George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Robert Hanson Harrison, 28 September 1789

To Robert Hanson Harrison

New York Sep. 28th 1789.

Dear Sir,

It would be unnecessary to remark to you, that the administration of Justice is the strongest cement of good Government, did it not follow as a consequence that the first organization of the federal Judiciary is essential to the happiness of our Country, and to the stability of our political system.

Under this impression it has been the invariable object of my anxious solicitude to select the fittest characters to expound the Laws and dispense justice. To tell you that this sentiment has ruled me in your nomination to a seat on the Supreme Bench of the United States, would be but to repeat opinions with which you are already well acquainted—opinions which meet a just coincidence in the public Mind.

Your friends, and your fellow-citizens, anxious for the respect of the Court to which you are appointed, will be happy to learn your acceptance—and no one among them will be more so than myself.

As soon as the Acts which are necessary accompaniments of these appointments can be got ready, you will receive official notice of the latter.1 This letter is only to be considered as an early communication of my sentiments on this occasion and as a testimony of the sincere esteem and regard with which I am Dear Sir Your Most Obedt and Affectionate Hble Servt

Go: Washington

ALS, DNA: RG 266, HR 22A-B1, HR–155; DfS, partly in GW’s writing, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters; LB, DLC:GW.

Robert Hanson Harrison (1745–1790) was born in Charles County, Md., but moved to Virginia before 1765 when he was certified to practice law in Fairfax County. Harrison was active in Patriot circles in Alexandria in the early 1770s and in November 1775 became one of Washington’s aides-de-camp with the rank of lieutenant colonel, a post he held until March 1781. After the war Harrison settled in Maryland and was appointed chief judge of Maryland’s General Court.

1Harrison replied to GW’s offer of a seat on the court on 27 Oct.: “I received on the 9th Instt your very obliging & interesting Favor of the 28th Ulto—and request you to be assured, that the perusal of it, for the matter and the manner of the communication, filled me with every emotion, which friendship & gratitude could inspire.

“In the first place permit me, My Dear Sir, to apologize for the time, which has elapsed without this acknowledgement. On no occasion of my life have I been under an embarrasment so painful. It is at length with a difficulty almost inconceivable, after revolving every circumstance, & after many days & nights of anxious sollicitude, that I have come to a final determination that I cannot but decline the appointment. On the one hand, a sincere & lively gratitude for the honour conferred by the public, and the transcendent proof of your regard & confidence; an animated love to our Country; an attachment to the Government not yet compleatly organized; a conviction that it is incumbent on every virtuous Citizen to exert his endeavours in rendering it firm, respectable & happy: All these considerations pressed powerfully on my mind, and at times almost irresistibly urged my acceptance. On the other hand, considerations which at first sight may not appear so striking, laudable & weighty, disuaded & restrained me.

“In the most favourable view of the Subject it appeared, that the duties required from a Judge of the Supreme Court would be extremely difficult & burthensome, even to a Man of the most active comprehensive mind; and vigorous frame. I conceived this would be the case, if he should reside at the Seat of Government; and, in any other view of my residence I apprehended, that as a Judge sollicitous to discharge my trust, I must hazard, in an eminent degree, the loss of my health, and sacrafice a very large portion of my private and domestic happiness. Should I however, enter on the duties, required by my appointment, I should be constrained to take the more unfavourable residence, from the circumstances of my family.” Harrison’s younger brother William had recently died, and Harrison had assumed responsibility for his young family. “When I tell you, My dear Sir, in addition to these most interesting considerations, that I feel a distrust of my competency to the arduous & exalted Station, and a full persuasion that my declining it will not be attended with any public detriment—I flatter myself, you will think me at least justified to my own conscience. It is my ardent wish to be justified in your opinion. Be assured that no circumstance of my life ever caused me so much anxiety & doubt. The alternative before me was either to act against the dictates of my own Judgement, to forego the considerations of my domestic happiness, and in a great measure to desert the interests of those, with whom I am connected by the dearest ties; or, in appearance, to slight the calls of my Country—it’s proffered honours, and (what infinitely concerns me) the duty I owe to your inestimable disinterested friendship. I entreat you to pardon the detail of private matters” (DNA:PCC, item 59).

Harrison wrote GW a second letter on the same day, acknowledging receipt of the commission, which GW had forwarded on 30 Sept., and again declining the post. Reiterating his reasons for doing so, he stated that “these considerations, Sir, and one more, of still greater weight—a distrust of my competency to the arduous & exalted Station” (DNA: RG 59, Letters of Resignation and Declination). On 14 Nov. James McHenry wrote GW that he had held several conversations with Harrison on the subject of his appointment, “and from what he says I cannot but think he was greatly influenced in returning the commission from an apprehension you might be embarrassed should he have kept it longer for consideration. No one except myself is yet acquainted with what he has done, and he assured me this morning, before leaving town, that he thought he had been premature, and wished to be again in possession of the commission, although he was by no means certain that he would finally be enabled to come to a different determination.

“Well knowing the value of this man his goodness of heart and unalterable attachment to you, I thought it my duty to communicate these circumstances in hopes that it may not yet be too late to place him in a situation for further deliberation. My own opinion is that he will serve in case his brother in law dies, an event which I look upon to be at no great distance from a letter I have seen of Dr Brown’s on the subject.

“I hope most sincerely that your health has been improved by your journey. If the secret and public wishes of good men can conduce to this end it will be a long time before you will have any need of the faculty. But you have created a new fountain of blessings. In your nominations and appointments you have had respect to want and wretchedness, where united with worth and capacity, and have thereby drawn upon you more prayers and gratitude than has ever fallen to the lot of any dead or living Sovereign prince or first magistrate whatever” (DLC:GW).

GW answered Harrison’s misgivings on 25 Nov.: “I find that one of the reasons, which induced you to decline the appointment, rests on an idea that the Judicial Act will remain unaltered. But in respect to that circumstance, I may suggest to you, that such a change in the system is contemplated, and deemed expedient by many in, as well as out of Congress, as would permit you to pay as much attention to your private affairs as your present station does.

“As the first Court will not sit until the first Monday in Febry, I have thought proper to return your Commission, not for the sake of urging you to accept it contrary to your interest or convenience, but with a view of giving you a farther opportunity of informing yourself of the nature & probability of the change alluded to. This you would be able to do with the less risque of mistake, if you should find it convenient to pass sometime here, when a considerable number of Members of both houses of Congress shall have assembled; and this might be done before it would become indispensable to fill the place offered to you. If, on the other hand, your determination is absolutely fixed, you can, without much trouble, send back the Commission, under cover.

“Knowing as you do the candid part which I wish to act on all occasions; you will I am persuaded, do me the justice to attribute my conduct in this particular instance to the proper motives, when I assure you that I would not have written this letter if I had imagined it would produce any new embarrassment. On the contrary you may rest assured, that I shall be perfectly satisfied with whatever determination may be consonant to your best judgment & most agreeable to yourself (ALS, DNA: RG 233, HR 22 A-B1, HR–155). GW’s comments on the court follow closely an undated paper in John Jay’s handwriting, probably presented to the president by the acting secretary of state, headed “Remarks respecting Mr Harrisons objections” (DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters). Alexander Hamilton also urged Harrison to reconsider: “One of your objections I think will be removed—I mean that which relates to the nature of the establishment. Many concur in opinion that its present form is inconvenient, if not impracticable” (27 Nov. 1789, in Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 5:562).

Harrison apparently decided to accept GW’s suggestion for a visit to the capital. On 21 Jan. 1790 he wrote the president from Bladensburg, Md.: “I left home on the 14th Instt with a view of making a Journey to New York, and after being several days detained at Alexandria by indisposition came thus far on the way. I now unhappily find myself in such a situation, as not to be able to proceed further. From this unfortunate event and the apprehension that my indisposition may continue, I pray you to consider that I cannot accept the Appointment of an Associate Judge, with which I have been honoured. What I do, My dear Sir, is the result of the most painful and distressing necessity.

“I intreat that you will receive the warmest returns of my gratitude for the distinguished proofs I have had of your flattering and invaluable esteem & confidence” (DNA: RG 233, HR 22 A-B1, HR–155). This was presumably Harrison’s final notification to the president of his intentions although a letter from Tobias Lear to Thomas Jefferson, 29 July 1791, enclosing commissions lists Harrison as declining his appointment on 26 Dec. 1789 (DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters). Harrison died on 2 April 1790 at his home near Port Tobacco in Charles County, Maryland.

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