George Washington was the founding president of the Society of Cincinnati, which started out serving as, among other things, a fraternal benefit society the provided for the widows and orphans of Continental Army officers.
He himself used his own resources to provide annuities, including an annuity of 50 pounds per year, or the equivalent of about $5,000 per year in 2020 dollars, to support a school in Alexandria, Virginia.
Washington was also a famous resident of Virginia, and the first president of the United States
Thomas Jefferson worked with John Adams and others to hire a famous French artist, Jean-Antoine Houdon, to make a statue based on the likeness of the fraternal benefit society founder.
Houdon started the project in 1785, by sailing to Virginia to take Washington’s measurements and create a plaster “life mask” at Mount Vernon, when Washington was 53.
Jefferson faced one important obstacle to hiring Houdon: a need to insure Houdon’s life.
Jefferson, was in effect, arranging for what today would be thought of as a compensation package that included purchaser-funded life insurance, along with key person life insurance, to protect the commonwealth of Virginia against the risk that Houdon might die.
Here, in observation of the Presidents Day holiday, are lightly edited excerpts from two letters that Jefferson wrote in July 1785 about the key sculptor life insurance procurement effort, based on the versions of the letters in The Project Gutenberg e-book library.
LETTER TO JOHN ADAMS, July 7, 1785 Paris, July 7, 1785.
This will accompany a joint letter enclosing the draft of a treaty and my private letter of June 23rd, which has waited so long for a private conveyance. We daily expect from the Baron Thulemeyer the French column for our treaty with his sovereign…
I am, with sincere affection, Dear Sir,
your friend and servant,
P.S. Monsieur Houdon has agreed to go to America to take the figure of General Washington. In the case of his death, between his departure from Paris and his return to it, we may lose 20,000 livres [about $150,000]. I ask the favor of you to inquire what it will cost to ensure that sum on his life, in London, and to give me as early an answer as possible, that I may order the ensurance, if I think the terms easy enough. He is, I believe, between 30 and 35 years of age, healthy enough, and will be absent about 6 months. T.J.
LETTER TO THE GOVERNOR OF VIRGINIA, July 11, 1785 Paris, July 11, 1785.
Mr. Houdon’s long and desperate illness has retarded, till now, his departure for Virginia.
We had hoped, from our first conversations with him, that it would be easy to make our terms, and that the cost of the statue and expense of sending him, would be but about a thousand guineas [about $115,000].
But when we came to settle this precisely, he thought himself obliged to ask vastly more insomuch, that, at one moment, we thought our treaty at an end. But unwilling to commit such a work to an inferior hand, we made him an ultimate proposition on our part. He was as much mortified at the prospect of not being the executor of such a work, as we were, not to have it done by such a hand. He therefore acceded to our terms; though we are satisfied he will be a considerable loser.
We were led to insist on them, because, in a former letter to the Governor, I had given the hope we entertained of bringing the whole within one thousand guineas [about $115,000].