Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Dr. Guion and the President

or, there's more than one way to send a letter to Georgia!

by John Green III

On April 22, 1791, Dr. Isaac Guion of New Bern wrote a letter to his business associate Joseph Clay of Georgia.  The letter is brief and mundane, dealing with financial matters.  What is not mundane is the method that Guion chose to send this letter to Joseph Clay in Georgia.

Both men were patriots of the Revolution - Guion serving as a regimental surgeon and later as a paymaster in the North Carolina Continental Line, and Clay serving as a major and paymaster in the Georgia Continental Line.  The two men apparently had known each other for some time.  Guion might have entrusted his letter to an agreeable sea captain sailing south or to the postal service as it existed at that time.  Instead, the third line of his letter reveals his chosen method and also serves as one of the very few first-hand accounts, however brief, of an important event in New Bern's history - 

"I cou[l]d not omit Writing you by so favorable an opp[ortuni]ty the president of the U.S. having favored Us with a Short Visit & going to your State Colo. Jackson of his family condescended to be the Bearer."

First page of letter

President George Washington visited New Bern April 20-22, 1791 during his tour of the Southern states.  Washington had begun his trip at Philadelphia, passed through Virginia, stopping at Mount Vernon, and then entered North Carolina.  The President visited Halifax, Tarborough, and Greenville before reaching New Bern on April 20th.  While in New Bern, Washington received an address from the citizens of the town, attended a dinner and ball at the Palace, and received an address from St. John's Lodge No.2, signed by Isaac Guion, Worshipful Master.  It was perhaps through their connection as fellow Freemasons that Guion was able to prevail upon Washington, or rather Washington's aide and secretary William Jackson (Col. Jackson in the letter) to carry the letter south to Joseph Clay.

Second page of letter

Washington and his party left New Bern on April 22nd, traveled to Trenton and then on to Wilmington before entering South Carolina.  After visiting Charleston, the President's party crossed into Georgia and stopped at Savannah on May 12th where they were met by a delegation which included Joseph Clay.  It may have been at this meeting that William Jackson delivered Isaac Guion's letter to Clay.

The history of Dr. Guion's letter following its delivery is unclear.  Presumably it remained among Joseph Clay's personal papers until his death in 1804.  At some point it was acquired by North Carolina historian and collector Alexander B. Andrews, Jr. who donated it to the New Bern Public Library in 1945.

Address page of letter