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George Washington Letter Left, George Washington Portrait based on the unfinished Athenaeum Portrait, by Gilbert Stuart, 1796. Right, The George Washington Letter, courtesy University of Edinburgh.

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George Washington Letter Reveals 18th Century US-UK Relations

The letter sheds a fascinating light on Washington’s life away from the public gaze

Published on March 12, 2020

The University of Edinburgh has revealed a letter written by the first President of the United States, George Washington, which offers a fascinating look at his private life and his efforts at diplomacy with the United Kingdom in the late 18th century.

The letter, written by Washington on February 20, 1796, was sent to a Scottish nobleman named David Erskine, the 11th Earl of Buchan, in an effort to recruit skilled workers for Washington's American estate. While the letter highlights that Washington took his role as landowner particularly seriously, experts at the University of Edinburgh are also looking at the letter, and other 18th century letters in the University's archive, as examples of an ongoing 18th century Transatlantic discourse which shaped Anglo-American relations.

Frank Cogliano, Professor of American History at the University of Edinburgh, said: “The Enlightenment is often referred to as a ‘Republic of Letters’ and exchanges such as those between Washington and Buchan were the social networks of their day – not only swapping ideas but advertising opportunities."

Experts at the University explain that the letter "discloses a lot about Washington as a landowner. In 1796, he was seeking to diversify his holdings, focus on growing wheat – rather than tobacco, which he had abandoned in the 1760s – and move from enslaved labour to tenant farmers. It shows a hard-headed businessman, planning for life after his presidency which he would leave the following year. Its phrasing suggests that he still feels a close cultural connection to at least some people in Britain, and to British agriculture. Washington is careful in his letter not to upset fragile relations between Britain and America, who would go to war for a second time in 1812 when the US found itself caught between Britain and revolutionary France. He adopts a softly, softly approach with Buchan, gently inquiring if the Scot knows of any farmers who might be thinking of emigrating to America, rather than blatantly advertising any vacancies. His tone is unfailingly polite, almost deferential."

Part of the letter which has particularly gained the notice of UK headlines was Washington's comparison of 'slovenly' American agricultural practices with Scotland's relatively efficient model. The University's analysis of the letter clarifies that the comment was "not so much a criticism of his compatriots as a reflection of the relative abundance of arable land in the US. Scots could not afford to be as wasteful as their American counterparts – farmers in the US could simply move on to new land when theirs were exhausted."

As well as inspiring a closer look at 18th century writing to understand how the UK and USA corresponded so soon after America became independent, the letter's release also offers a much more intimate look at Washington's approach to life as President. Highlighting the letter's capacity to connect with Washington as an individual, Rachel Hosker, Archives Manager at the University of Edinburgh, said: “There is something quite compelling about the tangible nature of the original, created two days prior to Washington’s 64th birthday before making its way to Scotland. It enables us to imagine him writing it, and allows us to consider the private individual in context.” The University say that the three page letter can be accessed by anyone who wishes to see the text close up, so do contact the University if you would like to see the text.

For more details on the Washington Letter and further research from the University of Edinburgh, go to www.ed.ac.uk/research/latest-research-news

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