George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Benjamin Fishbourn, 25 September 1789

From Benjamin Fishbourn

New York City Tavern

May it please your Excellency.Septr 25th 89

I take my departure for Georgia on Monday next; but previous thereto I beg leave to request the favor of your Excellency to signify to me, your approbation of my having sufficiently done away any prejudices, you may have imbibed in consequence of representations having been made against me in the Senate: this request I hope will not prove unreasonable to your Excellency: and the liberty I hope you’l excuse, as I know you ever bear it in remembrence, to do that Justice to all alike, however unfortunate his present situation or dignified it may be. this is all I can now ask: that when I return to the Arms of my Family and friends, I may have it to say I have the sanction as well as the good wishes of his Excellency the President of the United States: my Mind however tortured at present it may be, will be much releived by your Excellencies answer; and I am bold to think I am not undeserving of it.1 I am with Sentiments of affection, Your Excellencies Most obdt and very humble servant.

Bn Fishbourn

ALS, DNA:PCC, item 78.

For background to this document, see GW to the United States Senate, 6 Aug. 1789, source note; Anthony Wayne to GW, 30 Aug. 1789.

1On the same day William Jackson replied to Fishbourn on GW’s behalf: “In reply to your letter of this date, addressed to the President of the United States I am directed by him to inform you that when he nominated you for Naval Officer of the Port of Savannah he was ignorant of any charge existing against you—and, not having, since that time, had any other exibit of the facts which were alledged in the Senate than what is stated in the certificates which have been published by you, he does not consider himself competent to give any opinion on the subject” (DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters). Fishbourn had inserted in the New York Daily Advertiser, 17 Sept., a certificate dated 27 Aug. from Hugh Lawson, president of the Georgia executive council, and signed by such prominent Georgia residents as Lachlan McIntosh, Nathaniel Pendleton, John Habersham, Matthew McAllister, Anthony Wayne, and James Seagrove, attesting, “in consequence of certain misrepresentations” concerning his character and conduct, to Fishbourn’s reputation and to the “general satisfaction” with his conduct of the customs house in Savannah.

Occasional comments on the Senate’s first rejection of a presidential nomination continued into the nineteenth century. In 1818 in an editorial on the evolution of procedures in the Senate in Gales and Seaton’s Daily National Intelligencer, the editors observed: “There are not many, probably, of the present generation of readers, who remember the fact, that, in the First Session of the first Congress of the United States, President Washington personally came into the Senate, when that body was engaged on what is called Executive business, and took part in their deliberations. When he attended, he took the Vice President’s chair, and the Vice-President took that of the Secretary of the Senate; one or other of the Secretaries occasionally accompanied the President on these visits. The President addressed the Senate on the questions before them, and in many respects exercised a power in respect to their proceedings, which would now be deemed entirely incompatible with their rights and privileges. This practice, however, did not long continue. An occasion soon arose of collision of opinion between the President and the Senate, on some nomination, and he did not afterwards attend, but communicated by message what he desired to lay before them” (Daily National Intelligencer [Washington, D.C.], 11 Mar. 1818). According to Stephen Decatur, Jr., there was, among Tobias Lear’s papers, an unsigned letter in the writing of Lear’s son Benjamin Lincoln Lear which Lear obviously intended to send to the newspaper. “I cannot but suspect some error in the Editorial article in your paper of the 10 [11th] inst. & if there should be, & it can be corrected by the Journals of the Senate, I think such correction due to its importance as an historical annecdote. So far from having any personal knowledge of those times to which it relates, I am, on the contrary, a very young man. I suspect the whole, however, must have arisen from the following circumstances.

“From among the nominations made to the Senate by President Washington, at, I believe, the first Session of Congress, that of the Collector of the Port of Charleston [Savannah], was rejected. The President immediately repaired to the Senate Chambers & entered, to the astonishment of every one. The Vice-President left his chair & offered it to the President, who accepted it & then told the Senate that he had come to ask their reasons for rejecting his nomination of Collector &c. After many minutes of embarrassing silence, Genl. [James] Gunn, rose and said, that as he had been the person who had first objected to the nomination, & had probably been the cause of its rejection, it was perhaps his office to speak on this occasion. That his personal respect for the personal character of Genl. Washington was such that he would inform him of his grounds for recommending this rejection, (and he did so,) but that he would have it distinctly understood to be the sense of the Senate, that no explanation of their motives or proceedings was ever due or would ever be given to any President of the United States. Upon which the President withdrew.

“This annecdote I received from one who enjoyed Genl. Washington’s most intimate friendship & to whom the Genl immediately on his return from the Senate Chamber, expressed his very great regret for having gone there” (Decatur, Private Affairs of George Washington, description begins Stephen Decatur, Jr. Private Affairs of George Washington: From the Records and Accounts of Tobias Lear, Esquire, his Secretary. Boston, 1933. description ends 58–59).

No other indication of such a visit to the Senate by GW has been found. No mention of the visit survives in the Senate’s journals, and William Maclay, the indefatigable chronicler of the Senate’s proceedings, was absent because of illness, although he noted on 16 Aug. that “The President, shewed great want of temper, (as Mr. Z [Izard] said) when One of his Nominations was rejected” (Bowling and Veit, Diary of William Maclay, description begins Kenneth R. Bowling and Helen E. Veit, eds. The Diary of William Maclay and Other Notes on Senate Debates. Baltimore, 1988. description ends 121).

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