By Charles W. Brewster
More on Tobias Lear
How a few now a days stroll from Water street through Gardner's Arch, around Col. Gardner's old mansion, and up Hunking street to Water street. We must say that, until recently, a quarter of a century has elapsed since taking that short circuit, which affords sufficient material for an interesting ramble, to us if not to our readers.
Nearly in front, a little south of the Gardner house, is one of the handsomest ornamental trees in Portsmouth - a noble Linden of a hundred years. The trunk of the tree for ten feet from the ground is about twelve feet in circumference. It rises to the height of sixty feet, spreads our symmetrically, and when looked upon in July it appeared as fresh and vigorous as a young tree, and covered with its rich yellow bloom, imparted fragrance to the whole neighborhood. Such a tree on Market Square would be the pride of the city.
Secluded as it is, and till recently unknown to us, yet near its shadow is a spot once made memorable by the presence of President Washington. Properly to explain will require a short historical sketch.
In that ancient, hip-roofed, two-storied, yellow dwelling, near the east end of Hunking street, which although more than a century old is yet in good order, and a handsome house, in 1760 was born Tobias Lear, the son of Tobias Lear. The father was a shipmaster, and was owner of the Jacob Sheafe farm at Sagamore Creek. The son was liberally educated, and graduated with honor at Cambridge in 1783. At this time Gen. Washington, who had just retired from the field of war, to his fields of grain and the comforts of domestic life, found the need of a private secretary to aid in his extensive correspondence, and also of a tutor for the two children of Parke Custis, whom he had adopted. He stated his wants to Gen. Lincoln, of Boston, who with Rev. Dr. Haven, of Portsmouth, recommended Tobias Lear as a suitable person. He at once took up his residence in Washington's family, and close attention to the duties of his position endeared the relation which Washington held to him until the close of his life, which occurred sixteen years after. Among the papers of Dr. Haven is a letter from Gen. Washington, written some months after Mr. Lear's introduction, stating that he had deferred replying until he had ascertained that Mr. Lear had all of those qualities for which he was so highly recommended - of which he was then fully satisfied.
Washington, it was well known, was a man of strict punctuality in all engagements: this Mr. Lear well understood. When Mr. Lear once apologized for tardiness by attributing it to his watch being wrong, it was sufficient; but when a second failure was attributed to the same cause, Washington replied - "Mr. Lear, you must get a new watch, or I must get a new Secretary." From that day the sun and watch were probably always together, as we have no tradition of any other failures. Washington having no children of his own, Col. Lear was as a son in the family, and enjoyed such acquaintance at the domestic hearth at Mount Vernon as no other one probably possessed. At the final scene, when Washington was upon his death bed, Col. Lear was the chosen attendant, and by him was administered such help as could be given in the hours of his suffering. It was the letter of Tobias Lear that communicated to President Adams, and through him to Congress, the information of Washington's death. President Adams's reply to Mr. Lear closes by saying;
"I pray you, sir, to present my regards to Madam Washington and all the amiable and worthy family, and assure them of my sincere sympathy with them under this great affliction. I feel also for yourself, as you have lost in Gen. Washington a friend not to be replaced."
When Washington visited Portsmouth in 1789, he was accompanied by Col. Lear. Washington entered the town on horseback, and Col. Lear rode in an open carriage next following. As they passed on, many, from his position and dignified appearance, mistook the Colonel for the President, and bestowed upon the Secretary that honor which was meant for the "Father of his country." While here, Washington, expressed a desire to visit the home of Col. Lear, which was then occupied by his mother and Samuel Storer, who was a dry goods merchant, (doing business at the corner of Hanover and Market streets, where the McIntire block was afterwards built,) and whose wife was a sister of Col. Lear.
On the morning of a pleasant day, Washington sent a note to Madam Lear, informing her of his intended visit, and a the same time making a request that he might see all the children. In due time, the President on foot might be seen coming down Hunking street. After he entered the Lear mansion, a crowd such as has never since been seen there, gathered around the door. in the south-west parlor he was introduced to and cordially greeted every member of the family - the venerable mother, her children, and her grand-children. Of the latter might be seen a bright little girl of three or four years, sitting upon his knee and giving him a kiss. No other lady now living in our state can probably bring up a like reminiscence. That lady, Miss Mary L. Storer, still occupies the mansion. There is also a babe presented, who has been christened "George Washington." The President places his hand gently upon the infant's head, and expresses the wish that he may "be a better man than the one whose name he bears." There are probably but two individuals now living in the country who can say that they have thus been under the hand and received thus the personal blessing of our country's gather - these two are Washington Irving and George Washington Storer.
The room in which Washington was received remains now with the same paper on the walls, and the same chairs, (made of cherry wood raised in the garden,) and other furniture, except the carpet, which were then used. There are also in the room three china mantle ornaments, a bird on a branch, a peasant with a bouquet, and lass in a basque of modern cut, with flower. These ornaments were taken from Washington's own mantle, and forwarded by Martha Washington "for the children." There is a worth imparted to these trifles, by the circumstances, which renders them invaluable. The parlor, fashionable in its day, having for seventy years remained untouched by the change of fashion, is now a matter of interest to visitors, aside from the associations of Washington's visit.
But there is one other relic of deep interest we saw here, which probably has not like elsewhere. A piece of black satin, of eight by ten inches, is framed and glassed, and around the edge, just inside the frame, is a piece of narrow white taste. It was wrought about the commencement of the century, in a handsome manner, in Roman letters, by the lady who then sat upon Washington's knee, and now exhibited the work to us. The words were the composition of here grandmother, the mother of Co. Tobias Lear. The inscription tells its own story.
(This is worked with our Illustrious and beloved General)
Which covered his exalted head;
(This is worked with Lady
I pray her honored head,
(This hair was sent to Mrs. Lear, by her good friend Lady Washington.)
In 1798, when Washington accepted the command of the provincial army, Mr. Lear was selected as the military secretary, with the rank of Colonel. After the death of Washington, his papers remained in the custody of Col. Lear for several months. In the strong political excitement of the time, a charge was made that Lear had endeavored to obtain the favor of Jefferson by suppressing some letters which had passed from Jefferson to Washington, said to charge him with belonging to :an Anglican monarchical, aristocratically party.: In Randall's Life of Jefferson, just published, Col. Lear is able vindicated, and the aspersion which had for some time rested upon him, is removed.
The division of parties then was by the terms federal and republican - Co.. Lear was of the latter, and Washington of the former party. When Jefferson came into office, as a grateful token of respect to the memory of Washington, as well as of friendship to a political friend, he appointed Col. Lear Consul General at St. Domingo, and afterwards, in 1804 we think, he was appointed Consul General at Tripoli, and together with Com. Barron negotiated peace with the latter power.
He remained in Algiers about eight years - the last few months accompanied by his son. When in 1812 the Barbary powers declared war, he was allowed but a few hours to leave the country, and then returned to Washington.
He was afterwards appointed Accountant in the War Department, in which office he died very suddenly on the 10th of October, 1816, at the age of fifty-six years. A more full account of the life and extensive correspondence of Washington's most intimate associate should be given to the public than has yet been entered upon any published history.
Col. Lear was three times married. His first wife was Mary Long, daughter of Hon. Pierse Long, and sister of the late Hon. George Long, of Portsmouth. She died in Philadelphia in 1795. They had but one child, who bore the name of Benjamin Lincoln, who died in Washington in 1831, leaving but one child, a daughter, born after his death, now the wife of Wilson Eyre, of Philadelphia, and the only descendant of Col. Lear. In the recent lawsuit for the papers of Col. Lear, his grand-daughter established her claim, and now has them in her possession. The contestants were the children of Com Henley.
Col. Lear's second wife was Miss Custis, niece of Martha Washington on her decease he married Miss Henley, sister of Com. Henley, - both of whom died without issue. The widow of Col. Lear died in 1856 at Washington. The widow of B. Lincoln Lear, now the widow Derby, is at present (1858) residing in Italy.
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