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The Many Loves of Mr Lear

Mrs Tobias Lear Number 2 /

America's first secretary to George Washington married into the Washington family – twice. This is the rarely told tale of Tobias Lear and his three wives. The first was his Portsmouth, NH sweetheart. The next two were both named Fanny. They were all part of America’s first soap opera.



His luck in love, as in business, was rocky at best. Despite his powerful post as secretary to President George Washington, Tobias Lear seemed fated to fail. His first wife Polly died young. His second wife too. Lear committed suicide while married to his third. It is a story tailor made for opera.

Mary Long Lear, known as "Polly", was a Portsmouth girl and Tobias was a Portsmouth boy. Tobias was fresh out of college when he was recommended for the job of bookkeeper and secretary to the most important man in the new United States at his farm at Mount Vernon.

The connection was certainly political. Benjamin Lincoln, father of Lear’s Harvard colleague suggested the young man’s name to Washington. Lear's father was also cousin to the powerful shipbuilder John Langdon, and the Langdons knew the Washingtons. From his first letter to young Tobey Lear, Gen. Washington, hero of the American Revolution, made it clear that his new employee would sit right at the family table and become part of the Washington household.

Almost two decades later Lear was at the President’s deathbed, holding his hand as the most famous man in the nation expired. Lear's account of Washington's final hours is among the most amazing essays in American history. Lear planned the president's funeral and wrote the press releases, despite his own deep personal sadness. Washington had been like a father to him.

Lear had three wives in all -- Polly, Fanny and Fanny. Polly, by all accounts, was a welcomed addition to the Washington household. By the time she arrived, George Washington had come out of retirement and grudgingly accepted the position of President. The American capital was first in New York, then Philadelphia. The Lears lived smack inside the first "white house" where Polly gave birth to Benjamin Lincoln Lear, named in honor of the man who had recommended Lear to his influential job. Baby Ben's godfather was the president himself.

Martha CustisMartha Washington doted on the baby and loved Polly. The two women planned the very first formal functions of the nation's first family, literally inventing the social structure of the new country. Besides his own mother and sister in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and all his wives, Martha Washington was a powerful force in Lear's life. Martha even became close to Tobias' mother back in Portsmouth.

We tend to picture Martha as that white-haired matronly woman, much like Mrs. Santa Claus, sitting quietly in the cloudy half-finished painting by Gilbert Stuart. What we forget is that Martha was a tough lady, worldly wise and influential. Originally Martha Custis, she was a widow with two children when she married George. Martha's only boy "Jackey" Custis had four children of his own, and then he too promptly died, leaving them to the care of their famous grandparents smack dab in the middle of Revolutionary America.

There is a famous painting of the "Washington Family" from this era by Edward Savage. It's huge and hangs in the National Gallery, depicting an elderly George and Martha Washington posed stiffly across a table with two small children with their black servant. These are the Washington grandchildren, "Nelly" Custis and George Washington Parke Custis. One of Lear's many tasks was to tutor these children, and his letters are rich with the details of domestic life among the Washingtons. One moment Lear was dealing with a national crises, and the next he was off buying stays for Nelly's dress or a new fob for her watch.

In the midst of all this, Polly Lear contracted Yellow Fever while out shopping with Martha in Philadelphia, came home and died at age 23. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were among Polly’s pallbearers. Lear was crushed. His mother back in Portsmouth took baby Benjamin. For Lear, things never quite went right again. He left the safety of the president's household, attempted to act as consul to the West Indies just as Napoleon attacked the islands with 20,000 troops. He masterminded the building of Federal City, a new national capital on the swampy Potomac River later name "Washington", but went bankrupt in the process.


The Man with Two Fannies  (continued)


Fanny LearThen his life hit a brief updraft. Two years after Polly's death, Lear married Frances Bassett Washington, "Fanny" for short. The bond was a political masterstroke. Fanny was recently widowed, left with a small child named Mary. Her first husband was none other than Augustine Washington, a nephew of George Washington. Fanny was also Martha Washington's niece. As a wedding gift, the Washingtons gave the Lears a gorgeous property called River Farm in Virginia that, like Mount Vernon and Lear's House in Portsmouth, are still open today to visitors.

Tobias Lear was in the catbird seat again. Then Fanny, who may have contracted tuberculosis from her first husband, died suddenly. Then George Washington, Lear's surrogate father, caught cold and died within a 48 hour period. Entrusted with the Washington presidential papers, Lear immediately fell into a new scandal when some of the papers came up missing. He was accused of conveniently misplacing letters that favor Thomas Jefferson. It was a stain on Lear’s honor that never came clean.

Then followed a twist right out of Ripley's-Believe-It-or-Not. Martha had another niece who was also called "Fanny." So Tobias married again, this time to the young Frances Dandridge Henley. The new President Jefferson appointed Lear consul to Algeria. In the early 1800s the Barbary Coast was a political hot spot, and Lear's job was considered quite a plum, though a dangerous plum. The pirate leaders were not averse to cutting of the heads of people whose peace offerings were considered too stingy. Leaving young son Ben again with Gramma Lear, the newlyweds spent their transatlantic honeymoon aboard the USS Constitution. This ship was later known as "Old Ironsides." Fanny and Tobias were gone nine years.

Fanny LearThings, as always, eventually went sour for Tobias Lear. He negotiated the famous treaty on the "shores of Tripoli" which effectively paid off the bribes of the Barbary Pirates. He was accused of taking a percentage of the fee, which he probably did since making a few bucks was then considered a perk of the consul's job. Branded as a "sell-out" by some politicians, Lear's payments weren't enough to please the pirates, so he was kicked out of Algeria as well.

Arriving back in the newly completed capital, Lear took a job as Secretary of War, just as the British attacked and burned Washington, D.C.. In October of 1816 Lear went into his Virginia garden with a pistol and shot himself. Fanny Henley Lear outlived her troubled husband by 40 years and died in 1856.

In the end, Tobias Lear's greatest loss may have been his self-respect. His greatest love, arguably, was George Washington himself. The man the nation revered almost as a god had treated Lear like a son, then left him all alone to find his way in a world too harsh for a mere mortal to bear.

SOURCES: There are scores of biographies about George Washington, but only one, so far, about his secretary Tobias Lear. The Checkered Career of Tobias Lear by Ray Brighton, Peter E. Randall, Publsher, 1985

Updated 2006. First published here (c) 1999 by All rights reserved.


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