A Gem of A Letter

While working on People of the Founding Era: A Prosopographical Approach, I came upon an unexpected gem in the Papers of George Washington — a letter written by Washington to John Marshall on April 11, 1789. At the time, Washington was President of the United States and Marshall was the young (but promising) Virginia lawyer who handled Washington’s personal legal affairs. A month earlier, Washington had instructed Marshall to collect on an over twenty-year-old debt owed him by the estate of William Armistead.

However, in early April Washington changed his mind. He wrote,

“I have been lately informed that Mrs Armsteads sons are dead and have left their families not in very good circumstances. If this is the case—and the payment of the debt due to me would distress them I must beg that you will not proceed any further in the matter, for however pressing my want of money is at present I had much rather lose the debt than that the widow and fatherless should suffer by my recovering it.”

We now live in a time of such financial insecurity, worried about jobs, grants, and life savings. Washington’s letter is a helpful reminder that, whatever our current wants, our plans should encompass our neighbors’ needs as well as our own.

Quote from “George Washington to John Marshall, Mount Vernon, 11 April 1789”, Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda 2007. http://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/pgwde/print-Pre02d46 [accessed 23 Sep 2009]. To see the letter in its entirety (and the editorial annotations), click on the link above, or if you don’t have a subscription to Rotunda’s American Founding Collection, find it in the print volume, Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, Volume 2, page 47.


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