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Tobias We Hardly Knew Ye



Life was a roller coaster ride for Tobias Lear. Selected as secretary to George Washington, his checkered career zoomed up and crashed down. Portsmouth's native son lived with the nation's #1 family, but finally took his own life.



It was a Tobias Lear kind of day, full of promise soon to explode. I was nabbing a bagel downtown. The temperature was pushing 70. Only the smallest dirty lumps of the April Fool's Day blizzard remained and the sun was testing its harsh new Daylight Savings Time beam on the giant windows of the bagel shop. Customer's blinked, half blinded by the reflection off their morning papers. There were enough people in sunglasses to re-shoot the alien landing in "Close Encounters," and when the first brave halter top of the season sauntered past the deli window, even the women gazed in awe.

Chaucer was right. When the sweet breath of April arrives, the sap flows -- and I mean big time. The whole bagel shop seemed to ooze liquid life. We were all ready to pop like tulips in a microwave. Good Lord Almighty, it was spring at last.

So it went. On the surface, just a couple dozen people eating circular bread, but inside you could tell they were all rumbling, ready to go Pompeii. Six months of cold New England weather has a way of doing that. Throw in a sharp ocean breeze, the last gasp of Hale-Bopp -- and stand back. It was a good feeling.

Checkered CareerLike any hard-core Yankee, I get nervous when I'm happy. There's something not to be trusted about a smile. It can lead to open grinning, loss of composure, false hope and invite the inevitable crush of returning reality. Life is, after all, a veil of tears, and yet despite myself, I was practically buoyant, just sitting there sipping Earl Gray and passionately smearing my fresh baked bagel with Very Berry cream cheese spread. Dammit, I was happy.

This must be how Tobias Lear felt, I thought, when George Washington appointed him secretary at Mount Vernon. Here was Lear, just a kid from Portsmouth, selected to work at a 10,000 acre farm in Virginia for practically the most famous man in what was practically America. Tobias must have been downright giddy. Poor boy. If only he had known.

Lear is in my thoughts too much lately. His life rattles around in my brain like a bad tune from a musical comedy – The Checkered Career of Tobias Lear. The title comes from local historian Ray Brighton. It is the only book ever written about Lear. Without it, and a few character attacks in a novel by Kenneth Roberts, Lear would have achieved anonymity. Poor guy, all he wanted was fame, and wealth, and happiness. But Lear couldn't win for losing. That's why I like him so much.

Here are a few curves from the roller coaster life of Portsmouth's native son of the Revolution:

  • Lear and his new bride Polly move in with the Washingtons. George gets selected President, Polly dies of Yellow Fever.
  • Lear and others concoct a plan to build a huge city on a swamp. They start America's first condo association called The Potomack Company. Even the president invests. It goes belly up. Lear even gets caught "borrowing" a little cash from the President's account. He marries again, but his second wife dies also.
  • Next time Lear visits Mount Vernon, George Washington catches cold and dies in his arms. Secretary Lear and widow Martha allegedly burn a few unsavory presidential papers. Lear gets the bad rep. Martha comes out clean.
  • He sails off to the West Indies as an unofficial ambassador to make his fortune. He arrives just as Napoleon's 20,000 troops arrive to put down a black slave uprising. Lear petitions Congress to release him from his debts, but gets thumbs down.
  • Appointed a real ambassador to the "Middle East" area Lear negotiates a ransom plan to free captured American hostages, but Americans are itching for a battle and Lear is accused of skimming the payment. His rep gets worse.
  • Separated from his only son for nine years, Benjamin Lear finally arrives at the Lear home in Algiers where dad and his third wife are living comfortably. Within hours they are forced to flee, taking whatever they can get aboard ship. With the War of 1812 raging, the Lears cannot get back to NH for over a year.
  • Lear finally gets a nice government job as Secreatry of War Department. As soon as he takes office, Washington D.C. is burned down by the British.
  • His reputation and energy spent, Tobias Lear goes into his home just a block away from the White House and, using his son's military pistol, puts a bullet in his head.

    Now is that a story or is that a story? The man is part hero, part Gump, part Rosemary Woods, part Whitewater agent. While drunks like Paul Revere get inaccurate epic poems written about them, poor Tobias seems to hover half in and half out of the history books. His letters, some nicely written, are archived at the University of Michigan and the Library of Congress. His birthplace in town is open to the public just one day each year.

    Can you hear the musical comedy now? It's a classic waiting to be written, something in the vein of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." Still Tobias had his fans. The Washingtons mostly loved him, trusted him, depended on him. George and Tobias toured the country together, the giant 6' 3' 210 pound president cut quite a figure on horseback. Here was a man as close to a god as America has turned out, and beside him, a smaller, lesser man, who did what he was told -- mostly -- and did it well. Yes, Tobias must have been practically giddy when he got that job with George.

    The scene snaps back now to the bagel restaurant where Don Briand of WTSN is announcing snow squalls and a precipitous drop in temperature. The bagel crowd snickers -- no way. The sun is blazing. The sap is flowing. Good Lord Almighty, it's spring again.

    Then the first flakes. They blow sideways up the street like imitation snow in a cheap movie. They pick up speed and multiply. Wait a minute, people say, and the New England weather will change on you. Tobias knew that in the worst way. Suddenly the sky is crazy. It's thick and dark one way, bright but cold the other, all visible through stinging hard flung pellets of ice. There is only one rational thing to do.

    In five minutes of brisk walking I'm nearly there. At the Children's Museum past Strawbery Banke Museum I take a sharp left. Hunking Street is still so narrow that a tall man walking down the middle can practically touch the houses on both sites at the same time. It leads toward the water not far from Prescott Park and the little bridge to Pierce Island. George was here in 1789. John Langdon, a relative of Tobias, told Washington that this spot might make a nice US naval shipyard.

    From his old bedroom on Hunking Street Tobias could catch a glimpse of the fading shipyard today, the country's oldest. I can see the top of the defunct Naval Prison from the Lear's front yard. I can see Geno's Coffee Shop, a bit of the first bridge to New Castle, the edge of Pickering Marine, a few lobster boats bobbing in the harsh tide.

    In one short walk the wind has turned my face to cold leather. The street in front of the Tobias Lear House is all torn up. The city is putting in granite edging. Leaning against the white fence, I look into the back yard wondering if it was a day like this in October 1816 when Tobias Lear took his son's pistol into the garden behind his Washington DC house.

    I'm wondering, like he might have wondered, what it is that makes one imperfect man a giant success and another a big failure. I get this funny desire to shout out across the snowy garden "We love you , man," like the kid in the beer commercial. For us, it's just another Tobias Lear-kind of day in Portsmouth. For him, I guess, it was just one Tobias Lear day too many.

    Copyright © 1997 Reprinted 2004. All rights reserved.

    Source: The Checkered Career of Tobias Lear by Raymond Brighton was published in 1976 by the Portsmouth Marine Society, Peter E. Randall, Publisher and is now out of print.

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