Diary Documenting Washington’s Death Gets New Life

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Diary Documenting Washington’s Death Gets New Life

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Diary of Tobias Lear

The passing of George Washington is mourned with thick black marks in the diary of Tobias Lear. Until conservators reinforced the paper with Japanese tissue, the deep, heavy lines nearly perforated the page.

It was the middle of December 1799 when George Washington’s personal secretary, Tobias Lear, recorded the president’s last moments of life in stark and moving detail at Mount Vernon. Centuries later, Lear’s small, unassuming pocket diary is getting new exposure thanks to a serendipitous collaboration.

While it is not Lear’s only account of Washington’s death, this diary is unique for two reasons: first, it was written just days after the fact, when the events were fresh in Lear’s mind. Second, this diary offers a detailed description of the arrangements that took place in the wake of the president’s passing.

“It talks about what happened after, like taking measurements of the body,” says Lee Arnold, senior director of the library and collections. “How do you notify people, and whom do you notify? Who
gets a messenger on a fast horse, who gets a letter?”

While the diary may be used by researchers by special request, it is fragile. The measures meant to keep the notable document safe and secure—behind locked doors, deep within HSP’s Treasures vault—“deter the merely curious,” Arnold notes. And until recently, he adds, “I don’t think anyone ever read it the whole way through.” So when volunteer Cameron Kline approached Arnold with an open-ended offer to work on a project for HSP, Arnold knew just what to pursue: a full transcription of Lear’s diary, cover to cover.

Kline first encountered the diary on a behind-the-scenes tour of HSP. Several years later, he says, “it stuck with me that this amazing document is just living here in Philadelphia.”

Reading through the diary gave Kline a newfound understanding of the individuals described in the text. “Washington to me was the historical guy, the myth,” Kline admits. “This was different. There is a sense of real compassion and humanity from Washington.” Even in the passages describing his final moments, which Kline describe as “brutal,” Washington keeps his composure. “He wasn’t feisty, he wasn’t gesturing madly. He was well aware of image, he knew he was dying, he was aware of his place in history.”

After detailing Washington’s death, the journal explores Lear’s travels as an ambassador to Haiti. Ever the conscientious secretary, Lear takes copious notes during the long sea voyage, from his packing list (“2 barrels containing Hams; 4 ditto containing china ware”) to daily recordings of wind speeds and other weather conditions.

The process of transcription, though enlightening, was also tedious. Kline worked from existing high-resolution digital scans of the journal. While Lear’s handwriting is generally readable, “some of it was done on a moving vessel, which makes it difficult,” Kline notes. “And he has his own shorthand.”

Once the first run was complete, Arnold and Kline cross-checked the transcription—page by page, word by word—against the original diary. Scholars from HSP and Mount Vernon then weighed in, reviewing the work and filling in some of the more illegible parts. Only a handful of words remain unidentified.

With the transcription and high-resolution scans of the diary now available to researchers, “I hope people will read the transcription first to understand the document,” Arnold says, “and turn to the scans to see Lear’s handwriting or other visual cues from the notebook.” This important document, an invaluable contribution to the historical record of the nation’s first president, is fully accessible to the curious for the first time.

Find the transcription, scans, and additional collections items here. This article originally appeared in Sidelights, the biannual newsletter for Friends of HSP.