George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Robert Purviance, 19 May 1789

From Robert Purviance

City Tavern New York 19th May 1789


Compel’d from Necessity & encouraged by the Friendly interposition of my worthy Friend and Neighbour Dr James McHenry,1 with the Unanimous voice of my fellow Citizens, I am come forward with the Crowd to offer my self & Nephew, John H. Purviance for two of the New Appointments that will, I presume take place under the Federal Government, in our Naval department for the Port of Baltimore, Or My Nephew in any other Department you may think proper to appoint him. I wish Sir to be understood, not to interfer with the worthy Character that at present fills the whole department under the State. My pretence is confined to where a vacancy will admit; Should you in your wisdom, see cause for further information respecting my self & Nephew, I would humbly beg leave to refer you to many Honorable Characters in both Houses of Congress.2 I have the Honor to be, with every mark of Respect Sir Your Most Obedient and most humble Servant

Robert Purviance


Robert Purviance (1733–1806) was born in Ireland and settled in Baltimore during the 1760s, establishing with his brother Samuel Purviance, Jr. (died c.1788), a successful shipping and distillery business. During the Revolution the firm engaged in privateering, and both brothers were active in local politics. Robert Purviance was appointed naval officer at Baltimore in August 1789 and served in the post until December 1794 when he succeeded Otho H. Williams as collector of the port. For John H. Purviance’s application for office, see his letter to GW, 1 Aug. 1789. John Purviance received no federal appointment. Among the applications for office in DLC:GW there is an unsigned and undated statement concerning Robert Purviance’s application: “Mr Robert Purviance, and his brother Samuel, were in Copartnership, and supposed to be in opulent circumstances—they certainly were in extensive credit—at the commencement of the War with great Britian.

“The patriotic conduct, and liberal contributions of the Brothers, it is generally believed, affected their circumstances—Whether it is to be attributed to their sacrifices to the public good, or to other causes, adverse to their fortunes, or to both—certain it is, they were reduced to the necessity of compounding with their Creditors, and of having Commissioners appointed to adjust and settle their accounts. No circumstance, respecting their Bankruptcy, that I am informed of, affected their characters as men, or merchants.

“Mr Samuel Purviance went, about two Years ago, to the Western Country, and was either killed, or Captured by the Savages—His fate is uncertain—Mr Robert Purviance was always considered as subordinate to his Brother in business—His Capacity has been long tried, and I do not imagine that he possesses the Activity, discernment and knowledge requisite to an effectual discharge of an Office in the customs, where judgment, precision, and dispatch, as well as independence, and impartiality, are essential. If Government admits of a provision for Virtuous families reduced to poverty the families of the Messrs Purviance’s are objects truly worthy—Humanity interests itself in their favor. But, although I believe that very few would murmur to see them enjoying a sinecure, I am not warranted to say that the public would be pleased to see an office of great trust, and confidence, committed to a Man, not of the best abilities, who would be continually exposed to every Coertion, and Temptation, which the pressure Of importunate creditors, and the actual possession of money could produce—It may be that Mr Purviances debts are all compounded and settled by the Commission mentioned, but I do not know it. Superior Talents might suspend the public discontent, but to such Mr P. certainly has no just pretentions. Unhappily the public mind is too apt to imbibe unfavorable sentiments of men in Office, especially in the revenue department; and sure I am that, here in Balt[imor]e even those who would rejoice at Mr P—’s appointment, would not deem it the best on the public account—Necessity wod be urged as a motive and expose him to suspicion.

“Mr John H. Purviance, Son of Samuel, is an Amiable Young man—was bred to business, and has a fair Character. He is yet too Young to have acquired much public confidence; But the opinion which his friends entertain of his capacity, and integrity, will justify the expectation that he would faithfully discharge the duties of any Office, proportioned to his capacity; which is deemed very good, and capable of being improved by practice—If the consideration of the circumst⟨ances⟩ of the family of the Purviances should have weight ⟨in⟩ deciding between them and other candidates the circumstances of Mr John H. Purviance his not being accountabl⟨e⟩ for the debts of the family, may be a consideration of weight in deciding between the Uncle & Nephew” (DLC:GW).

1On 13 April Robert Purviance wrote to James McHenry that legal actions against him and his brother in 1787 had reduced them “from a former state of Affluence with two large helpless Familys to be left to the mercey of the benevolent, with our wearing Apparel only” (DLC:GW). On 17 April 1789 James McHenry forwarded the letter to GW, commenting that “Mr Rob. Purviance is a worthy citizen, and held in universal esteem. He has met with severe misfortunes, as you will see by the letter I have taken the liberty to annex. In a few months him and his family, from being one of the most opulent in this town, will be one of the poorest and most distressed unless your goodness will interpose. He is well qualified for any trust in the customs which it is likely may be cast into departments. His nephew whom he mentions has had a liberal education, has travelled, speaks french, and shares a small salary he receives as writer to a merchant with two amiable sisters. He is well qualified for an assistant in any of the great offices of State” (DLC:GW).

2On 25 May 1789 John Eager Howard sent GW a supporting letter “expressing my wishes that Mr Purviance’s application may be considered in a favourable light” (DLC:GW). On 20 April 1791 McHenry wrote GW recommending Purviance for an appointment as comptroller of the Treasury (DLC:GW). In DLC:GW there is a further letter of application from Purviance, 19 July, probably 1794, asking to succeed Otho H. Williams as collector at Baltimore. His application is supported by letters from James McHenry and other Baltimore residents, 18 July 1794, by Samuel Smith, 18 July, and by another letter of 20 July from James McHenry (DLC:GW). For further comments by McHenry on Purviance and on the competition for the collectorship at Baltimore, see his letter to GW, 24 May 1789.

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