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The Many Loves of Mr. Lear

Who did he really
love most of all?

More on Tobias Lear
Click to see Family Album Pictures

Martha Custis I wanted to write another column about Tobias Lear, George Washington's secretary and friend. Lear's life spins in my head like a radio jingle. It's been playing there for years, since I first discovered Lear's boyhood home in Portsmouth, NH. That should have been significant, but no one seemed to know. Lear is almost lost to history. There are hundreds of books about Washington. There is only one book about Lear. He needs all the ink he can get.

This is the bicentennial of Washington's death in 1799, a death that rocked the nation. Intimate with the first family for 16 years, Lear was holding Washington's hand when the president died. Lear's account of Washington's final hours is, for my money, among the most amazing essays in American history. Lear planned the president's funeral, wrote the press releases -- despite his own deep personal sadness. Washington had been like a father to him.

So it was settled. I had the topic for this week's column.

"You're writing about Lear again? He's so boring!" a female friend of mine groaned, her eyes rolling toward the ceiling. "Don't you know it's Woman's History month! Get with the program."

And so, in the name of political correctness, I put aside my obsession with Tobias Lear, and read up on the women in his life. In love, as in everything else, Lear's life was a roller-coaster ride of enormous hope followed by crushing defeat. He had three wives -- Polly, Fanny and Fanny.

The first Mrs. Lear was Mary Long, known as "Polly," a childhood sweetheart from Portsmouth. 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. From his first letter to Lear, Gen. Washington, hero of the Revolution, made it clear that his new employee would sit right at the family table and be part of the household.

Polly, by all accounts, was a welcomed addition. By the time she arrived, 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. Baby Ben's godfather was the president himself.

Martha 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, and all his wives, Martha Washington was a powerful force in Lear's life. Martha even became close to Tobias' mother back in Portsmouth.

Martha's Children 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, her first husband had died, leaving her with two children. Martha's only boy "Jackey" Custis had four children of his own, and then he 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. At one point Lear frets over the task of getting Nelly to school. One moment Lear is dealing with an national crises, and the next he is off buying stays for Nelly's dress or a new fob for her watch. In another letter, Lear must report to the President that "Little Washington" is doing badly in school. Visiting his mother in New Hampshire, Lear makes a side trip, searching for another boarding school that will take the boy. In still another account, the Lears, the Washingtons and the step-grandchildren all take off for a day at the horse races.

Young Lear helped convince Washington to tour New England, and traveled extensively with the chief executive, forging their bond. Their visit to Portsmouth is one of the city's finest moments. Washington insists on visiting Madam Lear, Tobias' mother, in her home on Hunking Street. According to local legend, crowds hovered around the hip-roofed house, peering in the windows as the president kissed the head of the Lear grandchildren, including a boy christened "George Washington." The room is unchanged today.

In the midst of all this, Polly Lear contracts Yellow Fever while out shopping with Martha in Philadelphia, comes home and dies at age 23. Lear is crushed. His mother takes baby Benjamin. For Lear, things never quite go right again. He leaves the safety of the president's household, attempts to act as consul to the West Indies just as Napoleon attacks with 20,000 troops. He tries to mastermind the building of Federal City, a new national capital on the swampy Potomac River, but goes bankrupt.

Fanny Lear Then his life hits on a brief updraft. Two years after Polly's death, he marries Frances Bassett Washington Lear, "Fanny" for short. If I read my genealogy correctly, this bond is a political masterstroke for Lear. Fanny had also been recently widowed, left with a small child named Mary. Fanny's first husband was none other than Augustine Washington, a nephew of George Washington. Too top it off, Fanny is also Martha Washington's niece. Their wedding gift from the Washingtons is a gorgeous property called River Farm in Virginia that, like Mount Vernon and Lear's House in Portsmouth, is open today to visitors.

Tobias Lear appears to be in the catbird seat again. Then Fanny, who may have contracted tuberculosis from her first husband, dies suddenly. It is almost more than he can bear. With things already looking dismal, George Washington, Lear's surrogate father, catches a cold and expires within 48 hours. Lear oversees the funeral. Entrusted with the Washington presidential papers, Lear immediately falls into a new scandal when some of the papers come up missing. He is accused of conveniently misplacing letters that favor Thomas Jefferson. Despite his affection for Washington, Lear sided with Jefferson politically. It's a stain on his honor that never comes clean. There is speculation that Martha Washington conspired with Lear to sanitize the president's papers -- for the good of the country or the honor of his name.

Now comes a twist right out of Ripley's-Believer-It-or-Not. Martha has another niece who is also called "Fanny." So Tobias marries for the third time to a young Frances Dandridge Henley Lear. Thanks to the new President Jefferson, Lear is appointed 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 adverse to cutting of the heads of people whose peace offerings were considered too stingy.

Washington had hoped John Paul Jones (who like George and Tobias, also fell in love with a Dandridge woman) would lead the country's new six-ship high-tech navy there to fight the Barbary pirates who held American ships hostage. But Jones and Washington died, and the ambassadorial duties fell to Mr. and Mrs. Lear. Leaving young son Ben with Gramma Lear, the newlyweds spent their transatlantic honeymoon aboard the USS Constitution, the ship that would eventually come to be known as "Old Ironsides." They were gone nine years.

Things, of course, went badly for Tobias. 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, 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 city, Lear took a job as Secretary of War, just as the British attacked and burned the Federal City. One day Tobias 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.

Lear's sad tune, like I said, keeps spinning in my head. It's a persistent melody, but not a good one. Try as he might, in career and marriage, Tobias Lear couldn't make it to the Hit Parade. He loved and lost, and loved again -- but Women's History Month aside -- Lear's greatest love and los may have been Washington himself. The man the nation revered as a god had treated Tobias Lear like a son, then left him all alone to find his way in a world too harsh to bear.

Click here for Washington & Lear Homepage

Pen & ink illustrations by H. Rosa from "Mary and Martha," by Benson J. Lossing, LLD, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1886.

Article by J. Dennis Robinson
Article and page design
© 1999 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved.

Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.

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