George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Stephen Higginson, 17 March 1790

From Stephen Higginson

Boston [Mass.] March 17th 1790


I am induced, by various considerations of a personal nature, to offer myself as a Candidate for some office in the treasury department. that of Inspector, as proposed by the Secretary in his report, would be very agreable.1

persuaded, that proper qualifications can alone recommend me, I shall only observe, that I have too high a veneration for you, & too much regard to my own reputation, to solicit an appointment, was I very doubtful of being useful to the public in such an office. the enclosed letter from mr Bowdoin, will evidence to you his opinion upon that point.2

Should you think proper to honour me with your confidence, it will certainly command my utmost exertions to merit its continuance by a right conduct in office; & I shall ever retain a grateful Sense of the obligation conferred.

With a proper respect to your exalted Station & character, I have the honour to subscribe myself your very humble & most obedient Servant

Stephen Higginson


Stephen Higginson (1743–1828), a prominent Boston merchant, made a fortune in privateering during the American Revolution and served in the Massachusetts legislature in 1782 and in the Continental Congress in 1783. Higginson did not receive a post in the customs service at this time, although he was active in Federalist circles throughout the 1790s.

1In January 1790 the administration publicly opened negotiations to deal with what was perhaps the most important problem facing Washington’s new administration—the establishment of public credit for the new republic. On 21 Sept. 1789 the House of Representatives had stated that “this House consider an adequate provision for the support of the public credit, as a matter of high importance to the national honor and prosperity,” and resolved “That the secretary of the treasury be directed to apply to the supreme executives of the several states, for statements of their public debts; of the funds provided for the payment, in whole or in part of the principal and interest thereof; and of the amount of the loan-office certificates, or other public securities of the United States, in the state treasuries respectively; and that he report to the House such of the said documents as he may obtain, at the next session of 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 3:220). Hamilton’s “Report Relative to a Provision for the Support of Public Credit,” delivered to the House on 14 Jan. 1790, went far beyond the expectations of most congressmen in establishing a blueprint for the political economy of both of GW’s administrations. (For the report, and an introductory note discussing the economic precedents upon which Hamilton relied in its composition, see Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 6:51–168). There is virtually no documentary evidence of discussions between Hamilton and GW on the preparation of his controversial report and its implications for the administration. GW indeed probably found the intricacies of the report on public credit as abstruse as did many of Hamilton’s contemporaries. However, there is no doubt that the president agreed completely with the implied objectives of the secretary of the treasury’s fiscal program to create economic policies designed to produce a strong centralized federal government. The acrimonious debate on the report continued in Congress until June 1790 when a funding bill was sent to the Senate without provision for the assumption of state debts (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 3:442–43).

2The enclosure is presumably James Bowdoin’s letter to GW of 13 March. Bowdoin recommended Higginson, “a gentleman of unexceptionable character,” as inspector for the revenue service in Massachusetts. “His great acquaintance with trade, both in practice & theory, his general knowledge, close application to business, and strict probity, do strongly recommend him; and would enable him I conceive, to Suggest plans to Administration, for the encouragement of trade, and encreasing, at the same time, the revenue arising from it” (DLC:GW).

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