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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Thursday, February 20, 2020

“He was Billy, and the old servant of General Washington”?

In 1777 a London printer issued a pamphlet titled Letters from General Washington, to Several of His Friends in the Year 1776.

James Rivington, New York’s leading Loyalist printer (shown here, courtesy of the New-York Historical Society), soon reprinted those letters in his Royal Gazette newspaper. He issued a pamphlet of his own, adding a couple of genuine American letters to fill out the pages. Other Loyalist printers issued a particularly embarrassing private letter on handbills.

The preface to the pamphlet offered this explanation of how the person publishing the documents had come by them:
Among the prisoners at Fort-Lee, I espied a mulatto fellow, whom I thought I recollected, and who confirmed my conjectures by gazing very earnestly at me. I asked him, if he knew me. At first, he was unwilling to own it; but when he was about to be carried off, thinking, I suppose, that I might perhaps be of some service to him, he came and told me, that he was Billy, and the old servant of General Washington. He had been left there on account of an indisposition which prevented his attending his master.

I asked him a great many questions, as you may suppose; but found very little satisfaction in his answers. At last, however, he told me that he had a small portmanteau of his master’s of which, when he found that he must be put into confinement, he entreated my care. It contained only a few stockings and shirts; and I could see nothing worth my care, except an almanack, in which he had kept a sort of a journal, or diary of his proceedings since his first coming to New-York:

there were also two letters from his lady, one from Mr. Custis, and some pretty long ones from a Mr. Lund Washington. And in the same bundle with them. the first draughts, or foul copies, of answers to them. I read these with avidity; and being highly entertained with them, have shown them to several of my friends, who all agree with me, that he is a very different character from what they had supposed him.
The letters were addressed to Martha Washington, her son Jack Custis, and Lund Washington, the cousin managing Mount Vernon at the time. They portrayed Washington as disillusioned with the Continental Congress and hoping for a negotiated peace. They were entirely fake.

Whoever wrote those letters was familiar enough with life at Mount Vernon to have been in the Washingtons’ circle in Virginia. The general suspected John Randolph, the Loyalist father of his former and future aide, Edmund Randolph. Scholars have theorized that the Rev. John Vardill guided this and other propaganda efforts.

Describing the letters as having been captured with an enslaved servant also reminded readers that Washington and many of his biggest American supporters were slaveholders. That was a big talking-point in British political writing at the time, not out of any abolitionist sentiment but to undercut the Continental claim to be fighting for “liberty.”

In 1795, as domestic political disputes heated up, American printers opposed to President Washington’s policies pulled out this pamphlet and reprinted its contents, not necessarily claiming the letters were authentic but just stirring the pot.

Eventually Washington wrote to several of his associates in the war reminding them that these “spurious letters, [were] known at the time of their first publication…to be forgeries,” as he told Benjamin Walker. He asked them to remind other people, too.

The President added:
But of all the mistakes which have been committed in this business, none is more palpable, or susceptible of detection than the manner in which it is said they were obtained, by the capture of my Mulatto Billy, with a Portmanteau. All the Army, under my immediate command, could contradict this; and I believe most of them know, that no Attendant of mine, or a particle of my baggage ever fell into the hands of the enemy during the whole course of the War.
To that we can add that in 1776 William Lee was not an “old servant” of the general but only in his early twenties.

Those letters from the 1790s are the only time that Washington referred to his former body servant William Lee as “Billy” after 1771. And he wasn’t really referring to Will—he was referring to the fictional version of his servant described by a British propagandist using that name.

Washington hoped that Rivington, who appears to have become an American intelligence source by the end of the war, would be able to reveal the author of the letters. That didn’t happen. Rivington probably knew as little about their origin as anyone else in America.

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