George Washington Papers

To George Washington from James Wilson, 21 April 1789

From James Wilson

Philadelphia 21st April 1789

Dear Sir

A Delicasy arising from your Situation and Character as well as my own has hitherto prevented me from mentioning to your Excellency a Subject of much Importance to me. Perhaps I should not even now have broke Silence but for one Consideration. A Regard to the Dignity of the Government, over which you preside, will naturally lead you to take Care that its Honours be in no Event, exposed to affected Indifference or Contempt. For this Reason you may well expect that, before you nominate any Gentlemen to an Employment (especially one of high Trust) you should have it in your Power to preclude him, in Case of Disappointment, from pretending that the Nomination was made without his Knowledge or Consent. Under this View I commit myself to your Excellency without Reserve, and inform you that my Aim rises to the important office of Chief Justice of the United States.

But how shall I now proceed? Shall I enumerate Reasons in Justification of my high Pretensions? I have not yet employed my Pen in my own Praise—When I make those high Pretensions and offer them to so good a Judge, can I say, that they are altogether without Foundation? Your Excellency must relieve me from the Dilemma. You will think and act properly on the Occasion without my saying any thing on either Side of the Question. I have the Honour to be with the greatest Esteem and Attachment dear Sir Your Excellency’s most obedient and very humble Servant

James Wilson


James Wilson (1742–1798) was born in Scotland and educated at the universities of St. Andrews, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. He came to America in 1765, studied law with John Dickinson in Philadelphia, and was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar in 1767. Wilson set up a successful law practice in Reading and Carlisle and lectured at the College of Philadelphia. By 1776 he had become widely known in Pennsylvania and in the Continental Congress, to which he was elected in 1775, for his legal and political writings. In 1778 he moved his practice to Philadelphia and became gradually more involved in various business interests than in the law. In 1787 he was one of the most influential members of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and he led the fight for its ratification in the Pennsylvania convention. In August 1789 Wilson became a trustee and lecturer at the College of Philadelphia, and in September GW made him one of the associate justices of the United States Supreme Court.

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