George Washington letter praised Scots farmers

By Elizabeth Quigley
BBC Scotland news

  • Published
Portrait of George Washington (1732-1799) Painted by Gilbert StuartImage source, Universal History Archive
Image caption,
George Washington was the first president of the USA, from 1789 - 1797

A handwritten letter from George Washington, the first president of the United States, has been unveiled by the University of Edinburgh archive.

The correspondence, written on 20 February 1796, reveals insights into the one of the founding father's of the USA and his connections to Scotland.

George Washington corresponded in great detail for several years with David Erskine, the 11th Earl of Buchan, but the pair never met.

The earl was a keen supporter of American independence but the letter in the university's special collection is not about politics. It is about farming.

Washington, who had been president for seven years at the time, says how impressed he is with Scottish farmers comparing them favourably with Americans, who he calls "slovenly".

The US president shares an advertisement that he has placed in a US newspaper encouraging people to come to work on his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia as tenant farmers.

But he stresses he is definitely not trying to recruit the Scots, a poaching of talent that would have been considered illegal at the time.

Image caption,
The letter was written while Washington was still president in 1796

"I accompany the information with an unequivocal declaration that it is not my intention to invite emigrants," the letter says.

However, Washington goes on to say that if they were considering emigrating anyway, he would definitely welcome them.

He says agricultural husbandry is "well understood" in Britain and the language is similar to the US so they would fit in well.

Frank Cogliano, professor of American history at the University of Edinburgh, says he was "stunned" to discover the university had the letter, which was written from Philadelphia, then the capital of the US.

"George Washington and the Earl of Buchan exchanged about 18 letters during the 1790s but to discover that one of them found its way into our special collection is really amazing," he says.

"To see the letter, the actual physical letter, is really amazing and to be able to look at what George Washington wrote, it's why we become historians. It's incredibly exciting."

Image caption,
The letter was sent by George Washington to the Earl of Buchan

Rachel Hosker, deputy head of special collections at the university, said the three-page letter was part of the David Laing Collection, which was gifted to the university in the 1870s in the will of an antiquarian who had amassed a large number of letters from well-known figures.

The collection also includes another letter from Washington, probably written by his secretary, to enlightenment thinker Dr Adam Ferguson in 1778.

Ferguson was part of the Carlisle Peace Commission which tried to negotiate an arrangement with the revolutionary American colonies.

Ms Hosker said: "The beauty of archives and letters like this that are found in special collections is that you get the ordinary person, you get the personal.

"He may have been president of the United States but we are getting to see him as the man who was the farmer, albeit the gentleman farmer, but you are getting to see that side of him and that's what I love about working with these kinds of collections. You get to see people in them."