George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Gustavus Scott, 21 March 1789

To Gustavus Scott

Mount Vernon March 21st 1789


I was yesterday favored with the receipt of your letter of the 10th instant, through the medium of my Nephew to whom it had been committed: and I must be dispensed with for only giving the general reply, which I have lately found it necessary to give on several similar occasions.1 For since it has been expected that I should be called to the chair of government, many applications have been made to me on the subject of appointments to the different offices which might be established under it. In answer to which I have written to the following effect. That, in case it should be my unavoidable lot to go again into public office, I had determined to go into it, without being under any possible obligations or promises of any nature whatsoever: and that, in my judgment, three things ought to be much regarded by the person who should have the power of making nominations, viz., the fitness of characters to fill offices, the comparative merit of the claims of the different candidates for appointments, and the equal distribution ⟨of⟩ those appointments (so far as that matter might be conveniently arranged) among the Inhabitants of the various States in the Union. To these things I added, that these considerations were not intended to be considered as affecting in any manner whatsoever the pretensions of the person to whom they were addressed. As I thought it highly requisite for my own reputation, as well as for the interest of the community, that, in all events I should hold myself perfectly at liberty to act with a sole reference to justice & the public good.

From this clue, Sir, you will be able to trace my general fashion of thinking on the subject of appointments. Being somewhat pressed in point of time, I will therefore only add, that I can at present form no conjecture what or how many offices will be created in the Judicial Department, at the commencement of the government. Some respectable professional knowledge will doubtless be necessary for filling such as may be created. With sentiments of great esteem & regard, I am, Sir, Your Most obedt & humble Servant

Df, in the writing of David Humphreys, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters; LB, DLC:GW.

1Gustavus Scott (1753–1800), who studied law at the Middle Temple in London, was practicing law in Cambridge, Maryland. During the 1780s he served in the Maryland house of delegates and was elected to the Continental Congress but apparently did not serve because of ill health. On 10 Mar. 1789 Scott wrote the first of several sententious letters to GW explaining that “after a life of more than twenty years spent in the study and practice of the Law, & much the greater part of that time in extensive practice,” he felt qualified to hold office in a new federal judicial system. He reported that he had long known “the two Gentlemen of the Senate from this State Mr [John] Henry & Mr [Charles] Carroll. . . the former intimately from the time of our studying together at the Temple.” He also referred GW to “two of the present Delegates from this Sta⟨te.⟩ I mean Mr [Joshua] Seney & Mr [George] Gale.” Unlike most applicants, Scott did not have “the plea of poverty to recommend” his suit, and he did not have “the most distant Idea that the present Circumstances of this Country will permit such Salarys to the Appointments under the Fcederal Govt as to induce those in extensive practice to offer their services for the sake of the Loaves & the Fishes.” It was his wish to hold office “in a free Country under a Government I ardently wish to see supported” DLC:GW). The letter was forwarded to GW by Bushrod Washington in a letter of 19 Mar. 1789 in which he included his assessment of Scott’s qualifications. Scott renewed his application twice, once on 30 Aug. to explain that he had not earlier sent more recommendations because of GW’s “general & almost universal Knowledge of the People of the Continent” and again on 12 Nov. 1789 to say: “Mr [Thomas] Johnson having declined to accept his Appointment [as a district judge] under the Federal Government I hope I shall be pardond for reminding yr Excellency of my early Application on this Subject” (ibid.). Despite his persistence, Scott received no federal appointment until 1794, when GW appointed him one of the commissioners for the new Federal City. Otho H. Williams wrote GW on 5 July 1789 that Scott had “no just pretentions to the Character which is worthy to fill the office of a Judge” (ibid.).

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