“I found a large Bundle of Letters”

ELIZABETH WILLING POWEL not only purchased six coach horses from George Washington when he was preparing to move back to Mount Vernon from Philadelphia in 1797, she also bought his writing desk (at auction). The following letter reveals that she found an interesting packet in a drawer of the desk.

Phila. 11 [–13] th March 1797My very dear Sir
Like a true Woman (as you will think) in the Moment of Exultation, and on the first Impulse (for you know we are never supposed to act Systematically or from attentive Consideration,[)] I take up my Pen to address you, as you have given me a complete Triumph on the Subject of all others on which you have I suppose thought me most deficient, and most opposite to yourself; and what is still more charming—your Candor shall preside as Judge, nay you shall pass Sentence on yourself, and I will not appeal from your Decision. Suppose I should prove incontestably that you have without Design put into my Possession the love Letters of a Lady addressed to you under the most solemn Sanction; & a large Packet too. What will the Goddess of Prudence and Circumspection say to her favorite Son and Votary for his dereliction of Principles to which he has hitherto made such serious Sacrifices. Was the Taste of your Sex predominant in your Breast; and did the Love of Variety so preponderate, that because you had never blundered as President, was you determined to try its Delights as a private Gentleman; but to keep you no longer in Suspense, tho’ I know that your Nerves are not as irritable as a fine Ladies, yet I will with the Generosity of my Sex relieve you, by telling you—that upon opening one of the Drawers of your writing Desk I found a large Bundle of Letters from Mrs Washington bound up and labled with your usual Accuracy. Mr Lear was present, I immediately desired him to take Charge of the Package which he declined—alleging that he thought it was safer in my Hands, at least for some Time—at first I urged it; but finding him Inflexible as I suppose from Motives of Delicacy I sealed them up And I trust it is unnecessary for me to add that they will be keept Inviolably until I deliver them to him or to your Order. As Mr Lear has been connected both with you and Mrs Washington, and as it is probable that some family Circumstances may have been mingled into her Communications to you, to save his Feelings I have sealed the Package with Three Seals bearing the Impression of my blessed Friends Arms, such as that I myself use. Should Mrs Washington appear to have any unpleasant Sensations on this Subject you will I am certain remove them by reminding her—that tho’ Curiosity is supposed to be a prominent feature of the female Mind, yet it will ever be powerfully counteracted when opposed by native Delicacy, or sense of Honor, and I trust a pious Education.

I shall my good Sir give to Mr Lear 245 Dollars which I find was the first Cost of the writing Desk. In my Estimation its Value is not in the least diminished by your use of it; nor from its having been the Repository of those valuable Documents that originated with you during your wise and peaceful Administration for Eight Years. I am sensible many true & handsome Compliments might be paid to you on this Occasion; but as they have been resounded with Elegance & Sincerity through the Whole Continent, and will be re-echoed by Posterity, as you must be conscious they are just and as you are not a Man of Vanity, I will not in my blundering Way attempt a Theme that I feel myself totally inadequate to, as Blundering would not have to me even the Charm of variety to recommend it.

And now let me return you Thanks for your Tributes of Affection. Mr Lear has sent me in your Name a Pair of Lamps & Brackets with the Appendages. From you they are acceptable tho from no other Being out of my own Family would I receive a pecuniary Favor, nor did I want any inanimate Memento to bring you to my Recollection. I most sincerely hope to hear that you are all well and safely arrived at Mount Vernon long before you will receive this Scrawl. Be pleased to present my best Wishes to Mrs Washington & Miss Custis. Truly & affectionately I have the Honor to be, Sir Your most Obedt & Obliged
Eliza. PowelN.B. March 13th Mr Lear dined with me Yesterday. I desired him not to mention the Circumstance alluded to in the first ⟨Para⟩-graph of this Letter, therefore Mrs W. need not be informed of it unless you choose to tell her yourself. E.P.

Only four letters between Washington and his wife have survived. The others were almost certainly destroyed, either by Washington before his death, or by Martha later. Tobias Lear in a letter to Powel (March 9) indicated that the original cost of the desk was 98£ in New York Currency. He also listed the gifts from Washington Powel refers to in her letter as “a token of his respectful & affectionate remembrance.”

Information about the desk:
“George Washington’s presidential desk, usually exhibited at Mount Vernon, was on display Feb. 17-20, 2006 at the Atwater-Kent Museum of Philadelphia. The desk is attributed to New York cabinetmaker Thomas Burling and is modeled on a French style called bureau à cylinder. The desk, purchased by Washington on November 21, 1789, in New York City for £98 New York currency, was brought to Philadelphia in 1790. It is made of mahogany, pine, mahogany veneer, and maple inlay. The desk stands 66″ high, 62″ wide, and 35″ deep and is estimated to weigh 350 pounds. The legs and finials are replacements. A mechanism retracts the roll top, when the writing surface is extended. When Washington returned to Mount Vernon at the end of his presidency in 1789, he left the desk to be sold at auction. Elizabeth Willing Powell purchased it for $245 on March 10, 1797, and placed it in her home at 244 South 3rd Street. The desk was in her family until 1867, when it was donated to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania by Charles Hare Hutchinson.

Information…provided by the Atwater-Kent Museum. Pictures ©2014 ushistory.org”

In the next post Washington’s reply to Powel’s discovery.

“To George Washington from Elizabeth Willing Powel, 11–13 March 1797,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-01-02-0020. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, vol. 1, 4 March 1797 – 30 December 1797, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998, pp. 28–30.] Details about the desk were found HERE.

posted September 21st, 2017 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Furnishings, Lear, Tobias, Powel, Elizabeth Willing, Washington, George


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