WASHINGTON, George, President. Autograph letter signed ("Go. Washington") to his brother-in-law Colonel Burwell Bassett, Mount Vernon, 28 August 1762. 1 page, 4to, separate panel portion of address leaf boldly addressed by Washington: "To Coll. Bassett at Eltham" [near Williamsburg]. Slight browning, several small holes at left-hand edge, two affecting parts of six words, these neatly mended, a few minute punctures catching a few letters. Otherwise in good condition, strongly inked and very legible.
A UNIQUE BANTERING LETTER, FACETIOUSLY DESCRIBING "RELIGIOUS ZEAL" FOR "THE ENLIGHTENING SOUNDS OF THE GOSPEL," AND PLAYFULLY REBUKING NOAH FOR AN INSECT PLAGUE
A very exceptional letter of the young Virginia planter and future President, virtually unique in its light, bantering, jocular tone, facetiously urging Bassett to attend church and pray for forgiveness, and alluding to his own church attendance--which we know to have been infrequent. Washington also refers in a most uncharacteristically droll fashion to the recent birth of a daughter to the Bassetts, good-humoredly bemoans the damage that insects have done to his tobacco crop, and playfully rebukes Noah for having carried such vermin on the Ark.
Bassett was Washington's brother-in-law, having wed Martha's youngest sister Betty Dandridge; they lived at Eltham, on the Pamunkey River, near Williamsburg. Bassett became one of the young Washington's closest friends, even though, as many have noted, Washington had very few intimate friends: "With the exception of his ties to his brother-in-law, Burwell Bassett, Washington seems to have been close only to George William Fairfax." (John A. Ferling, First of Men, p.101) Although his surviving correspondence with Bassett is not extensive, the extant letters do convey a sense of easy familiarity which is quite rarely encountered in Washington's letters, and the bantering facetiousness of the present letter is completely unparalleled.
"I was favoured with your Epistle wrote on a certain 25th of July when you ought to have been at Church, praying as becomes every good Christian Man who has as much to answer for as you have -- strange it is that you will be so blind to truth that the enlightening sounds of the Gospel cannot reach your Ear, nor no Examples awaken you to a sense of Goodness -- could you but behold with what religious zeal I hye me to Church on every Lord's day, it wo[ul]d do your heart good, and fill it I hope with e[qual] fervency -- but heark'ee -- I am told you have [late]ly introduced into your family, a certain product[ion] which you are lost in admiration of, and spend so much time in contemplating the just proportion of its parts, the ease, and conveniences with which it abounds, that it is thought you will have little time to animadvert upon the prospect of your Crops, &c., pray [how] will this be reconciled to that anxious care and vig[ilance], which is so escencially [sic] necessary at a time when our growing Property -- meaning the Tobacco -- is assailed by every villainous worm that has had an existence since the days of Noah (how unkind it was of Noah, now I have mentioned his name, to suffer such a brood of Vermin to get a berth in the Ark) but perhaps you may be as well as we are -- that is, have no Tobacco for them to eat and there I think we nicked the Dogs, as I think to do you if you expect any more -- but not without a full assurance of being with a very sincere regard... P.S. don't forget to make my compls, to Mrs. Bassett, Miss Dudy, & the little ones, for Miss Dudy cannot be classed with small people without offering her great injustice -- I shall see you I expect about the first of November."
In these early years, in the words of John Ferling, Washington "tended to moodiness. His temper was combustible and given to frequent explosions; his irascible side, furthermore, apparently was unmitigated by much of a sense of humor." In later years, it is widely recorded, Washington also tended to be extremely remote and unbendingly formal and correct, evincing little if any levity even with close associates.
At this early point in his life, the 30-year-old Washington had reason for a tone of optimism: he had inherited Mount Vernon a decade earlier; and it had prospered under his management, plus he had married Martha Dandridge Custis, widely regarded as the wealthiest marriageable woman in Virginia, some three years earlier. It is evident that Washington enjoyed a convivial social life: "In the countryside, he stayed in private houses; in town, he spent his evenings with jolly fellows at taverns...He was always welcome; his popularity was great. A letter he wrote to Burwell Bassett...reveals the type of good-natured banter he engaged in with his male friends" (T.J. Flexner, George Washington, vol.1, pp.237, quoting the present letter almost in full). This remarkable letter uniquely documents this bantering, droll, convivial side of the future President. Not published in Writings, ed. J.C. Fitzpatrick.