Something is missing in Edward Savage's famous painting "The Washington Family" now in the National Gallery of Art. Roughly 7 x 9 feet, the portrait shows the first President, his wife Martha, two of their adopted grandchildren (George and Nelly) servant William Lee. It was painted in the original American capitals of New York and Philadelphia. Plans for the building of Washington City are on the table.
But where are the Lears?
While history and fate have not been especially kind to Portsmouth, NH's Tobias Lear, his insider connection to George and Martha Washington is hard to deny. Lear performed many services for Washington -- presidential secretary, bookkeeper, tutor to the two grandchildren in the painting above, personal aide and travel companion -- during the last 16 years of Washington's life. Lear and his three wives lived with the Washington's in Philadelphia, New York and at Mount Vernon. It was Lear, among others, who speculated (and lost) in the building of the nation's new capital city on the Potomac. Two of Lear's wives died during this era and his only son Benjamin was born in the Washington's house. Two of Lear's wives, both nicknamed Fanny, were related to Martha Washington.
Despite their connection and the voluminous correspondence and papers of George Washington and Tobias Lear, Lear is almost never pictured in American history books. Except for his published letters, only one book has been written about Lear's life ("The Checkered Career of Tobias Lear" by Portsmouth, NH historian Ray Brighton). Some of these pictures come from a 1906 book printed by Lear's granddaughter Louisa Lear Eyre. The book "Letters from George Washington to Tobias Lear and others" was privately printed. It appears, along with Stephen Decatur Jr's book ("Private Affairs of George Washington from the Letters of Tobias Lear") to prove that Washington came, in time, to value Lear as much more than an employee.
Still Lear was hampered all his life by bad luck, bad choices and bad press -- in the West Indies, as an early investor in the first Federal City, among the Barbary pirates in Algeria, in drafting Indian treaties, as Secretary of the War Department and in his role as executor of Washington's presidential papers. Still it was Lear on whom Washington depended in his final hours, and who orchestrated the final scenes of the nation's god-like first leader.
The bicentennial of Washington's death (1799-1999) is a opportunity to re-examine the bond between the two men, and the two families. Washington often referred to Lear as his friend and the two corresponded constantly. Lear's account of Washington's death is one of the most stirring essays in American literature, and the inspiration for a re-enactment of the death scene at Mount Vernon during the 1999-2000 tourist season.
This gallery brings the whole family
The Lears & The Washingtons
Click on thumbnail photo for larger image. Top two rows show rare images of Tobias Lear and his family. Second two rows show the Washingtons and their family at different ages.
Click here for Washington & Lear homepage
See each image for source and copyright info
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