George Washington Papers

To George Washington from John Coulter, 23 December 1790

From John Coulter

Balt[imo]re Town Decr 23d 1790


In the probability that Congress will enact a general Quarantine Law this session & that a Health Officer or Visiting Physician will be appointed for this Port; I beg leave to offer myself for your Excellency’s Approbation.1

I am one of the Oldest Practitionors in this Town, & my Residence being at the Point, is a Situation most suitable for exercising the Duties of such an Office.

My public Services, I hope will be found not inferior to any that may apply; & I have no doubt of obtaining Letters, from Gentlemen well acquainted with them as soon as such may become necessary.

I beg, Sir, you will excuse the Liberty I have taken at so early a Stage of the Business, & I hope it will not be consider’d premature, as there are some others desirous of the Appointment who no doubt will be proferring their Claims. If Doctr McHenry can be so far drawn into public Life as to write a public Letter, I have Reason to expect from his knowing my Services in the public Revolutions, & his well known Character, that he will not refuse me his Testimony2—I am with the highest Respect & most sincere Attachment your Excellency’s Obedt Hble Sert

John Coulter


John Coulter (1751–1823) was born in Ireland and emigrated to Maryland in 1772, where he established himself as a physician in Baltimore. During the Revolution he served as a surgeon on the Maryland ship Defence and in the naval hospital in the town. In 1788 he represented Baltimore in the legislature and as a Federalist in the Maryland convention that ratified the Federal Constitution. Coulter received no appointment from GW.

1On 16 Dec. 1790 the House of Representatives received a petition from merchants and other citizens of Baltimore praying for the establishment of a health office or other provision for protecting the city from diseases believed to be brought by ships arriving from foreign ports. The next day the house referred the petition to a committee, which reported on 21 Dec. 1790 in favor of granting the petition, noting that “the regulation prayed by the memorialists, is not only essential for the port aforesaid, but for all others into which considerable imports are made, are of opinion that a law ought to be passed with general provisions in this respect.” The House appointed a committee to draft the legislation, but no further progress was made during the First Congress (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 3:639). The matter was not taken up again in Congress until 1794, when in response to an act of the Maryland legislature, the House passed an act “declaring the consent of Congress to an act of the state of Maryland, passed the twenty-eight of December [1793] . . . for the appointment of a health officer” on 6 June 1794 (Annals of Congress description begins Joseph Gales, Sr., comp. The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States; with an Appendix, Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and All the Laws of a Public Nature. 42 vols. Washington, D.C., 1834–56. description ends , 3d Cong., 1st sess., 770). GW signed this bill on 9 June 1794 (Journal of the House description begins The Journal of the House of Representatives: George Washington Administration 1789–1797. Edited by Martin P. Claussen. 9 vols. Wilmington, Del., 1977. description ends , 6:434).

2James McHenry recommended Coulter for the post in a letter to GW of 6 Jan. 1791: “The Doctor, Sir, is well esteemed as a physician, and inferior to none of our practitioners in point of skill in his profession. He is moreover one of the oldest if not the oldest in practice, discreet⟨,⟩ sober, and attentive; and in possession of an unexceptionable private character. As he resides at the Point (which you know is a distant section of the Town and the chief place of shipping) he thinks this gives him a superior facility to execute such an office; and besides, should another be prefered, he apprehends, as he must remove to the Point, that it might diminish his practice already barely sufficient for his support. This last circumstance he seems to have greatly at heart, and his fears do not appear to be groundless.

“Independent however of these things the Doctor has recommendations which cannot be ascribed to any other candidate that may offer, at least in an equal degree. Without his assistance and popularity we could not have prevented two antifederals from being sent to our State Convention, nor yet have removed Mr Chase from our councils; to accomplish which he made a voluntary sacrifice of his practice for a considerable time very much to his detriment, ⟨besides⟩ the loss of several families who were violent in their opposition. I recognize this circumstance lest it should not have been fully kno⟨wn⟩ to your Excellency, and because I am far from thinking such men as him may be no longer wanted. What has been done in N. Carolina and Virginia and what our house of delegates have attempted to do this last session respecting the assumption of the States debts, shews but too plainly that the old leaven is by no means exhausted, and that it will be used on every promising occasion to ferment the public mind into a disapprobation of the measures of Congress” (DLC:GW).

McHenry’s description of Coulter’s role in the ratification struggle was echoed in the recommendation of Robert Ballard, surveyor for Baltimore, who wrote that “in our hard Struggle to obtain our happy New Constitution he was conspicuously usefull—he was the only Man to be fallen on that could blend the Point interest with that of the Town, so as to defeat the Antif[ed]eral Party—he chearfully agreed to serve and was honorably elected, sacraficing his Practice during a long Session and making a number of enemies who otherwise were his Friends” (Ballard to GW, 28 Dec. 1790, DLC:GW). On 20 Jan. 1791 Ballard wrote again to GW, recommending Benjamin Dashiell for the post.

Another recommendation of Coulter was received from George Lux (1753–1797), a Baltimore merchant and Federalist leader, noted as a scholar. Lux was known to GW, having accompanied Catherine Macaulay on her visit to Mount Vernon in 1785 (see Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 4:148; “Mr. Lux” is there misidentified as Darby Lux, a relative; a secondhand account of George Lux’s visit to Mount Vernon, including an account of a conversation between Macaulay and GW, related by Lux to a friend, is in Graydon, Memoirs, description begins Alexander Graydon. Memoirs of a Life, Chiefly Passed in Pennsylvania, within the Last Sixty Years; With Occasional Remarks upon the General Occurrences, Character and Spirit of that Eventful Period. Harrisburg, Pa., 1811. description ends 304–5). Lux argued that Coulter was particularly well suited to the appointment, since his practice was “confined to those families, employed in the shipping line” (Lux to GW, 26 Dec. 1790, DLC:GW). Samuel Smith mentioned Coulter as an acceptable candidate for the office, along with Reuben Gilder and John Ross, in a letter to GW of 2 Jan. 1791 (DLC:GW). Coulter was also recommended for the post by William MacCreery in a letter to John Adams of 11 Dec. 1790 (MHi: Adams Papers).

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