George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Benjamin Lincoln, 18 July 1789

From Benjamin Lincoln

Boston July 18th 1789

I consider, my dear General, that not only the happiness of the people under the new government but that the very existance of it depends in a great measure upon the characters and abilities of those who may be employed in the judiciary and executive branches of government. Under this government I hope yet to live and to leave in its arms a large and an extensive family I cannot therefore be an inattentive spectator while the important business of organization is before your Excellency nor be silent where there is but a possibility of my doing the least good As your Excellency cannot be personally acquainted with all who ought to come forward and aid in the administration but must rely, in some degree, on the information of Gentlemen in the different States for the character of those who may be commissioned to fill the several departments which may be erected in perfecting the general system I therefore beg leave to mention to your Excellency that the common voice of the people here points out Mr Lowell as a Gentleman well qualified to fill one of the seats upon the bench of the supream court.1 The purity of his mind, the strength and promptitude of his judgement, and his knowledge of the law united with his having held a similar office under the old confederation have directed their views to this gentleman.

I am very apprehensive that he has not by any way communicated his wishes to your Excellency. If he has not the omission must originate in the extreem delicacy of the measure2 It is an office which to fill with honour and dignity requires an honest heart, a clear head, and a perfect knowledge of law in its extencive relations the truth of which he so fully realises that he is restrained from making a tender of his services as it would evince his belief that he enjoys the great and necessary quallifications to fill the office—To this a gentleman of Mr Lowells nice feelings would be brought with great reluctance.

I hope the above hints will be acceptable—If they do good my intentions will be perfectly answered—If they do not my apology for making them is the rectitude of my intentions. I have the honour of being with the highest esteem My dear General your Excellen⟨cy’s⟩ most obedient and humble servant

B. Lincoln


1John Lowell (1743–1802), a 1760 graduate of Harvard, was a leading Massachusetts jurist. During the Revolution Lowell served briefly as an officer in the Massachusetts militia, as a member of the Massachusetts General Court in 1778 and 1780–82, and as a delegate to Congress, 1782–83. After the war he was a state senator, 1784–85, and a judge on the Massachusetts court of appeals, 1784–89.

2Lowell was a serious contender for a position on the Supreme Court, and his diffidence in approaching GW directly was widely appreciated. In an undated list of recommendations for office in Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry noted that “The Honble John Lowell for an associate Judge is mentioned by a number of gentlemen, he having been a Judge of appeals under the former Congress of great abilities & integrity: he undoubtedly expects an appointment but from delicacy has made no application for it” (DLC:GW). Lowell wrote to Gerry on 20 July that “It is so awkward a Business to me to write or speak on personal Subjects that I have on this Occasion totally omitted to correspond with any Person on the Subject. . . . if it is considered however as necessary that the President should be informed that such an Appointment would be considered as highly honorary & not declined & this by a personal Application I will not resist the Opinions of my Friends as to that Matter, I have however always determined that if it should be thought proper for me to come forward on the Business, that I owe such Respect to my very worthy & respectable Friend the Vice President that I should immediately open on it to him & have no Hesitation to commit myself there—I have been lately informed that our worthy Friend Genl L. has in a Letter to the President brought this Subject to his View which may perhaps prevent the Necessity of my doing more.” On 7 Aug. Lowell wrote directly to Adams concerning his ambitions, conceding that the nomination of William Cushing, also from Massachusetts and a leading candidate for a position on the court, would effectively remove him from the competition (Marcus and Perry, Documentary History of the Supreme Court, description begins Maeva Marcus et al., eds. The Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789–1800. 8 vols. New York, 1985-2007. description ends 1:637–38, 642–45). In September GW appointed Cushing an associate justice, and Lowell became district judge for Massachusetts (DHFC, description begins Linda Grant De Pauw et al., eds. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, March 4, 1789-March 3, 1791. 20 vols. to date. Baltimore, 1972—. description ends 2:44).

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