Judith Sargent Murray Society
JSM's dates: 1751-1820

Judith Sargent Murray's Letter 783

George Washington by Charles Willson Peale

Martha Washington by James Peale
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In 1790, Judith Sargent Murray and her husband, John Murray, traveled from their home in Gloucester, Massachusetts, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where they would attend the first national convention of Universalists. John Murray, the leading Universalist preacher and organizer in the United States, would play a central role. On their return, the Murrays passed through New York, the seat of the new American government, where Judith met George and Martha Washington for the first time. She describes her encounter for her parents, Winthrop and Judith Saunders Sargent. Judith Sargent Murray's letters from this journey appear in Bonnie Hurd Smith's book From Gloucester to Philadelphia in 1790.


Letter 783 To the Same New Rochelle
August 14th 1790 Saturday


You will, my dear Parents, judge that we are moving quite in the
Court Circle, when I shall inform you that we have taken tea at the
President’s, passed a day at the Vice President’s, and visited at the
Secretary’s — and, further, that we have taken Coach with the Widow of
General Greene etc etc — But lest you should imagine us so much
elated, by those honours, as to become absolutely giddy — I will pursue
my narrations with my accustomed method — Sunday, being rather
indisposed, I indulged myself through the day in my chamber — The
Churches in New York are all shut against Mr Murray, but he met his
friends, among whom are some of the most respectable characters, both
forenoon and afternoon, in the Assembly room, and the evening produced
many Ladies, who did me the honour of calling upon me — On Monday, Mr
Murray as the Minister of the Universal Gospel, presented the address
of the Churches, professing Universalism to the President of the United
States, and was most graciously received — The form of the address,
with the answer, will no doubt reach you, in the line of publick
intelligence, long before the period, in which this letter is destined
[to reach] your hands — While Mr Murray visited at the President’s Mrs
Washington dispatched a Messenger from her apartments, importing that
she should be pleased with a visit from Mrs Murray, that if she — Mrs Murray
— preferred enjoyment to ceremony, she need not wait for a Levee day —
for Mrs Washington would certainly be at home, whenever it should suit
Mrs Murray’s convenience, and the President too, deigned to enquire, if my
journey had bestowed upon me the blessings of health — all this, you will
believe, was highly flattering — ...About Six O-clock we took a coach for
the presence, and at the door of the great Hall we were met by a well looking,
and well dressed Man — I however recollected myself, and neither bowed, nor
curtsyed

At the bottom of the stair case Colonel Humphry’s, offering his hand,
ushered us into the drawing room, a number of Ladies were with Mrs
Washington, and her matronlike appearance, and Lady like condescension,
soon dissipated every painful idea of distance — taking my hand she
seated me by her side, and addressing herself particularly to me, as
the only stranger present, she engaged me in the most familiar, and
agreeable Chat — she interrogated me respecting my journey, asked if my
acquaintance in New York was extensive, and in what part of the City I
abode — She informed me she had the pleasure of being acquainted with
my brother, and she spoke of his late marriage, and the death of his
Companion, as events which had interested her feelings — I cast my eyes
round the room, and I read in the countenances of the Ladies, a
pleasing kind of respect — Mr Murray was engaged with Colonel Humphrys,
who occasionally regarded me with flattering attention — Thus were we
disposed of when General Washington entered the drawing room — My eyes
had never before beheld him — but it was not necessary he should be
announced — that dignified benignity, by which he is distinguished,
could not belong to another — Mrs Washington introduced me[,] I arose,
and with a countenance that spoke not my heart, if it were not
impressed with affectionate respect, and the highest degree of
veneration[, s]lowly bending, in a marked, and expressive manner, I
performed my duteous salutations — a smile of pleasure illumined the
features of the President, he requested me to be seated, and taking a
place by my side, proceeded, with peculiar affability to question me
relative to my health, to my brother, to Philadelphia etc etc [—] To
discant upon the Virtues of General Washington, however [interesting]
the theme, frequently as they have been capatiated upon, and inadequate
as I am, I assay not —

Yet I will so far indulge my feelings, as to say, that his figure is
elegant beyond what I have ever seen, that his countenance is benignly
good, and that there is a kind of venerable gravity inscribed upon
every feature — as I sat by his side, Homer’s Nestor frequently
occurred to my imagination, and, of this I am certain, no Grecian Dame,
could have beheld the hoary sage, with greater admiration — my heart,
my exalting heart, highly appreciated the uniform Hero, acknowledging a
kind of homage only not divine — The vestments of the President were
of purple satin, but his figure and not the aid of this regal dye, to
inspire those sentiments, which are deemed the tribute of royalty
majestically commanding, his appearance will ever, insure the love, and
reverence of every unprejudiced beholder — To speak truth of the
President is impossible — No Painter will ever be able to do him
justice — for that which he possessed beyond every other man, the Art
of the Linner or language of the panegyrist, however glowing, can never
reach — It is a grace in every movement, a manner, an address, an
inimitable expression, especially when the sedate dignity of his
countenance, is irradicated by a serene smile — in short a nameless
something, in the tout ensemble, which no skill can delineate, no art
can catch and which of course no portrait will ever transmit — Mrs
Washington’s face is an index of a good heart, and those Virtues which
I am told she eminently possesseth, are impressed upon every feature —
need I add, that her countenance is irresistibly prepossessing [—] The
residence of General Washington is in Broad Way, and the edifice which
he occupies, presents a superb Front — The drawing room, and the
apartments of which we had a view are lofty, and magnificently spacious
— the Furniture is rich, but it doth not surpass what I have before
seen — The upper end of the drawing room is pierced, with three glass
doors, which open into a handsome Balcony commanding an extensive view
of the Hudson interspersed with beautiful Islands, and washing, at the
opposite point, the Jersey shore — In this Balcony Mr Murray was
honoured by a tete a tete with our illustrious Chief, in this Balcony,
after we had taken tea, Mrs Washington requested we would walk, and in
this Balcony, Mrs Greene, taking her leave, thus addressed your
daughter — “Early in the morning I shall leave this City for Hartford,
my stay there will be short, I shall proceed to Rhode Island, where
having made my visit, I shall return to this City — I then propose
passing some time with my Girls in Bethlehem, from whence I shall
proceed to Georgia — at the idea of Georgia, I feel a pang, for which I
cannot account — Possibly I may never see you more, but should you ever
hear that I am again fixed to any one spot — remember I early knew your
husband, that I no sooner knew than I loved him — Remember my claim
hath the privilege of priority, I am among the first of his friends,
and as such, I urge my pretensions to your regards — Remember then, I
say that I am entitled to some portion of your time, and when I am
again a housekeeper I shall expect you, among the most familiar footing
—” In the course of the two hours passed at the President’s various
topics of conversation were introduced — Mrs Washington, as I said was
condescendingly attentive to me, as a stranger I was constantly by her
side, and addressing me in a low voice, she spoke of her family — she
hath been a happy mother, one son, and one daughter, by a former
marriage, they now, however, both sleep in the narrow house — One grand
Son, and three granddaughters survive — I know, said Mrs Washington,
that my daughter in law would soon enter into new engagements, and I
urged her to yield her two youngest children to my care — this she
obligingly did, and consequently a grandson, and granddaughter, reside
constantly at the President’s — Mrs Washington hath educated a Niece,
now united in marriage, to a favourite Nephew of the General and the
young couple reside upon, and have the care of that fine Estate, of
which we have heard so much, at Mount Vernon — To which elegant seat,
the President and his Lady, will during the recess of Congress, rapidly
bend their steps — The family, thus circumstanced, it is hardly to be
regretted, that the General hath no son, to whom to transmit his
honours, and his Virtue, for he cannot but be immortal — his Lady is
universally beloved, and the sons of Columbia are their children — Mrs
Washington’s Grandson, is about nine years of age — we saw him but a
moment — her granddaughter is hardly eleven — she is a fine sprightly
Girl — The President and his Lady complained that she was not
sufficiently industrious but she played and sung for us, at the first
word, and her performance evinced, that she must have had her hours of
application She is, I am told a child of an extraordinary capacity —
attention only being requisite, to her acquiring attainments judged
beyond her years, and she assures her Preceptors, if they will but
allow her frivolity, until she hath completed her twelfth year, she
will yield the rest of her life to their direction — some pieces of her
drawing were exhibited — They had great merit, and were, you will not
doubt, highly applauded — The Ladies severally solicited her to execute
for them, some pretty flowers which might serve as a memorial of her
opening Genius, and the sweet pliability of her disposition rendering
refusals painful, she fled to my elbow, apparently for shelter — In a
whisper she thus accosted me “only thank you Ma’am, how solicitous
every Body is, and Mrs Greene too absolutely insists upon my finishing
a piece for her, although she leaves New York early to morrow morning”!
My pretty Love, I returned — your paintings are so excellent, it is
hardly to be wondered, the Ladies are earnest to possess specimens — I
do assure you, had I an equal claim, I should be equally urgent — but,
stranger as I am, I presume not to petition[”] — Whether it was my
manner, or what, it was I pretend not to say, but she appeared
amazingly struck, and even affected and, seizing my hand, she tenderly
questioned “Pray when do you leave Town?” We expect to depart on
saturday, or monday at farthest — “Well Ma’am,” she rejoined, if it be
possible I will sketch for you a flower piece, before that period,” I
was most agreeably surprised, and pressing her forehead with my lips, I
returned, “Thank you my little Charmer — very sincerely I thank you,
and even should you not find time to execute an intention so flattering
to me, this sweet, this spontaneous expression, will ever live in my
memory[”] — Turning to her grandmamma, I related our little Confab —
the President listened, and they both smiled their approbation, while
Mrs Washington observed, that Miss Custus had made me as absolute a
promise as she was ever allowed to make, that considering unavoidable
accidents, might intervene to arrest the accomplishment of any purpose,
it was always best to introduce a saving clause [—] Thus passed our
afternoon — never did I see less of restraint — The Common Tea parties
in the Country Village, hath more of ceremony, and we took leave
penetrated with a proper sense of the honour which had been done us —
Mrs Washington in our aside conversation, spoke of the General’s later
alarming illness, and while she expressed her happiness in his present
restoration, a tear of apprehension for futurity, was in her eye — I
embraced this opportunity, of expressing the emotions of my bosom and
while I adverted to the common interest, which every American held in a
life so precious, I allowed the superiority of her tender, and sacred
claims

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1998 © Bonnie Hurd Smith

Independent scholar and author Bonnie Hurd Smith is the president and CEO of History Smiths, a marketing company that works with businesses to incorporate history -- their own and their community's -- into their branding, marketing, and community outreach to attract customers, boost customer loyalty, and secure a high status reputation in the communities they serve.