In the recent hit movie Lincoln, Francis Preston Blair accepts a secret but ultimately futile mission trying to lure Confederate leaders to the peace table.
Watching actor Hal Holbrook play the emissary, I wondered how many viewers knew about his character’s crucial role in the history of Montgomery County. So I called Blair’s great-great-great-grandson Blair Lee IV and asked his reaction to Hollywood’s portrayal of his ancestor.
“First of all, I thought Hal Holbrook was miscast,” he says with a laugh. “Francis Preston Blair was a very small person—we have portraits of the man, and even with the artists doing their best, they can’t make him good-looking. He actually won a jackknife at the state fair for being the ugliest guy in Kentucky.”
Lee, a 67-year-old real estate developer and political commentator who lives and works in Silver Spring, wears the weight of history lightly. He’s proud of his family, but declines to be defined by it. He quotes with approval a toast once delivered by an aunt: “It’s good that we celebrate the achievements of our ancestors, remembering all the time that their achievements are theirs, not ours.”
Still, those achievements are worth recounting, and Lee obliges.
“How the Blairs got here is a very typical Washington story,” he begins. “They came in on the tide of a presidential administration. …Andrew Jackson, who was elected in 1828.”
At the time, every political faction except Jackson’s boasted its own newspaper. So his supporters summoned Preston Blair, an editor in Kentucky who had never met the president but had promoted him during the campaign.
Blair came to town, started a newspaper called the Globe and joined Jackson’s inner circle. “The famous phrase was: If Jackson had a problem or an issue, he would say, ‘Send it to Blair,’ ” Lee says.
To get even closer to the president, Blair bought the house across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House (sold to the government in 1942, it’s known today as Blair House). But by the 1840s, “old man Blair gets tired of living in D.C. during the summertime,” his descendant says.
One day he was riding in the countryside with his daughter, Elizabeth, just across the Maryland line. According to family lore, “his daughter was reading a love letter from my future great-great-grandfather, Samuel Phillips Lee, a dashing young naval officer,” Lee says. “She’s not paying attention, and a tree limb knocks her off the horse. They get her back on her feet and go after the horse, who is drinking from a spring that has mica in it. And the sunlight is coming down and hitting the mica and creating a sort of silver apparition. Old man Blair says, ‘How beautiful,’ buys about 500 acres, builds a big farmhouse and names it Silver Spring.”
Elizabeth then marries her naval officer, a direct descendant of Richard Henry Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Her brother Montgomery Blair serves as postmaster general under Lincoln, and yes, a high school eventually is named for him.
Montgomery had his own estate near Silver Spring in July of 1864, when the Confederate army sent a detachment of troops under Gen. Jubal Early to attack Washington from the north. Early made the father’s house his headquarters, but it turned out to be a bad choice. The secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, was a teetotaler who had reduced the grog ration for Union sailors.
“So old man Blair, being a practical businessperson, was able to buy a lot of the unused grog at a discount and had it stored in the basement and also in a corncrib,” says Lee, who lives near the original homestead. “When the Rebels got there, they found the grog and got liquored up.”
This distraction forced Early to delay his assault by a day, allowing Union reinforcements to gather at Fort Stevens on what’s now upper 13th Street, where they turned back the Confederates.
The general left a note behind at the Blair farm, apologizing for any damage he might have caused. Montgomery was not so lucky. His house was burned to the ground.
“It could have been burned by Rebel troops,” Lee says, “although some people think it was burned down by neighbors who didn’t like the Blairs anyway.”
They might not have liked the family but they kept voting for them. The first Blair Lee, the son of Samuel and Elizabeth, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1914. His son E. Brooke Lee became “an old-fashioned political boss,” running Montgomery County in the ’20s and ’30s with “an iron hand.” Blair Lee III was lieutenant governor in the mid-’70s and became acting governor when the incumbent, Marvin Mandel, went to jail.
“I had been groomed my whole life to run for office and go into politics,” the latest Lee says. But he was determined to break the chain.
Inspired by a rising counter-culture, Lee and his new wife decided to “drop out” in 1974 and buy a cattle farm in southwest Virginia. “We basically proved that you can’t make a living doing that,” he says.
But even after returning home four years later, he spurned political life. When I ask if he regrets his decision, he answers quickly, “Not for a second. I’ve seen up close what politics does to families. It’s a jealous mistress. These poor politicians end up working for about 10 cents an hour when you calculate all the time they spend getting re-elected, doing constituent service and going to every event. It’s an awful life and I was immersed in it. It was such a relief to realize one day I didn’t have to do this.”
When his son was born, he named him Jacob, not Blair. “We just didn’t think that naming a kid the fifth made any sense,” he explains. “C’mon, this is America.”
Yes, which means every generation can reinvent itself. But the past never quite disappears.
During their exile in rural Virginia, the Lees were touring a mansion in the neighboring town of Abingdon and reading the history of the house. It had been the ancestral home of Gen. Francis Preston, whose daughter married a man named Blair. It was their son who became a confidant of Lincoln and was played by Hal Holbrook in the movie.
“We were getting away from it all,” Lee says, “and we had moved to within five miles of where the whole damn thing started. You can’t get away.”
Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. Send him ideas for future columns at firstname.lastname@example.org.