George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Arthur Fenner, 7 October 1793

From Arthur Fenner

Providence October 7th 1793.


By the Death of my particular Friend Mr Channing the office of Attoy for this District has became vacant. Mr Howell heretofore a Member of Congress and of late practicing Attorney, has I am informed made great exertions to obtain the appointment, he has procured a Number of Signers in this Town to a Petition or application in his favour, & has written I presume to a Number of his acquaintance in the Middle & Southern States to use their influence in his behalf. I think it my duty on this occasion, as Chief Majistrate of the State to trouble your Excellency with a letter on the subject to give such information as may be necessary to form a right opinion in the Case. Ever since Mr Howell has been known as a political Character he has been Violent in his prejudices and fickle in his opinion—his principles of Government have uniformly changed with his interest he is now very unpopular in this State excepting the Mercantile part who at this time for their interest wish to support him; if he obtains the appointment I believe they will rest assured their purposes will be answerd they have therefore combined to obtain the appointment for him and have induced several Gentlemen of their particular connections to join with them. Its matter of regret that so many attempts have been made to evade & Obstruct the execution of the revenue Laws in this Town and perplex the Collector as have come to the knowledge of the Secretary of the Treasury.1 The Collector is as faithful attentive and impartial as any Man can be but has need of every assistance and support in the Power of Government to give him to enable him to carry the Laws of the United States into Execution—It is frequently nec[e]ssary for him to have recourse to the District Attoy in construeing the Laws, and has hitherto been happy in placing the utmost confidence in Mr Channing But if Mr Howell is appointed who has now the conducting of Mr Welcome Arnolds Cause again[s]t the Collector (yet undetermined) he perhaps will have some reason to doubt the sincerity of Mr Howells opinion.2 I am not informed whether the Collector will write to your Excellency on this Occasion or not, but I am warranted in saying that he and Mr Thompson the Naval Officer of this port and Coll Dexter the Supervisor of the District join with me in this opinion I am also informed by good Authority that Mr Ellery the Collector of Newport has given the like opinion freely in decisive terms and I am confident that Judge Marchant if called upon for his sentiments on the subject would decide in like manner.

After saying this much of Mr Howell and Mr Bourne not wishing the appointment I would beg leave to recommend a Gentleman of the Law in this Town, who I have every Reason to believe would be faithful and attentive to the interest of the United States—his Name is David Leonard Barnes he was regularly brought up to the Law in Massachusetts and has been in Practice in that and this State upwards of ten Years he recd his first part of his Legal education under the Honorable William Cushing who has known him from his infancy, and having been acquainted with his practice at the Bar, can give any information respecting his abilities that may be required—I can with confi dence say that his being appointed will have a strong tendency to promote the peace and harmony of the different branches of the Government of the United States in this District.3 General Knox has been here for several days is personally acquainted with both the Gentlemen—has heared their several Characters and will therefore be able on his return to give such further information as may be satisfactory. With every sentiment of esteem I am your Excellency Obedient Friend

A. Fenner.


1The collector at Providence was Jeremiah Olney. The most notable of his clashes with the Providence merchants involved the court case discussed in note 2 below and a bill of impeachment drawn against him on 31 Jan. but evidently not submitted (see Olney to Alexander Hamilton, 18 March, Hamilton Papers description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends , 14:214–18).

2In early November 1792 Olney had detained the brigantine Neptune and its cargo, charging that Welcome Arnold and Edward Dexter had used a “Collusive” transfer of the cargo to avoid customs regulations. Later that month, Arnold commenced a suit against Olney for that detention (Olney to Hamilton, 7 and 28 Nov. 1792, Hamilton Papers description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends , 13:25–27, 243–44). The county court found for Olney in December 1792, but Arnold appealed to the Rhode Island Superior Court.

The suit, which was the subject of much correspondence between Olney and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, was scheduled to be brought before the court on 9 Oct. 1793, but the death of William Channing resulted in a continuance of the case (Olney to Hamilton, 23 Sept. and 21 Oct., Hamilton Papers description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends , 15:341–42, 372). The court’s decision, rendered in April 1794, went against Olney. Olney then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which found in his favor in August 1796. For a full discussion of the case, see Documentary History of the Supreme Court description begins Maeva Marcus et al., eds. The Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789–1800. 8 vols. New York, 1985-2007. description ends , 7:565–624.

3David Leonard Barnes (1760–1812), a 1780 graduate of Harvard who had practiced law in Taunton, Mass., since 1783, was one of the attorneys engaged by Olney to defend Arnold’s suit. He did not receive this appointment, but in 1801 he was appointed a judge of the U.S. District Court for Rhode Island, a post in which he served until his death.

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