George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Timothy Pickering, 3 September 1790

From Timothy Pickering

Philadelphia Septr 3d 1790.

Sir,

Generally speaking, no task could be imposed on me so ungrateful as that of applying for a public office.1 In the present instance, however, I feel little reluctance in doing it; because I know the application will be duly noticed, and the ultimate decision, whether for or against me, be governed by a just regard to the interests of the United States.

By some of my friends I am informed that Mr Osgood is determined to resign the office of postmaster-general, to which they wish me to succeed.2 They represent it as an office to which I am competent; & I should myself conceive it not difficult to execute. Its emoluments, I find, are not very tempting; but with economy may support my family. In all events the office would now be desirable to me. For my appointments in Luzerne county are of inconsiderable value;3 and my present situation there is in all respects precarious. If the people of this state should elect for their governor a man who would do real honour to that important station, I should entertain no doubt of a reappointment; but at present there appears too much ground to fear they will make a very different choice. But besides that my offices are of much less value than I was led to expect, & may be of short duration, the tenure of my lands is now rendered uncertain. The General Assembly, at their sessions last spring, with that mischievous instability which characterizes a single legislature, repealed the law, passed three years before, for confirming the titles of the Connecticut settlers at Wyoming.4 That confirming law was the foundation of peace, and the sole ground of my removal to that country. The repeal has again set the titles afloat, and in consequence, the Pennsylvania claimants are now about bringing numerous actions of ejectment against us. Should the decisions of the courts be in their favour, I shall of course lose my lands, on which I very much depended for the maintenance of my family. These evils, which are likely to continue for years, are attended with another which affects me very sensibly: they prevent the establishment of a school where my sons (I have seven)5 may be tolerably educated; and I have not the means of sending them from home.

These considerations, I hope sir, will sufficiently apologize to you for the trouble of this application.6 I have the honour to be, with great respect, sir, your most obedient servant,

Timothy Pickering

ALS, DLC:GW; ADfS, MHi: Timothy Pickering Papers.

Timothy Pickering (1745–1829) was a Salem, Mass., native who graduated from Harvard College in 1763. He commenced his military career as colonel of the Essex County militia and presented to GW in July 1775 a copy of the drill manual that he had just published. During the Revolution he held the posts of adjutant general of the Continental Army, president of the Board of War, and quartermaster general. After the war he formed a partnership with Samuel Hodgdon in Philadelphia as commission merchants and also speculated in Pennsylvania lands (Pickering to GW, 1775 and note 1; Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, description begins J. L. Sibley et al. Sibley’s Harvard Graduates: Biographical Sketches of Those Who Attended Harvard College. 18 vols. to date. Boston, 1873–. description ends 15:448–59).

1As Pickering had unsuccessfully solicited from Alexander Hamilton the office of assistant secretary of the treasury when William Duer resigned in early April 1790 (Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 6:355–56, 416), GW had probably been aware of Pickering’s difficulties before sitting down to dinner with him and other members of the Pennsylvania constitutional convention on 2 Sept. 1790 (Pickering to Rebecca White Pickering, 6 Sept. 1790, MHi: Timothy Pickering Papers). Throughout 1790 and 1791 Pickering continued to seek a permanent federal appointment. In the spring of 1791 after the death of Nicholas Eveleigh, the comptroller of the treasury, Pickering wrote to the president declaring his competency for that vacancy (Pickering to GW, 2 May 1791, DLC:GW). After Samuel Osgood finally resigned as postmaster general, GW appointed Pickering in his place in August 1791 at an annual salary of $2,000. Pickering remained in GW’s cabinet, succeeding Henry Knox as secretary of war in January 1795 and Edmund Randolph as secretary of state that December (Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends 20:220, 226; Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, description begins J. L. Sibley et al. Sibley’s Harvard Graduates: Biographical Sketches of Those Who Attended Harvard College. 18 vols. to date. Boston, 1873–. description ends 15:461).

2Samuel Hodgdon informed Pickering on 28 May 1790 of a report circulating in Philadelphia that Samuel Osgood was about to resign his position as postmaster general. “Should that be the case, that is an employment of all others which I should think acceptable to you” (MHi: Timothy Pickering Papers). On 2 Aug. 1790 U.S. senator Paine Wingate of New Hampshire, Pickering’s brother-in-law, wrote to Pickering: “It is said that Mr Osgood will resign his place when Congress shall remove. If his place would be agreeable to you it is my wish you might obtain it—As the post office bill is only continued until the next session of congress I suppose no new Post master general will be now appointed, but if he should resign (which I hardly think likely) before the next meeting of congress the President would appoint one to succeed. . . . I think you will probably see the President at Philadelphia & may it not be worth while for you to let him know your sentiments respecting the appointment” (MHi: Timothy Pickering Papers).

3In June 1785 Pickering purchased ten thousand acres in the Wyoming Valley of the Susquehanna River and began building a house in the new settlement of Wilkes-Barre. The territory had been settled largely by Connecticut emigrants who acquired their titles from the Susquehanna Company, but a judicial decision confirmed Pennsylvania’s right to the area, and the state legislature made conflicting grants of the land. Pickering obtained limited legislative recognition of the Connecticut titles by Pennsylvania, but the disputes continued, and the disorder often degenerated into armed violence. Pickering was mobbed at least twice in the 1780s (Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, 15:459–60).

In October 1786 the Pennsylvania legislature appointed Pickering as judge, clerk of common pleas, register of wills and deeds, and judge of the probate court of newly organized Luzerne County, and he held his first sessions in June 1787. In November 1789 he complained of “the unlooked for smallness [of] income from my numerous offices,” amounting to fifty dollars cash in three years. “This disappointment has arisen chiefly from those disturbances which have defeated the plan agreed on by the General Assembly for adjusting the disputed titles to the lands there, prevented the population of the county, hindered improvements among the people already there, delayed the opening of practical roads to bring their surplus to market & indeed prevented their raising a surplus of any consequence: of course you see the people have as yet had no way to acquire money; & consequently have had none for me” (Pickering to George Williams, 24 Nov. 1789, MHi: Timothy Pickering Papers; see also Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, description begins J. L. Sibley et al. Sibley’s Harvard Graduates: Biographical Sketches of Those Who Attended Harvard College. 18 vols. to date. Boston, 1873–. description ends 15:459–60).

4The Pennsylvania legislature passed on 28 Mar. 1787 “An Act for ascertaining and confirming to certain persons, called Connecticut claimants, the lands by them claimed within the county of Luzerne, and for other purposes therein mentioned.” The act of repeal was passed on 1 April 1790 despite intense lobbying by Pickering (Boyd, Susquehannah Company Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd and Robert J. Taylor, eds. The Susquehannah Company Papers. 11 vols. Ithaca, N.Y., and London, 1930–71. description ends 10:29–129; Syrett, Hamilton Papers description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends , 6:356, n.4).

5In April 1776 Pickering married Rebecca White, and the couple eventually had ten children, including sons John, Timothy, Octavius, and George, each of whom attended Harvard College, and Henry, William, and Edward.

6Pickering did not immediately deliver his 3 Sept. 1790 letter to the president. He met with GW later that day and discussed the possibility of being employed as a commissioner to the Seneca Indians. Pickering wrote to his wife three days later: “The General expressed himself in the most friendly & confidential manner to me; and I was thence the more encouraged to present a letter to him requesting an appointment to a certain permanent office when it becomes vacant, which it will be in about three months. I had written the letter the very morning of the day on which he spoke to me about the Indian business: but I did not send it to him until last evening. It is a subject for his consideration only, & I do not expect an answer at this time” (Pickering to Rebecca White Pickering, 6 Sept. 1790, MHi: Timothy Pickering Papers).

Only on 5 Sept. 1790 did Pickering send his earlier letter, under cover of one reading: “The inclosed letter was written last Friday before you spoke to me on the Indian business. The proofs of your confidence in me since more than once expressed, furnish an additional motive for presenting it” (Pickering to GW, 5 Sept. 1790 [first letter], MHi: Timothy Pickering Papers; see also GW to Pickering, 4 Sept. 1790 and notes).

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