George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Joseph Habersham, 10 August 1796

From Joseph Habersham

Philadelphia 10th August 1796.


I take the Liberty to enclose you a Letter from Mr Clay, who is a Candidate for the appointment of District Judge of the State of Georgia, which he has been informed is vacant by the resignation of Judge Pendleton.

Mr Clay is a Man of Honour and Virtue, and I have reason to think that he is well qualified for the appointment for which he is a Candidate, but as he is a distant connection of mine it is probable that I may overrate his Merit on this occasion. I have the Honour to be, with great respect, Sir, Your most obedient humble servant

Jos. Habersham


Habersham enclosed a letter from Joseph Clay, Jr. to GW dated 25 July: “Having been informed that Judge Pendleton has forwarded to you the resignation of his office as Judge of the district of Georgia I take the liberty of proposing myself to your Excellency as a candidate for that office” (ALS, DLC:GW; see also Nathaniel Pendleton to GW, 30 July).

Joseph Clay, Jr. (1764–1811) graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1784 and practiced law in Savannah. His father, a prominent Georgia planter and merchant, was Habersham’s cousin.

Henry William DeSaussure wrote GW from Charleston, S.C., on 6 Aug.: “The kindness which I experienced at Your hands in calling me unsolicited to an office of Trust, and in bestowing a liberal approbation of my conduct in that office, emboldens me to make application to you on the behalf of a friend and a man of worth, who is desirous to be honored with your Confidence. It is understood that Mr Justice Pendleton is about to resign the office of District Judge of the state of Georgia—Mr Joseph Clay Junr of Georgia, is disposed to be a Candidate for that Office, and he is desirous that this inclination should be made known to you. He is not willing to obtain that by solicitation, to wch his general character may not be deemed to entitle him. Yet he apprehends that the privacy which he has heretofore cultivated, may have prevented your attaining much knowledge of his Character—Under these Circumstances I venture to assure you from long & Intimate acquaintance with him, that he is distinguished for uniting a sound Judgment with firm Integrity and mild amiable manners. He is also eminent in his profession.

“Thus much I have said, because to have said less would have been less than the truth—to say more might be deemed to proceed from my friendship.

“I am fearful that I owe an apology for Interfering in relation to an appointment in another state—Should it be deemed Improper, I hope I may find Shelter in the purity of my motive. Perhaps too afflicted as that state is by violent parties, the estimation in which a Gentleman is held in a neighbouring state may be deemed valuable Information, in forming a Judgment of Character. In this respect the testimony of Carolina would be favorable to Mr Clay: He is greatly respected by all the Carolinians who have had opportunities of knowing him” (ALS, DLC:GW). DeSaussure had served as director of the U.S. Mint. For approbation of his official conduct, see GW to DeSaussure, 1 Nov. 1795.

Secretary of State Timothy Pickering wrote GW on 24 Aug.: “Yesterday I received a letter from Mr Desaussure, late Director of the Mint, in answer to one I had written to him about some law business, in the close of which is the following paragraph.

“‘Permit me, sir, to say one word to you on the behalf of a friend who would accept the office of District Judge of Georgia, which Judge Pendleton has communicated his intention to resign. Mr Joseph Clay junior will be a candidate for that office. I know him perfectly well, and I know him to be a man of fine talents & sound integrity. He is attached to the General Government, & has not meddled in the party disputes in Georgia. My attachment to him impels me to state his character to you.’

“I beg leave to add, that yesterday Mr Habersham, the postmaster general, called on me, and upon being pressed, was more explicit than I understood him to have been in his letter to you. His answers correspond exactly with the character given of Mr Clay by Mr DeSaussure, and with what I understood from Mr Wolcott was expressed to him by the Chief Justice, Mr Elsworth” (ALS, DLC:GW; LB, DNA: RG 59, GW’s Correspondence with His Secretaries of State).

Georgia congressman Abraham Baldwin wrote GW from Long Branch, probably Monmouth County, N.J., in August: “I am just informed that the office of District Judge in the State of Georgia is become vacant by the resignation of Judge Pendleton.

“It is a trust on which the good order of the government, as well as the satisfaction of the people so much depends, that I cannot forbear to express my opinion and wishes on the subject of filling that vacancy. The State is at this time unhappily in a situation to make it more than commonly difficult to collect that satisfactory information which is desirable in making such appointments. I submit my opinion with the expectation that it may be compared and crossed by the information and opinions received from others that a proper result may more readily be seen. Since the death of the late Judge Houstoun, of which I am just informed, who had very respectable recommendations to that office when the first appointment was made, my opinion is that Joseph Clay Jr Esqr. is the person most proper to be appointed to the office. His name has been before brought into the view of the President, if I mistake not, by a unanimous recommendation from the Senators and Representatives of that State, for the appointment of attorney General of the United States at the time when the late Mr Bradford was appointed. Their unanimous opinion at that time is perhaps a stronger testimony in his favor, than can at this time be obtained for any one.

“I have intimately known him for many years, and have known few persons, who have possessed so great a share of my respect. He is a native of Savannah, of the most respectable connexions. He received a regular education at Princeton College, I have often heard Dr Witherspoon and Dr Smith observe that they had known few superior to him at that College. He received his law education under Dr Wythe at Williamsburgh in Virginia. His natural talents are very distinguishing. His virtues and moral character have been uncommonly respected from his childhood. He has been a steady friend to the present form of the constitution of the United States; and I have no doubt will discharge the duties of a Judge in a manner to reflect dignity on the government and to procure the respect and confidence of the people” (ALS, DLC:GW). Regular wagons ran between Philadelphia and the beachside resort called Long Branch during the summer season (see Philadelphia Gazette and Universal Daily Advertiser, 10 July 1794, 17 June 1795). John Houstoun had died on 20 July 1796. No recommendations have been identified for his appointment as district judge in 1789, but he received recommendations for appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court (see James Gunn to GW, 7 March 1791, found at John Rutledge to GW, 5 March 1791, n.1; see also Gunn to GW, 11 Feb. 1793). No recommendation from the Georgia delegation to Congress to appoint Clay as attorney general, probably dated early 1794, has been identified.

Samuel Stanhope Smith (1751–1819), a professor at Princeton while Clay was a student, succeeded his father-in-law John Witherspoon as president of the college in 1795 and served until 1812.

A letter from Pickering to Clay written on 16 Sept. announced his appointment as district judge for Georgia and enclosed his commission (DNA: RG 59, Domestic Letters). For unsuccessful aspirants, see George Walton to GW, 1 April, n.4; Matthew McAllister to GW, 10 June; and William Stephens to GW, 8 August.

Index Entries