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The Fickle Fate of Tobias Lear

 

The Tobias Lear Connection in Portsmouth, NH 

Life at Mt. Vernon

Both Lear and Washington were clear and prolific writers. Their letters and journals give us a precise picture of Mt. Vernon. Tobias Lear arrived in Virginia in 1786 and remained when Washington was selected as first president of the United States three years later. True to Washington's word, the young man from Portsmouth became part of the family and intimate with the most famous people of his time. The young secretary attended the Commander in Chief's inauguration in New York City, the nation's temporary capital.

Later, traveling through New England in 1789, Washington made a courtesy call at Hunking Street in Portsmouth, NH where he met the family of Tobias Lear. Mrs. Mary Stillson Lear, mother of Tobias V, soon became a friend of Martha Washington. The Portsmouth-Washington connection grew even stronger when Tobias married Polly Long, his childhood sweetheart. Polly too became an intimate of the first "First Lady" and, when the new US capital moved to Philadelphia, the Lears were part of the presidential household.

Always in-the-know politically, Lear traveled in the elite social circles. He was caught up in the plan to build a new "Federal City" on 100 square miles of swamp land along the Potomac. At the same time, Lear had to balance the President's account books, see to the education of the president's step-children, and oversee domestic matters down to the last piece of furniture. With his salary quadrupled to 800 pounds (the president received 25,000 pounds), Tobias and Polly were successful enough to have a child, Benjamin Lincoln Lear, to whom the president himself was godfather.

By 1792, with Washington considereding a second term in office, Lear was itching to cash in on his influence and go into business like the four Tobias Lears before him. He created Lear & Co. with financial backing from a partner out of Newburyport, Massachusetts. The plan was to profit from the new Capital City, designed to be a thriving port on the Potomac as the country expanded westward. Money from the sale of building lots would theoretically pay for the construction of the great stone government buildings at what was to become Washington, DC.

Lear bought Lot #9 on the river and planned, as one of the nation's first mall developers, to strike it rich by courting foreign investors. With letters of commendation from no less than Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, Lear was about to sail for Europe to find investors when his wife Polly died. She was among 5,000 Philadelphians killed in a sudden epidemic of Yellow Fever. Three years later Tobias married Frances, the widow of an old friend. In 1796, she died of tuberculosis.

Unlike today, George Washington continued to run his business while in office. Not only did he profit from his farm managed by 400 enslaved Africans, but he also profited from the development of the capital city that was to bear his name. While still running personal and diplomatic missions for the president, Lear kept Washington's personal accounts, brokered his tobacco and farm produce, and served as chairman of the "Potomack Company" that sold Washington, DC real estate.

When the key investors in the real estate scheme defaulted and landed in debtor's prison, Lear retreated to Mt. Vernon. By a twist of fate he was at the farm when the former president suddenly took ill and died in 1799. Lear's stirring eyewitness account of Washington's final hours is one of history's most important journal entries. Lear became embroiled in another scandal when some of Washington's papers went missing, likely destroyed by Lear and Martha Washington at the president's request. The scandal, like his father's debts, dogged Lear to his death.

 

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