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More on Tobias Lear


Tobias Lear A combination of fate and influence put a Portsmouth, NH boy from Puddle Dock smack in the spotlight at the dawn of the American nation. But luck faded quickly and kept its distance from Tobias Lear. The fifth in his family to bear that name, Tobias Lear V was born into revolutionary times. His father's cousin John Langdon was among the new nation's most powerful businessmen and noted patriots. Wealthy from privateering profits, Langdon commanded the raid on Fort William and Mary, attended the Continental Congress and built two warships for Capt. John Paul Jones. Tobias' father, however, was not so lucky. A failed shipping venture destroyed his income and created a debt that would plague his only son. In his time, Tobias V would rise above the fame of the Langdons and fall below the debt and depression of his father.

Despite moderate means, young Toby managed to attend Governor Dummer Academy and Harvard University in Massachusetts. By 1784 in his early 20s, he was back in Portsmouth casting about for a career when a family friend received a letter from George Washington. America's "First Citizen" was in need of a private secretary, and this was no small job. A farmer by trade, General Washington had just spent a decade off fighting for the Revolution. The new secretary would have to catch up on the neglected accounting at Mt. Vernon, Washington's 10,000 acre plantation in Virginia. In addition, young Mr. Lear would become tutor to Washington's adopted children and would handle a flood of correspondence. The aristocratic"Farmer" Washington wrote to his Yankee friend describing the job this way:

"Mr. Lear...will sit at my table, will live as I live, will mix with the company who resort to the house, will be treated in every respect with civility and proper attention. He will have his washing done in the family, and may have his stockings darned by the maids...".

Luckily for history, both Lear and Washington were clear and prolific writers. Their letters and journals give us a precise picture of Mt. Vernon.

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Life At 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, 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 become a friend of Martha Washington.

The Portsmouth-Washington connection grew even stronger when Tobias married Polly Long, his childhood sweetheart. Polly too became close to 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 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), the Lears were successful enough to have a child, Benjamin Lincoln Lear, to whom the President himself was godfather.

By 1792, with Washington considered 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 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 the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and George Washington himself, Lear was about to sail for Europe when his wife Polly died. She was among 5,000 Philadelphians killed in a sudden epidemic of Yellow Fever. Though unknown at the time, mosquitoes on ships from Barbados were the likely cause. Polly's death may have come from a stroll in the presidential garden, or from a shopping trip along the docks with the First Lady. Three years later Tobias married Frances, the widow of an old friend. In 1796, she died of tuberculosis.

Modern "scandals" like Whitewater would not have raised an eyebrow in a time when business and politics were more obviously intertwined. Not only did Washington continue to run his farm while in office, but he too 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."

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. Lear's stirring eye witness account of Washington's final hours is one of history's most important journal entries. Following his employer's dying request, Lear spent the next year sorting through the presidential papers. When some of Washington's papers came up missing, Lear was accused, perhaps accurately, of destroying documents. Lear was caught between his affinity for the Republican principles of Thomas Jefferson, and his personal loyalties to the Federalist ways of Washington. Among the missing papers, it is assumed, was a potentially explosive correspondence between Washington and Jefferson, who would soon take over as the nation's third president. The scandal of the missing documents dogged Lear to his death.

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Haiti & Barbary Coast

Call it coincidence, but Jefferson now offered Lear the unofficial position of American consul to Santa Domingo, an island crucial to the triangle of molasses to rum to slaves upon which much of the economy depended. Moving from the frying pan into the fire, Lear and his son Benjamin arrived in the West Indies just as the black revolutionary Touissant L'Ouverture was at his peak. Fearful that a black independent state would set an irreversible precedent, Napoleon Bonaparte chose this moment to send a French armada with 20,000 troops to quell the rebellion. Lear, who had intended to profit from his unofficial, unsalaried position, again retreated to Virginia after the French navy destroyed the capital city. Lear spent the next year petitioning the Congress to forgive his mounting personal debts, earned, he insisted, while in patriotic service to his country. He was politely turned down.

At the age of 41 Tobias Lear started over. President Jefferson now offered him a political plum -- Consul General to the infamous North African coast. It was a dangerous mission, but the salary and expense account were enticing, and he was allowed to conduct private business too. In 1803 the US was essentially paying blackmail to prevent Barbary Coast pirates from interrupting trade.

Lear's luck held for the moment. He married for the third time and prepared to sail for Algeria on the ship Philadelphia. At the last moment, he and his new wife Fanny were reassigned to the USS Constitution, today the oldest active ship in the US Navy. During their transatlantic honeymoon sail, the Philadelphia was captured in the Mediterranean Sea and its nearly 300 crew members held hostage. Col. Lear was the primary figure in the protracted negotiations that lead to the release of the hostages in exchange for a healthy fee in the historic Treaty of Tripoli years later.

In all, the Lears spent nine apparently profitable years at their comfortable, home in Algiers. Their job was to keep peace with the local "dey," a man who was known to decapitate those who displeased him, leaving their headless bodies at the palace entrance. In the end, Tobias Lear too fell out of favor when the dey demanded more than his standard bribe. The Lears were forced to flee, grabbing what possessions they could carry to a waiting ship for the United States. The year was 1812. President James Madison had just declared war on England.

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Washington In Flames

The last chapter of Lear's life places him again in the thick of things. After a slow re-entry through Virginia and the new capital city, the Lears wound their way up to Portsmouth, NH. Travel was difficult due to blockading British ships and on an excursion to Portland, Maine, they observed one naval battle just off the coast.

Tobias Lear's final post was as secretary to the War Department. He and his "beloved Fanny" and son Benjamin, now a lawyer, leased a home just blocks from the White House. Even in the early 19th century we find the detail-oriented Lear complaining that the military is being over-billed by profiteering suppliers. Even as Lear added up the overdue military budget, the poorly defended capital city was attacked and burned by the British.

Though apparently wealthy, happily married and auspiciously employed, Tobias Lear V shot himself with a pistol on October 11, 1816 . He was known to have suffered from severe headaches and bouts of depression. He was endlessly vilified by the media. But it was a curious exit all the same. After a lifetime of prolific writing and scrupulous record keeping, Lear left no suicide note and no official will.

By J. Dennis Robinson
© 1997 All rights reserved.

The Tobias Lear House
Tobias, We Hardly Knew Ye
George Washington's Letters
at the Library of Congress

Read The Book:
Condensed from "The Checkered Career of Tobias Lear"
by Raymond Brighton, Portsmouth Marine Society, 1985,375 pages.

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