washington is very spotty, so we don’t have the letter that set off this response, or Muse’s response to it. Nor any discussion between the two men about what had happened at Fort Necessity.