Tobias Lear V

Tobias Lear V

Tobias Lear V (born 1762 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire - died October 11 1816 in Washington, D.C.) was an American who served as President George Washington's personal secretary. Lear would serve as Washington's secretary from 1784 until Washington's death in 1799. Through Lear's journal entries, we receive the account of Washington's final moments and his last words: " 'Tis well."

Tobias Lear also served as President Thomas Jefferson's peace envoy in the Mediterranean during the Barbary Wars and was responsible for concluding a peace that ended the first Barbary War.


Lear was born on Hunking streetcite web
title=Seacoast NH History - Revolutionary Era - Tobias Lear
] Harv|Brighton|1985] in the seaport town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire on September 19 1762, a fifth generation American and the fifth named Tobias Lear.Harv|Zacks|2005] His father was Tobias Lear IV (born August 1 1737) (cousin of John Langdon) and his mother was Mary Stillson Lear (born May 25 1739). His parents were married on December 29 1757. The family home on Hunking street had been built in 1742 by the Stillson family. Lear had an older sister named Mary (Polly).


Before going to college, Lear attended the Governor Dummer Academy boarding school. Samuel Moody helped prepare Lear for college. Instead of joining the Continental Army, as many of his contemporaries did, Lear attended Harvard, beginning in 1779, during the American Revolutionary War. He graduated with 30 classmates in 1783.


He began his career by teaching school until his uncle, Benjamin Lincoln, recommended him for the job of tutoring George Washington's grandchildren and to the post of his personal secretary both to which he was hired in 1784. He was integrated into Washington's house and his post quickly evolved beyond clerk to being Washington's right hand man, doing whatever Washington needed (i.e. tutoring, filling out expense reports, and writing letters.) He performed all his duties well. Lear moved with Washington to New York when Washington became President and they often dined alone together during his presidency. Lear was responsible for filling out Washington's expense reports as president which Washington had wisely chosen instead of pay of $25,000, as the expenses turned out to be much more.

In 1793, at the start of Washington's second term, Lear decided to leave Washington and start out on his own (albeit with help from Washington). He started a company, T. Lear & Company, which focused on two things: working with Washington's Potomac Company to promote river traffic to the soon-to-be nation's capitol and participating in Washington, D.C. land speculation. Lear traveled to Europe to sell parcels of land in Washington, DC but was unsuccessful. His engineering work related to the Potomac Company also failed to enable navigation around two waterfalls on the Potomac River. He lost money in this failed venture despite his wealthy partners.

Family life

Lear married Mary (Polly) Long, his childhood sweetheart, in 1790. Together they had a son, Benjamin Lincoln Lear, but Polly died 1793 in Philadelphia in an epidemic of Yellow fever that claimed around 5,000. In 1795, he remarried, this time to Martha Washington's niece Fanny, Frances Bassett Washington, recent widow of George Augustine Washington, but she died in 1796 of tuberculosis.Tobias married again, this time to the young Frances Dandridge Henley. His new wife was nicknamed Fanny too and was also a niece of Martha Washington.citation
url =
place = Portsmouth, New Hampshire
publisher =
accessdate = 2008-05-21
last1 = Robinson
first1 = J. Dennis
title = The Many Loves of Mr Lear
year = 2006


In the late 1790s, Lear's finances become more distraught. During this period, he continued to run unpaid errands for Washington. On one of these errands, Lear collected rent from one of Washington's tenants but pocketed the funds. Washington found out when he questioned his tenant as to why they had not paid. Washington was furious for at least two days but Lear apologized and was quickly forgiven.


The next year, Lear was given the rank of Colonel as chief aide to Washington, who had been reappointed by congress to command the troops during a period when a French attack was feared. He preferred to be addressed as Colonel Lear for the rest of his life despite the fact that the French never attacked by land and he never faced active duty.

Further controversy

Lear collected funds for the sale of a business partner's real estate and kept the funds. He feigned illness for several months before meeting the man and apologizing, confessing and agreeing to reimburse him.

Washington's death

In 1799, Washington unexpectedly died while Lear was visiting him at Mount Vernon, leading to Lear's famous diary entry: "About ten o'clk, Saturday December 14 1799, Washington made several attempts to speak to me before he could effect it, at length he said,--"I am just going. Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the Vault in less than two days after I am dead." I bowed assent. He then looked at me again and said, "Do you understand me?" I replied "Yes." 'Tis well" said he."

Lear oversaw the funeral arrangements, even to the detail of measuring the corpse at 6 feet 3.5 inches long and 1 foot 9 inches from shoulder to shoulder. Lear inherited a lifetime interest in Walnut Tree Farm.

Missing Washington papers

Lear's only biographer, Ray Brighton, was convinced that Lear destroyed many of Washington's letters and diary entries, which he had possession of for about a year after Washington's death. Lear was to work on a Washington biography with Bushrod Washington, a Washington nephew, who had contacted Lear about collecting Washington's papers and collaborating on a Washington biography. Swaths of Washington's diary (especially sections during the presidency and the war) and a few key letters were discovered missing about a year after their transfer to Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall who had instead volunteered to write the biography. Lear denied destroying any papers in a long letter to Marshall; however, Lear's own correspondence casts this into doubt. Lear wrote Alexander Hamilton offering to suppress Washington documents: "There are as you well know among the several letters and papers many which every public and private consideration should withhold from further inspection." Lear explicitly asked Hamilton in that letter if he desired any military papers removed. Suspiciously, almost all the presidential diary entries are gone except for those which covered Washington's 1789 visit to Lear's family home in Portsmouth. Six key Washington letters are also missing.

Jefferson as ally

Many biographers believe that Thomas Jefferson and Washington had a big falling out over a letter Jefferson sent to a friend in Italy which called Washington's administration as Anglican, monarchical, and aristocratical and claimed that Washington had appointed as military officers "all timid men that prefer the calm of despotism to the boisterous sea of liberty". The letter was eventually published overseas and then retranslated back into English by Noah Webster and published in America. Its publication is thought to have sparked a nasty correspondence of three rounds of letters between Jefferson and Washington. In conversation with friends over wine, Lear admitted the existence of the letters but subsequently denied having said such. Albin Rollins, a Mount Vernon overseer, stated to a nephew of Washington that he had seen the letters and that the second round was so strong that it made the hair on his head rise and that a duel must surely follow. The missing letters loss brought large benefit to Thomas Jefferson as they would have been fuel for Jefferson's political enemies. Brighton believes (without direct evidence) that Jefferson requested Lear to destroy the letters and that Jefferson rewarded Lear for their destruction for the rest of his life.


Jefferson appointed the financially struggling Lear with the potentially lucrative assignment of American commercial agent in Saint Domingue at the start of his term of president. During this job, Lear appointed Rollins to oversee Walnut Tree Farm. Unfortunately, Lear arrived right before Napoleon Bonaparte was about to clamp down on the slave rebellion there. In a January 17 1802 long letter of gratitude to Jefferson, Lear predicted the long anticipated French response was still six months out. One week later, a French armada arrived at Cape Francois and captured the main port there from Toussaint L'Ouverture. Lear attempted to help the Americans during the ensuing French embargo. However, with the Louisiana Purchase looming large for Jefferson, Lear was asked not to irritate the French commanders, and after a suggestion from James Madison retreated back to Virginia.

A year after returning to the US, Jefferson appointed Lear, now 41, in 1803 to be Consul General to the North African coast with the privilege of simultaneously conducting private business. Lear married for the third time to a woman named Fanny before preparing to depart on the "Philadelphia" to Algeria. In a last minute change, the Lears were reassigned to the "USS Constitution", and the "Philadelphia" ended up being captured in the Mediterranean. Ironically, Lear became the primary negotiator for the crew's release in 1805 with the Treaty of Tripoli that ended the First Barbary War in which he was alleged to have mishandled the resolution. The Lears stayed on in Algiers until 1812 when Lear fell out of favor with the "Dey".

Upon their return, America was in the throes of the War of 1812. Consequently, they had to follow a circuitous route back to Portsmouth from their entry in Virginia. Under James Madison, he was then appointed as a secretary to the War Department and moved to a location a few block from the White House. While serving in this post, the British attacked and burned the city.


On October 11 1816, Lear apparently committed suicide by shooting himself with a pistol. Although it was known that he suffered severe headaches and stints of depression, as well as being vilified by the media, the specific reasons for his suicide are unknown. It is curious that this "scrupulous record keeper" left behind no suicide note nor will.



Harvard reference
Surname = Zacks
Given = Richard
Authorlink =
Year = 2005
Title = The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805
Place = New York
Publisher = Hyperion
ID = ISBN 1-4013-0003-0

last1 = Brighton
first1 = Ray
title = The Checkered Career of Tobias Lear
publisher = Portsmouth Marine Society
year = 1985
editor-last = Randall
editor-first = Peter E.
isbn = 0915819031
url =
pages = 16, 20, 24

Further reading

Harvard reference
Surname = London
Given = Joshua E.
Authorlink =
Year = 2005
Title = Victory in Tripoli: How America's War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation
Place = New Jersey
Publisher = John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
ID = ISBN 0-471-44415-4

External links

* [ New Hampshire historical site]
* [ Papers at U. Michigan]
* []
* [ L'ouverture project]
* [ American Horticultural Society]
* [ Victory in Tripoli book]
* The Louverture Project: [ Tobias Lear and the Haitian Revolution]

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