“you are the only Man in America that dares to do right on all public Occasions”

While I knew of ELIZABETH WILLING POWEL, I confess I did not appreciate the close relationship she had with George Washington. In 1792 Washington was debating whether to serve a second term as president. He wanted to retire: Mount Vernon beckoned and his health was deteriorating. But he knew that problems were brewing at home regarding the direction the new nation should take. Abroad there was the question of how to position the United States in the impending conflict between France and England. Washington’s friends and advisers were urging him to stay on in light of these challenges. He confided his doubts to Elizabeth Powel and, in the following long letter, she sets forth the reasons why he should serve a second term. I have broken this amazing piece of writing into paragraphs to make it easier to read.

[Philadelphia] November 17th 1792My dear Sir
After I had parted with you on Thursday, my Mind was thrown into a Train of Reflections in Consequence of the Sentiments that you had confided to me. For tho’ they were not new, yet I had flattered myself that a nearer View of the Consequences that would probably ensue upon your quitting a Trust, upon the proper Execution of which the Repose of Millions might be eventually depending, would have pointed out to you the Impropriety, or to use a stronger Word, the Impracticability of carrying your Intentions into Effect—Regard for you and Anxiety for the Wellfare of our common Country, have determined me to submit to your Consideration the Thoughts which have occured to me on this Subject, and which, I think, it would be inconsistent with my Friendship for you to withold.

That you have obtained the Love, Respect and Confidence of the Citizens of the United States is a Fact as well substantiated as any that we are in Possession of; and, be assured, that I am as superior to the Meanness of Adulation as you are incapable of receiving it with Pleasure. Your honest Mind is not a Soil for it to take Root in, nor are your Ears attuned to listen, with Delight to the Syren Song of Flattery; nor, on the other Hand, do I mean to give you Pain by wounding your feelings. I well know your invincible Diffidence, and your Sensibility with respect to public Opinion; on the last therefore I must lay some Stress. Be assured that a great Deal of the well earned Popularity that you are now in Possession of will be torn from you by the Envious and Malignant should you follow the bent of your Inclinations. You know human Nature too well not to believe that you may have Enemies. Merit & Virtue, when placed on an Eminence, will as certainly attract Envy as the Magnet does the Needle. Your Resignation wou’d elate the Enemies of good Government and cause lasting Regret to the Friends of humanity. The mistaken and prejudiced Part of Mankind, that see thro’ the Medium of bad Minds, would ascribe your Conduct to unworthy Motives. They would say that you were actuated by Principles of self-Love alone—that you saw the Post was not tenable with any Prospect of adding to your Fame.

The Antifederalist would use it as an Argument for dissolving the Union, and would urge that you, from Experience, had found the present System a bad one, and had, artfully, withdrawn from it that you might not be crushed under its Ruins—that, in this, you had acted a politic Part. That a Concurrence of unparralelled fortunate Circumstances had attended you—That Ambition had been the moving spring of all your Actions—that the Enthusiasm of your Country had gratified your darling Passion to the Extent of its Ability, and that, as they had nothing more to give, you would run no farther Risque for them—that as Nature had not closed the Scene while your Carreer was glorious you had, with profound Address, withdrawn yourself from a Station that promised nothing to your Ambition, and that might eventually involve your Popularity.

The Federalists consider you as their own and glory in the Possession. They gave what a great and generous People might offer with Dignity and a noble Mind receive with Delicacy. They made no Oblation on the Altar of Idolatry or Vanity; their Offering was the Effect of Gratitude, Respect, Affection and Confidence to the Man that had, materially, assisted them in rearing and establishing the glorious Fabric of Liberty. Will you withdraw your Aid from a Structure that certainly wants your Assistance to support it? Can you, with Fortitude, see it crumble to decay? or, what is still worse behold the Monster Licentiousness, with all his horrid Attendants, exalted on its Ruins? I know you cannot you will not. But you will say that there are Abilities and Virtues in other Characters equall to the Task; admitting the Fact, it does not prove the Expediency of the Inference you have drawn from it, If there is not a Confidence in those Abilities and that Integrity they cannot be beneficially applied.

I will venture to assert that, at this Time, you are the only Man in America that dares to do right on all public Occasions. You are called to watch over the Welfare of a great People at a Period of Life when Man is capable of sustaining the Weight of Government. You have shewn that you are not to be intoxicated by Power or misled by Flattery. You have a feeling Heart, and the long Necessity of behaving with Circumspection must have tempered that native Benevolence which otherwise might make you too compliant, the Soundness of your Judgement has been evinced on many and trying Occasions, and you have frequently demonstrated that you possess an Empire over yourself. For Gods sake do not yield that Empire to a Love of Ease, Retirement, rural Pursuits, or a false Diffidence of Abilities which those that best know you so justly appreciate; nay your very Figure is calculated to inspire Respect and Confidence in the People, whose simple good Sense associates the noblest qualities of Mind with the heroic Form when it is embellished by such remarkable Tenets of Mildness and calm Benevolance—and such I believe was the first Intention of Nature. You love philosophic Retirement; convince the World then that you are a practical Philosopher, and that your native Philanthropy has induced you to relinquish an Object so essential to your Happiness. To do this I am certain that you need only give free Exercise to those Sentiments of patriotism and Benevolence which are congenial to your Bosom. Attend to their Verdict—Let your Heart judge of its Truth—Its Decrees will be confirmed by Posterity. That you are not indifferent to the Plaudits of the World I must conclude when I believe that the love of honest Fame has and ever will be predominant in the best the noblest and most capable Natures. Nor is the Approbation of Mankind to be disregarded with Impunity even by you. But, admitting that you could retire in a Manner exactly conformable to your own Wishes and possessed of the Benediction of Mankind, are you sure that such a Step would promote your Happiness? Have you not often experienced that your Judgement was fallible with Respect to the Means of Happiness? Have you not, on some Occasions, found the Consummation of your Wishes the Source of the keenest of your Sufferings?

God grant that your Mind may be so enlightened that you may, on this Occasion, form a true Judgement and may the eternal Disposer of human Events watch over your welfare. May the Remnant of your Days be happily and actively employed in the Discharge of those Duties which elevate and fortify the Soul. And may you, till the extremest old age, enjoy the pure Felicity of having employed your whole Faculties for the Prosperity of the People for whose Happiness you are responsible, for to you their Happiness is intrusted. Adieu believe me as I ever am Your sincere affectionate Friend
Eliza. Powel

“To George Washington from Elizabeth Willing Powel, 17 November 1792,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-11-02-0225. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 11, 16 August 1792 – 15 January 1793, ed. Christine Sternberg Patrick. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002, pp. 395–398.] The Lansdowne Portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1796. Courtesy National Portrait Galley, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

posted August 31st, 2017 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Powel, Elizabeth Willing, Washington, George

George Washington: “one of my best Friends and Favorites”

ELIZABETH WILLING POWEL was a renowned hostess and the Powel home on Third Street in central Philadelphia was the gathering place for important political and social figures of Revolutionary America and the early republic. Elizabeth and her husband were close personal friends of George and Martha Washington. During the Constitutional Convention in 1787, with Martha back in Mount Vernon, Washington was often in the company of the Powels. He particularly enjoyed conversing with Elizabeth who was brilliant, well educated, and outspoken in her opinions. In a letter Elizabeth wrote to Mrs. William [Ann Bolling Randolph] Fitzhugh in July 1786 she refers to George Washington as “one of my best Friends and Favorites.” Elizabeth Powel either wrote or copied verses which she sent to Washington on his birthday in 1792 beginning with the line: “No Peerage we covet, No Sceptres desire.”

In the following letter, dated 9 January 1792, Elizabeth Willing Powel informs George Washington that she is sending information about a possible treatment for his nephew George Augustine Washington who was suffering from tuberculosis. The preparation of the medicine koumiss, fermented mare’s milk, described by John Grieve was published in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1788. Writing that it was “recommended as an almost universal remedy”— Elizabeth quickly anticipates Washington”s reaction—”which I know you will say proves too much and rather savours of Quackery; yet the Authorities appear so respectable and the Object of the Publication so benevolent, that I think it is entitled to considerable Confidence and Attention. . .” She then waxes philosophical, considering whether

the protracting human Life is adding to the Mass of Happiness. But what is this Life that we should be so over studious to prolong the Respiration of that Breath which may with so much Ease be all breathed out at once as by so many successive Millions of Moments? For surely there are more exquisite Pains than Pleasures in Life, and it seems to me that it would be a greater Happiness at once to be freed forever from the former than by such an irksome Composition to protract the Enjoyment of the latter. We must all die, and, I believe there is no Terror in Death but what is created by the Magic of Opinion, nor probably any greater Pain than attended our Birth. As I suppose at our Dissolution every Particle of which we are compounded returns to its proper original Element and that which is divine in us returns to that which is divine in the Universe.
I most sincerely wish you the two Extremes of Happiness—fullness of Joys in this Life and an immortal Series of Felicities in Heaven. I am dear Sir with Respect & Esteem your affectionate Friend
Eliza. Powel

“To George Washington from Elizabeth Willing Powel, 9 January 1792,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-09-02-0248. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 9, 23 September 1791 – 29 February 1792, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000, pp. 419–420.] The photographs are from Wikimedia Commons. Use of the parlor photo was given to Wikipedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A woman rediscovered in a false-bottomed trunk


ELIZABETH WILLING POWEL (1730-1830) and her husband Samuel entertained lavishly in Philadelphia during the late colonial and early national era. In the Mount Vernon digital encyclopedia Elizabeth is referred to as the city’s “premiere Saloniste.” She was a friend and confidante of George Washington and has figured in two posts in this blog: here and here.

Powel House in Philadelphia is open to the public courtesy of The Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks. In June the Society announced an amazing discovery: a cache of letters, receipts and accounts written by Elizabeth Powel found in the false bottom of a trunk belonging to her descendants. Rather than recount the details of this coup I refer you to this post of the Society. It is a rich and well written story conveying the excitement of finding new sources of information by and about a prominent woman. I could not do better.

I am grateful to Loretta Chase and Susan Holloway for bringing this story to my attention in their blog.

Some interesting correspondence between Elizabeth Willing Powel and George Washington to follow.

Portrait of Elizabeth Willing Powel by John Wollaston, c. 1755-1759. Yale University Art Gallery, 1987.58.1.

posted August 21st, 2017 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Mount Vernon, Philadelphia, Powel, Elizabeth Willing, Primary sources, Research

“And breathing figures learnt from thee to live”

Another item of interest about SARAH MOORHEAD (see previous posts) is her connection to a slave of the family called Scipio who is thought to have been a talented working artist around 1773. Sarah was a teacher of drawing and painting so it is possible, even likely, that she recognized his talent and was his teacher. But the only piece of art ascribed to Scipio Moorhead that has survived is the portrait of Phillis Wheatley, on the frontispiece of her published book of poetry: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). (See posts on Wheatley here, here, here, here. here, and here.) A poem, “To S.M., A Young African Painter, on Seeing His Works,” written by this enslaved African-American poet has been cited as evidence that the engraving was made from a painting by Moorhead. (A note by a white reader in an early copy of the book mentions Scipio by name.)

When first thy pencil did those beauties give,
And breathing figures learnt from thee to live,
How did those prospects give my soul delight,
A new creation rushing on my sight!

It is true that the Moorheads and the Wheatleys were neighbors and that the two slaves knew each other. However, the assumption that Scipio is the artist of the frontispiece has been challenged by Eric Slauter, author of the article “Looking for Scipio Moorhead” in Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World. He presents evidence based on the Scipio’s age, his contact with other painters, the current styles in portraiture, and his appearance in ads for the auctioning of the estate of John Moorhead and that of his daughter Mary. The historian J.L. Bell, in his blog Boston 1775, is quite persuaded that Slauter is right. He suggests that an another black artist working at the time with several works attributed to him, Prince Demah, may have been the actual artist of the Wheatley portrait. See two posts by my colleague Louise North on Prince Demah here and here.

Eric Slauter’s article appears in Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World, edited by Agnes Lugo-Ortiz, Angela Rosenthal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 89. Read the complete poem HERE.

posted August 17th, 2017 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Art, Moorhead, Scipio, Poetry, Prince Demah, Wheatley, Phillis

Sarah Moorhead’s Canvaswork Picture

SARAH PARSONS MOORHEAD was a Boston poet and and artist (ca 1710-1774). Her husband was the prominent minister John Morehead (there are alternate spellings to their name) and her poems concern the religious revival of the 1740s. But I am interested here in her work as an artist and designer. This ad appeared in a Boston newspaper in 1748.

“Trades and Occupations JAPANNING—Drawing, Japanning, and Painting on Glass taught by Mrs. Sarah Morehead, at the Head of the Rope-walks, near Fort Hill.”

Japanning referred to Asian lacquerwork which became popular in Europe and America in the 18th century, local artisans creating works to meet the increasing demand.

Two antiques dealers specializing in textiles, recently purchased an example of an early Boston canvaswork and found the name of Sarah Moorhead inscribed under the sand liner. It was originally thought to be her work but noted needlework historian Betty Ring believes that Moorhead was the designer for this piece rather than the maker since other works similar to this were worked by youngsters suggesting that Moorhead was the designer, and perhaps their teacher.

During the 1760s and ’70s American women, boycotting British products, began making and wearing homespun garments. Spinning groups, organized by parishioners, often met in churches. One group met in the home of the Moorheads so it seems fair to conclude that Sarah personally sympathized with the Patriot resistance.

Boston Evening Post, April 18, 1748; and published in George Francis Dow, The Arts & Crafts in New England 1704–1775, Gleanings From Boston Newspapers (Topsfield, Mass.: Wayside Press, 1927), 267. Other sources include Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World edited by Agnes Lugo-Ortiz and Angela Rosenthal (New York City: Cambridge University Press, 2013) and Antiques and Fine Arts Magazine “Sarah Moorhead Canvaswork Picture.”

posted August 14th, 2017 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Art, Boston, Moorhead, Sarah Parsons

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