George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Edmund Randolph, 18 February 1793

From Edmund Randolph

Philadelphia Feby 18. 1793.


I have made the inquiries, which you suggested this morning, from men, well-acquainted with the three characters.1

Mr Cook appears to possess integrity, industry, punctuality, and the qualities, suited to a collecting lawyer. Upon the scale of eminence, he has no just pretensions; altho’ his vanity occasions him frequently to discover, that he conceives himself inferior to none of any bar.2

Mr J. Chase has the reputation of being upright, laborious, of a sound judgment, but of indifferent elocution. His acquired knowledge in law, or other walks of literature, scarcely places him on the roll of real fame.3

Mr Houston is not so absolutely within the scope of my researches. But if he exceeds the rank of a good county-court lawyer, I have been greatly misinformed.4

Perhaps then, the competition is reduced to Governor Paterson and Mr Potts. To the former, not a point can be objected, but his position, and the uncertainty of his connection with the land-companies, which are now in motion against particular states. The latter is known, but little in detail, altho’ he carries with him universal esteem, as a valuable man, and a much approved practitioner.5

But suffer me, sir, to submit to your view, what lies near to my heart. When I consider, how many decisions must be very grating to the states; I am afraid, that the dissatisfaction will be increased by a distrust of the abilities of some of our judges; nay I do not hold it impossible, that some of them may excite sentiments of a degrading Kind. If such an idea gains ground, the state judiciaries will inevitably make a stand against the fœderal Bench. This temper has already broke forth; and can never be subdued but by preeminent talents.

Upon the other subject, of a private nature, this has been the course of my reflection. To yield, what is useful in the discharge of your public functions, merely because they may be exhibited in print, in an uncomely attitude, is, I am sure, as little expected by the world, as it is repugnant to your sense of duty. To refuse to accept acts of compliment, as being capable of perversion, do probably & depend wholly on the disposition of the person, to whom they are offered. However, there may be situations, in which the forms of this city demand an abstinence from unnecessary crouds, and which, if not attended to, may be egregiously misinterpreted into a countenance of what you only acquiesce in, but do not approve. I may add, that if at a future day, you should think proper to repel this species of civility, the present circumstances produce an adequate opportunity of commencing a retreat from it.6 I have the honor, sir, to be with the highest respect yr mo. ob. serv.

Edm: Randolph


1Thomas Johnson’s letter to GW of 16 Jan. 1793, in which he had enclosed his resignation as an associate justice of the Supreme Court, evidently had prompted GW’s discussion with Randolph about possible candidates to replace Johnson, a Maryland native.

2Annapolis, Md., attorney William Cooke may have been suggested to GW by a member of Maryland’s congressional delegation.

3Jeremiah Townley Chase (1748–1828) was another Maryland lawyer. An associate judge of the Maryland general court since 1789, he rose to chief judge of that court in 1799. He was appointed chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals and Third Judicial District in 1806.

4For an earlier recommendation of Savannah, Ga., attorney John Houstoun, see James Gunn to GW, 11 Feb. 1793.

5William Paterson (1745–1806), who studied law after his graduation from the College of New Jersey in 1763, was admitted to the New Jersey bar in 1768. An early supporter of the American Revolution, he served as New Jersey’s attorney general 1776–83. Paterson was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, in which he introduced a proposal for the retention of equal representation of the states in the legislature that is reflected in the Constitution by the structure of the U.S. Senate. Paterson served as a senator for two years in the First Congress. The New Jersey legislature appointed him governor in November 1790 after the death of Gov. William Livingston. Paterson was a founding member of the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures, which attempted to construct a manufacturing complex at the falls of the Passaic River and established the nearby town of Paterson, New Jersey.

After receiving this letter, GW instructed Randolph to solicit Thomas Jefferson’s opinion about the suitability of Paterson for the Supreme Court. Randolph reported that “the Secretary was decidedly of opinion that, considering the talents, respectability & integrity annexed to Govr. Patterson’s Character, he was a very proper person to be brought forward” (JPP, description begins Dorothy Twohig, ed. The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793–1797. Charlottesville, Va., 1981. description ends 59). GW then selected Paterson for nomination to the Supreme Court (GW to Paterson, 20 Feb. 1793). For Maryland lawyer Richard Potts’s successful legal and political career, see Potts to GW, 12 June 1792, source note.

6Randolph probably is referring to an essay in the 2 Feb. 1793 issue of the National Gazette (Philadelphia) that criticized GW’s practice of holding a weekly levee at his home (Jefferson’s Notes on a Conversation with GW, 7 Feb., and note 9).

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