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, March 09, 2023

Unabashed Gossip from William North

On 9 Mar 1784, the former Continental Army officer William North (1755–1836, shown here) wrote a catty letter to his close friend Benjamin Walker, part of which is now held by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

North was visiting their old commander-in-chief, George Washington, at Mount Vernon.

Only one sheet of what was at least a two-sheet document survives, so the text picks up in the middle. Based on the low-resolution scan on the society’s website, I think it reads:
She drank your health—but she has no breasts Ben! & then you know George Washington is to have her.

Here we are, three meals a day & quadrilles at night—The Great Man retires to his Study after breakfast, & us to our rooms. Could you believe it I have not hump’d a single Mollato since I am here, O tempora O Moses!

It now rains hard, & I pray God it may rain harder, the sooner the ice breaks, the sooner we set out. Miss Bassett & Madam Mew at each other like two cats, such a damned tune [?] I never heard. The Great man won’t stay long at home, he can’t bear this Solitude, this want of parade & flattery.

Poor Walker said Madam, he would only Stay 2 or three days with us & I declare I was sorry to part with him. The Women has a certain [?] goodness of heart, but then she is such a figure & squeaks so damnedly that there is no bearing her.

George Carter the son is married to Miss Skipwith, for to have fortune &c.

Lucy Randolph is at [???] I wish I was there too instead of here. The Byers [?] in [???].

The Baron makes a dive [?] at Congress on our return to annapolis, asks for nothing but his due, with months [?] of no plan or pension, retires to his farm & lives [blank] as usual.

With the favoring [?] of God I shall be with You soon.

Adieu May the Good Spirit comfort you
Mount Vernon
March 9th 1784
North apparently referred to his host as “the Great Man” and to Martha Washington as “Madam.” In the first line above “George Washington” meant the general’s nephew George Augustine Washington, who married Martha’s niece Fanny Bassett the following year.

“George Carter” is often referred to as George Hill Carter of Corotoman (1761–1788) to distinguish him from relatives. He married Oratrix Lelia Skipwith (1767–1837), daughter of a baronet. Her next husband was St. George Tucker.

Lucy Randolph might be the daughter of Peyton Randolph who married French consul Joseph Latil in 1787 before dying three years later. No idea about the rest of that paragraph above.

“The Baron” meant Gen. Frederick William de Steuben, who was both North and Walker’s mentor and their charge. Always in debt, Steuben was lobbying the Congress for a bigger land grant and/or pension. North and Walker no doubt expected to clean up his financial affairs.

When North wrote this letter to Walker, they were both bachelors, possibly still living with the baron in New York. North’s remarks about Fanny Bassett’s breasts, the women enslaved at Mount Vernon, and who was marrying whom reflected their social position as both young army buddies and eligible gentlemen. Walker married in August 1784, North three years later.

This letter offers an unusual perspective on the Washingtons, to be sure. I suspect the master of Mount Vernon would have been absolutely furious to know about it. I’ve seen a couple of lines quoted, but I don’t think it’s ever been published in full, and I don’t claim all my transcription is accurate.


Don Carleton said...

Regarding your transcription of a difficult document, I am wondering if the line is not "O tempore, O Mores?" or is North making a pun of some sort with Mores/Moses?

Charles Bahne said...

I think the most interesting thing about the letter -- or at least about how it's posted on the Historical Society of Pennsylvania website -- is the 1969 letter from the Director of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. Not only does the Mount Vernon director point out that the "George Washington" mentioned in the letter is not the General and future President; he also insists that his own letter of clarification be filed alogside the "original ambiguous incomplete manuscript". No, we can't have "uninformed muckraker[s]" slandering the Father of our Country.

John, you've always said that your blog features unabashed gossip, and with this salacious piece you've certainly hit your target. Bravo!

P.S. - Too bad the Historical Society hasn't posted a higher resolution image.

Anonymous said...

I have not hump’d a single molatto? Explain

J. L. Bell said...

Don, the usual phrase is of course “O tempora! O mores!” But North definitely wrote “Moses” with a long s. I read that as another sign that he’s joking around with his friend.

J. L. Bell said...

Indeed, Charlie, it‘s clear why a Mount Vernon official would want to be clear that the “George Washington” for whom this woman was reserved was not the general but her fiancée. All very respectable.

Because otherwise a person might read “George Washington” and think George Washington.

J. L. Bell said...

I think the line about humping was North playing off a young man’s stereotype of southern plantations like Mount Vernon as a place where white men could have sex with the enslaved workers, by physical force or other coercion. He was making a tasteless joke to his friend, like joshing young men in many times.

Two details take us beyond that stereotype, though. First, North wrote that he did not have sex with Washington’s slaves. Now we know from other examples, such as John Custis and John Augustine Washington, that men in George Washington’s family did have sex and father children with enslaved women on their own estates. But not for this visitor to Mount Vernon, at least.

Another wrinkle is that many historians have guessed that the author and recipient of this letter, William North and Benjamin Walker, were either lovers during the Revolutionary War or had mutual male lovers in the Steuben circle. So was North really expecting to “hump” an enslaved woman—or an enslaved man? Was his mention of that rumored plantation practice bravado as he moved to take on the role of a straight man looking for women and ultimately a wife?

Jayne Triber said...

What's not to love? Indiscreet, scandalous gossip. Need to consult genealogical records to untangle those intermarrying Southerners. Punning--so 18th century and so maligned as the lowest form of humor--but I love it. The response of Mount Vernon reminds us all to do what many prominent figures from the past did--destroy all inappropriate records wheter paper or electronic!