George Washington Papers

To George Washington from William Stephens Smith, 12 May 1789

From William Stephens Smith

New York May 12th 1789.


I flatter myself you will put a proper Construction upon my silence hitherto, and rather attribute it to a real diffidence which my mind is impressed with relative to the subject upon which I am now about to address you, than to any want of respect or the least disposition to attempt the attainment of an appointment under the present Government, thro any other medium than your influence & disposition to serve me, as far as it may be Consistent with the good of your Country, & the dignity & honor of that Government in which you occupy so splendid a Station. It certainly would be Superfluous in me to state any pretentions to one so intimately acquainted with my Conduct from the Year 1776 to the present period, as you are, upon that knowledge I freely rest my future hope of employment; confiding in the Integrity of the Character I have the honor to address. I shall conceive myself complimented by any appointment either at home or abroad, which you may think proper to Confer upon me, being fully convinced that if I am honoured with any, it will be in that line where (it will be supposed) my abilities are best Calculated to serve my Country, & that my private advantage if taken at all into Consideration, will occupy but a secondary Station. The frequent marks of attention with which I was honoured during the War, and the Various Stations in which I have been employed particularly by You Sir, will I hope excuse the Liberty I now take, in offering myself as a Candidate for public employment, & also for my inclosing a Copy of a letter from the Secretary of foreign Affairs, with which I was honoured after my return from Europe, & particularly from the Court of Lisbon where I was ordered by Congress in the year 1787 as it contains the approbation of that honorable Body of my behaviour in Europe, it may afford some information which (as it was not very brilliant) may not reach you in any other way.1 With the most Perfect & Sincere Respect I have the Honor to be Sir Your Most Obliged & Most Obedient Servant

W.S. Smith


William Stephens Smith (1755–1816) served as one of GW’s aides-de-camp from 1781 to 1783. In 1785 he became secretary of legation to John Adams in London, and in June 1786 he married Abigail Amelia, daughter of John and Abigail Adams. In 1787 he went to Spain and Portugal on a diplomatic mission for Congress. After a tour of Europe with Francisco de Miranda, he returned to the United States in 1788 and became heavily involved in land speculation and increasingly burdened by debt. On 20 June John Adams wrote to GW in support of his son-in-law’s application: “Among the Candidates for the Honour of public Employment, under the New Government there is one, whose connection in my family, and public relation to me, in the late legation to St James’s would render my total silence on his account, liable to misinterpretation, as proceeding, either from a want of esteem, confidence, or affection for him on the one hand, or to a failure of respect to The President on the other.

“The Gentleman, I mean is Colonel Smith whose original, education and Services, during the late War are all better known to you, Sir than to me, He was indeed so much a stranger to me, that, to my recollection I never heared his name, till he was announced as the secretary, of my Legation to Great Britain[.] during the three years that he resided with me in England, his Conduct was to my satisfaction—and his Character was much esteemed in England, France, spain, Portugal through all which Countries he had occasion to travel.

“As his Qualifications, are as well Known to you, sir, as to me, and the situations that require to be filled, and the merits of other Candidates, much better: it is not my intention to solicit any particular place for him. his inclination, as well as mine, would no doubt prefer something at home, but if the public service require a minister to go abroad, and he should be thought a proper person, I presume he would have no objection.

“In England he has served three years, is known at Court, and in the Nation, and is as much esteemed and would be as well recieved, as any other faithfull American. As all my Dispatches passed through his hands, he is well acquainted, with the rise, progress and present state, of the negotiations of the United states at that Court. I shall not however dissemble my opinion, that it would not consist with the dignity of this Nation, or Her Chief Magistrate, to send to that Country, any Character higher than a Consul, before an explicit agreement shall be made on their part, to return to your Court a Minister of equal rank.

“In Portugal Mr Smith has already executed one Commission, to the satisfaction of that Court as well as of his Constituents. With the present Prime Minister, The Chevalier De Pinto, he has had a personal acquaintance in London for several years, and to my Knowledge is much esteemed by that wise, able, and amiable Nobleman, one of whose most earnest Wishes, it is, to form a Treaty with this Country.

“In Holland Mr Smith is known to many: and I flatter myself, that, from my long residence and numerous acquaintances in that Republic; especially among the Capitalists, Stock-Brokers, Loan-Undertakers and money Lenders who have now in their possession, obligations under my hands, for more than nine millions of Guilders and from his known Connection with me, he would be, as well received, both at the Prince of Orange’s Court, by their High Mightinesses, by the Corps Diplomatique, and the Nation, as any other Person.

“While on one hand I shall hold myself under obligation for whatever appointment The President may judge fit for him, I shall cheerfully acquiesse, on the other, in whatever may be the determination” (MHi: Adams Papers). In 1789 GW appointed him federal marshal for New York and two years later supervisor of the revenue for the district of New York. See also Samuel Blachley Webb to GW, 11 May 1789, source note.

1Smith is probably referring to a letter from John Jay, 12 Aug. 1788, expressing the approval of the Continental Congress of Smith’s conduct on his mission to Portugal (DNA: RG 59, Foreign Letters of the Continental Congress and the Department of State, 1785–90). See also JCC, description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 34:361–62.

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