George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Thomas Johnson, 10 October 1788

From Thomas Johnson

Frederick [Md.] 10 October 1788.

Dear Sir

I lately received your Letter of the 31st of August, scarce any Thing could have surprised me more than the Occasion of it for instead of being displeased I thought myself much obliged by the Letter you wrote me in the Time of our Convention1—To strengthen the Friends of the new Constitution and expedite it’s Adoption I shewed that and other Letters containing much the same Information and Sentimts to some Gent. and mentioned them to others a strange Conduct had I been under the Impressions suggested! nor do I recollect any Conduct of mine which can be called active to bring about any Amendments—I was not well pleased at the manner of our breaking up I thought it to our discredit and should be better pleased with the Constitution with some Alterations but I am very far from wishing all that were proposed to take place.2

A Conversation between us at Shannandoah relative to your Letter and my answering it was broke off, I believe, by some Body’s coming up or a Call to Breakfast3—when you first mentioned it, I did not understand certainly what Letter you referred to but the one received when I was at the Convention I answered the same Evening that it came to my Hands4—As my Writing is pretty generally known and suspecting that Curiosity might press into it to see how Things were going on I got Mr M[e]rcer who was sitting by to direct and contrive it: I was the more solicitous that it should have reached you safely as the Declaration you made in yours, and which I am satisifed came from the Heart gave me Resolution enough to hint at the Necessity we should be under for your farther Services—We cannot Sir do without you and I and thousands more can explain to any Body but yourself why we cannot do without you.

My Acquaintance with Colo. Mercer is not of long standing or very close—he will never find me acting on a great public Question from such unworthy Motives nor I hope displeased with any Letter I may have the Honor to receive from you. I am my dear Sir with the sincerest Esteem & Affection Your most obedt Servant

Th. Johnson


Thomas Johnson (1732–1819) of Calvert County, Md., served in the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1777, as a brigadier general of Maryland militia, and as governor of Maryland from 1777 to 1779. He was a member of the Maryland house of delegates from Frederick County in 1780, 1786, and 1787, and he served as a delegate to the Maryland Ratifying Convention in 1788. Johnson was a frequent correspondent of GW on the subject of Potomac navigation, and in 1785 he became one of the first directors of the Potowmack Company.

1The Maryland Ratifying Convention was held from 21 to 28 April 1788. GW wrote to Johnson on 20 April that he would “take the liberty of expressing a single sentiment on the occasion. It is, that an adjournment, (if attempted), of your Convention to a later period than the decision of the question in this State, will be tantamount to the rejection of the Constitution.” During the summer, rumors that Johnson was displeased with his letter reached GW, and on 31 Aug. 1788 GW again wrote to him: “I shall be obliged to you for informing me, what foundation there is for so much of the following extract of a letter from Doctr Brooke at Fredericksburgh, to Doctr Stuart of this County, as relates to the officious light in which my conduct was viewed for havg written the letter alluded to.” The letter GW referred to was from Dr. Laurence Brooke (c.1758–c.1803), a physician in Fredericksburg, Va., to GW’s friend Dr. David Stuart. GW quoted a portion of it in his letter to Johnson of 31 Aug.: “Since then, I was informed by the Honourable James Mercer, that his Brother Colo. John Mercer, who was at that tim[e] (July 10th) in this town, was furnished with documents to prove, that General Washington had wrote a letter upon the present constitution to Governor Johnson of Maryland; and that Governor Johnson was so much displeased with the officiousness of General Washington, as to induce him to take an active part in bringing about the amendments proposed by a Committee of the Convention of Maryland.” In defense of the letter to Johnson written at the time of the convention, GW observed that he had what he considered satisfactory proof that opponents of the Constitution in the Maryland Ratifying Convention intended to effect an adjournment of the convention in order to delay ratification. “I conceived,” he wrote, “that a hint of it could not be displeasing to the Supporters of the proposed Constitution—in which light, as well from a letter I had received from you, as from universal report & belief, I had placed you. . . . I have no other object, Sir, for making this enquiry, than merely to satisfy myself whether the information (for information was all I had in view) was considered by you as an improper interference on my part, or, that the documents, and interpretation of this matter, by Colo. Mercer, is the effect of one of those mistakes, which he is so apt to fall into.” James Mercer (1736–1793) represented Hampshire County in the House of Burgesses and served on Virginia’s court of appeals. His half brother John Francis Mercer (1759–1821) ended the Revolution as a lieutenant colonel, studied law, and soon turned to politics. In 1785 he married Sophia Sprigg of Maryland and moved to Anne Arundel County. Mercer was a vigorous opponent of the Constitution at the Maryland Ratifying Convention, served in the Maryland house of delegates, 1788–89, 1791–92, and was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1791. GW was involved with both brothers in the settlement of the estate of their deceased brother George Mercer, who had been GW’s aide during the French and Indian War, and in GW’s attempt to collect money owed him from the estate of their father, John Mercer of Marlborough. See Statement concerning George Mercer’s Estate, 1 Feb. 1789, and GW to James Mercer, 18 Mar. 1789.

2A considerable portion of the debates in the Maryland convention concerned the advisability of ratifying the Constitution without adopting some of the constitutional amendments now under close consideration in all the states. On 26 April the convention decided to ratify by a vote of 63 to 22, but a committee of thirteen members was appointed to “consider and report Amendments to be recommended to the People” (Maryland Journal, and Baltimore Advertiser, 29 April 1788). Johnson was appointed a member of the committee. The articles of ratification were signed on 28 April. It was not until 29 April that the committee reported that, although the members “had acceded to several of the Propositions referred to them, nevertheless they could come to no Agreement to make any Report” (ibid., 2 May 1788; see also Elliot, Debates, description begins Jonathan Elliot, ed. The Debates in the Several State Conventions, on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, as Recommended by the General Convention of Philadelphia, in 1787. 2d ed. 5 vols. Philadelphia, 1896. description ends 2:547–56).

3Johnson is probably referring to the meeting of the directors of the Potowmack Company at the Great Falls in June 1788, a meeting both GW and Johnson attended (Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 5:335–36).

4Letter not found.

Index Entries