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Letters from a Founding Father

WashingtonLetterWilliam Blount and John Sevier are early American politicians that you would expect to be represented in the University of Tennessee Special Collections manuscript collection. But other members of our founding generation represented in UT’s Special Collections might surprise you. For example we have three items from George Washington, the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army and the new nation’s first President.

The first Washington letter that the library received was donated in 1945 by an alumnus, W. C. Taylor, who had bought the letter from the family of Major James Grant. Grant was an early Tennessee figure, who was involved in his friend William Blount’s conspiracy to seize Louisiana for Britain, and Florida for the United States. The letter was an introductory fragment of a message to William Blount from Washington; it expressed regret that the press of business at the end of the recent congressional session caused him to fall behind in his correspondence. Also part of the donation was a masonic medal, possibly of the Order of Cincinnatus, which Washington and Hamilton had established for former officers of the Continental Army. Grant family tradition held that the medal had been sent to Grant by Washington himself.

The second Washington letter came through another donation, the “Greer and Vinsinger Family Collection,” which consists mostly of material from their ancestor Col. Anthony Walton White. During the American Revolution, White fielded two cavalry regiments at his own expense. Also within this collection are letters from the Marquis de Lafayette, Alexander Hamilton, Horatio Gates, Henry Knox, Banastre Tarleton of the British army, and “Mad” Anthony Wayne. Washington’s letter orders White to send twelve horses to be used by Washington’s staff until their own horses can arrive, and to send an officer to convey instructions to Lafayette.

The third Washington item is contained in an autograph collection assembled by the university’s McClung Museum. Some of the material was donated by Judge and Mrs. John W. Greene when they donated their collection of McClung family papers. Other items came to the museum from various donors. Within the collection are not only letters from George Patton and Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Lee McClung’s correspondence with the actor William Gillette and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but also letters from the founding generation such as John Marshall, Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, James Madison, as well as George Washington. The Washington item in the collection is his note written on a letter that had been sent his brother John Augustine Washington. The letter deals with the administration of justice in Pennsylvania over a land dispute. Washington’s note urges mediation as the best solution to the problem.

Thanks to the generosity of donors, students of the University of Tennessee can have the rare privilege of seeing and using letters of the “Father of our Country” George Washington and others of that great generation.

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