George Washington Papers

From George Washington to James McHenry, 30 November 1789

To James McHenry


Dear Sir,New York Novr 30th 1789.

I have received your letter of the 14th instt—and in consequence of the suggestions contained therein, added to other considerations which occurred to me, I have thought it best to return Judge Harrison his Commission, and I sincerely hope that upon a further consideration of the Subject he may be induced to revoke his former determination & accept the appointmt.1

Mr Johnston has likewise declined his appointment of District Judge2—and I have no information of Mr Potts, the Attorney, or Col⟨onel⟩ Ramsay the Marshall, having accepted their Commissions.3 Thus circumstanced with respect to Maryland, I am unwilling to make a new appointment of Judge for that District until I can have an assurance—or at least a strong presumption, that the person appointed will accept; for it is to me an unpleasant thing, to have Commissions of such high importance returned, and it will in fact, have a tendency to bring the Government into discredit.

Mr Hanson is the person whom I now have it in contemplation to bring forward as District Judge of Maryland, and shall do so, provided I can obtain an assurance that such an appointment would be acceptable to him: But as I cannot take any direct measures to draw from him a sentiment on this head, I must request, my dear Sir, that you will be so good as to get for me, if you can, such information upon the subject as will enable me to act with confidence in it, and convey the same to me as soon as possible. I shall leave to your prudence and discretion the mode of gaining this knowledge. It is a delicate matter, and will not bear any thing like a direct application, if there is the least cause to apprehend a refusal.

I have observed in the papers that Mr Hanson has been appointed Chancellor of the State since the death of Mr Rogers. What the emoluments of this Office are—or its tenure—I know not, therefore can form no opinion how far it may operate in this matter.4

Mr Johnsons resignation came to hand too late to admit of a new appointment, and information to be given of it, before the time fixed by the Act for holding the first District Court in Maryland;5 however, if this had not been the case, I should hardly have hazarded a new appointment, for the reasons before mentioned, until I had good grounds to believe it would be accepted.

Should it be found that the Office of District Judge would not be acceptable to Mr Hanson—Mr Paca has been mentioned for that appointment; and although his sentiments have not been altogether in favor of the general Government—and a little adverse on the score of Paper Emissions &ca—I do not know but his appointment on some other accounts might be a proper thing. However, this will come more fully under consideration if Mr Hanson should not wish to be brought forward—and in that case, I will thank you to give me information relative to Mr Paca.6

Mr Gusts Scott, and Mr Robert Smith of Baltimore have also been mentioned for the Office;7 but the age, and inexperience of the latter is, in my opinion, an insuperable objection. For however good the qualifications or promising the talents of Mr Smith may be, it will be expected that the important Offices of the general Government—more especially those of the Judges—should be filled by men who have been tried and proved.

I thank you, my good Sir, for your kind wishes for my health & happiness—and reciprocate them with sincerity. With very great regard I am—Dear Sir Your Affecte & Obedient Servt

Go: Washington

ALS, CSmH; Df, partly in the writing of GW, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters; LB, DLC:GW.

3Both Nathaniel Ramsay and Richard Potts accepted their appointments.

4John Rogers (1723-1789), a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1775 and 1776, served as chancellor of Maryland from 1778 until his death. Alexander Contee Hanson (1749–1806) was educated at the College of Philadelphia and admitted to the practice of law in Maryland in 1773. He served briefly in 1776 as assistant secretary to GW. Hanson served as a judge on the Maryland General Court from 1776 to 1789. Early in December McHenry approached Hanson on GW’s behalf. As he reported to the president on 10 Dec., he held a conversation with Hanson that morning. “After some time we spoke of the vacancy of district judge. I remarked that notwithstanding his late appointment of Chancelor was very honorable, and at this moment more lucrative than district judge, yet as the salary of the latter was less subject to caprice, than a salary dependent on our assembly, it was in that point of view a more desirable office independent of its dignity as a part of the federal judiciary. I then wished that an exchange could take place, and said, as I knew he was highly esteemed by the President I beleived a suggestion on the head would affect it. Being in habits of friendship with him, I added, tell me sincerely and freely, ‘whether if I should take the liberty to mention the thing to you, he would consent to serve.’ This brought the matter to a point. He did not like the office so well as that of Chancellor, as it would oblige him to attend courts in different parts of the State which would lessen the net income, and as it was in his opinion of less dignity. In short he gave a decided preference to his present station. I am very sorry; for he is a man of an excellent understanding and of unimpeached integrity” (DLC:GW).

5Article 3 of the Judiciary Act specified the first meeting of the Maryland district would be held at Baltimore on the first Tuesday in December 1789 (1 Stat. 74).

6William Paca (1740–1799) was educated at the College of Philadelphia, receiving an M.A. degree in 1759, studied law in Annapolis, and was admitted to practice in Maryland in 1761. He later continued his legal studies at the Inner Temple in London. Before the Revolution he served in the Maryland legislature and was active in Patriot circles as the war approached. He was a member of the Continental Congress from 1775 to 1779. In 1778 he was appointed chief judge of the Maryland General Court and in 1782 was elected governor of Maryland, serving until 1785. Although his support of the Constitution was somewhat lukewarm, he voted for its adoption in the Maryland Ratifying Convention in 1788. In his letter to GW of 10 Dec., McHenry reported that after he discussed the appointment for federal district judge with Hanson, he “saw Mr Paca and had a long conversation with him. He had in view an office in our State judiciary which we are talking about creating; but prefers the appointment in question. I do not detail our conversation; but I have every reason to say, that he will make every exertion in his power to execute the trust in the most unexceptionable and satisfactory manner. I beleive also that the appointment will be highly gratifying to him, and I think may have political good consequences. He will carry a degree of respectability and legal dignity into the office which the other persons you mentioned cannot. On the whole, as Mr Johnson and Mr Hanson will not serve, I am disposed to think that Mr Paca’s appointment will be generally acceptable” (DLC:GW). See also Nathaniel Ramsay to GW, 12 Nov. 1789. Reassured on the probability of Paca’s acceptance of the post, GW wrote to him on 24 Dec. offering him the position and enclosing his commission. “You will observe that the Commission which is now transmitted to you is limitted to the end of the next Session of the Senate of the United States. This is rendered necessary by the Constitution, which authorizes the President of the United States to fill up such vacancies as may happen during the recess of the Senate—and appointments so made shall expire at the end of the ensuing Session unless confirmed by the Senate. However, there cannot be the smallest doubt but the Senate will readily ratify and confirm this appointment, when your Commission in the usual form shall be forwarded to you” (copy, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters). Paca’s appointment was confirmed by the Senate on 10 Feb. 1790 (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 , 2:61).

7For Gustavus Scott’s application for office, see GW to Scott, 21 Mar. 1789. Scott’s name appeared on at least two lists for Maryland appointments. See Otho H. Williams to GW, 5 July 1789, n.2, and Conversation with Samuel Griffin, 9 July 1789, n.2. Robert Smith applied for a post in the Judiciary in a letter to GW of 5 Sept. 1789. For GW’s views on Smith’s appointment, see his letter to Otho H. Williams, 22 Nov. 1789.

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