March 12, 2008 — Tobias Lear, secretary to George Washington and envoy to North Africa for President Thomas Jefferson, had a front-row seat to history. And he took notes.
Lear kept records of the lives and events around him. One of Lear's diaries, recently received by the University of Virginia's Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, offers a firsthand glimpse of Washington's last days.
The newly acquired, 106-page diary covers the four months from June 24 to Oct. 23, 1803. It begins with Lear's marriage to his third wife, followed by his departure with $40,000 in gold for a diplomatic mission aimed at ending the growing conflicts with Barbary pirates in the North Atlantic.
"Anything from Tobias Lear is valuable because of his connection with George Washington," said U.Va. history professor John Stagg, editor-in-chief of the Papers of James Madison project based at the U.Va. Library. Lear is also of value because of his role in the foreign affairs of the early republic, Stagg said.
Lear's diary includes accounts of dining with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison; his diplomatic mission to Algiers to negotiate a treaty with Tripoli, which had declared war on the United States; the capture of a United States ship; and assistance given to a British vessel.
The diary also mentions Lear's efforts to defend himself from what he claimed were baseless calumnies.
"There were rumors and accusations that Lear removed some of Washington's papers and documents from the study after Washington died [on Dec. 14, 1799] and these rumors persisted," said Michael Plunkett, a fellow at U.Va.'s Mary and David Harrison Institute of American History, Literature and Culture. "In this volume, Lear mentions the rumors, and while he is in Boston waiting ship's passage to North Africa, he apparently convened some kind of legal hearing on board the ship to counteract the charges and prove his innocence."
"One of his goals was to have his name cleared," said Shelah Scott, one of a quartet of sisters who donated the diary. "He was concerned people would think ill of him once he left the country."
The diary contains details of Lear's wedding to Frances Dandridge Henley. It was through this union that the diary was preserved. The volume surfaced in 2005 when Scott, of Charlottesville, and her three sisters — all descendants of Henley's brother — were cleaning out a family house in Wickford, R.I.
The diary was found among family papers in a woven-straw box that resembled a suitcase, Scott said. When Scott read an entry, written in "a neat hand," about the writer marrying Henley, she knew what it was, in part because her father had uncovered another Lear diary in the early 1950s. She said that volume, which recounts Washington's last days, was donated to Mount Vernon.
"It was very exciting," Scott said. "My sisters and I had a lot of fun reading it and talking about it."
While the diary, 8 1/4 inches tall by 4 1/2 inches wide, quarter-bound in calf leather with a marbled paper cover, was fun to read, the sisters were concerned about its safety. That it had survived as long as it had was miraculous.
"We believe it had been in that attic since 1948 and survived three hurricanes," Scott said, adding that the diary probably also rode out the Hurricane of 1938 in the attic of another house in Massachusetts.
Scott, a former president of the University of Virginia Library Associates, brought the diary to the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library for safekeeping while they pondered what to do with the book. In 2007, they donated it to the library.
"We want it to be available and studied," Scott said. "For scholars of that period, this is really interesting."