178
178
Washington, George, first President
Estimate
40,00060,000
JUMP TO LOT
178
Washington, George, first President
Estimate
40,00060,000
JUMP TO LOT

Details & Cataloguing

The JAMES S. COPLEY LIBRARY: MAGNIFICENT AMERICAN HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS: FIRST SELECTION

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Washington, George, first President
Autograph letter signed ("Go: Washington"), 2 pages (9 1/8 x 7 1/4 in.; 231 x 185 mm), Mount Vernon, 31 August 1788, to Thomas Johnson (at Frederick, Maryland); masterfully silked, a few pinholes. Half blue morocco folding case.
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Literature

The Writings of George Washington, ed. Fitzpatrick, 30:77–79

Catalogue Note

Washington hotly denies meddling in Maryland's process of ratifying the Constitution or "attempt[ing] to make proselytes, or to obtrude my opinions with a view to influence the judgment of any one."

Maryland's ratification convention voted convincingly in favor of the Constitution, 63–11, 26 April 1788. But prior to that, there had been speculation that the "Old Line State" would suspend her convention in order to see which way Virginia voted.

On 20 April, in the midst of this controversy, Washington wrote to Thomas Johnson, Governor of Maryland and one of her convention's strongest supporters of ratification, to warn "that an adjournment, (if attempted), of your Convention to a later period than the decision of the Question in this State, will be tantamount to the rejection of the Constitution. I have good ground for this opinion, and am told it is the blow which the leading characters of the opposition in these two States have mediated, if it shall be found that a direct attack is not likely to succeed in yours. If this is true, it cannot be too much deprecated, and guarded against" (Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick, 29:463). Washington asked that Johnson forgive him if he had "exceeded the proper limit," and that he was motivated only by the desire to see the Country rise above public and private intrigues.

Some four months later Washington was told by some political schemer that Johnson had deeply resented his commentary. In the present letter he brusquely asks Johnson for clarification:

"I shall be obliged to you for informing me, what foundation there is for so much of the following extract of a letter from Doctr. Brooke at Fredericksburgh, to Doctr. Stuart of this County, as relates to the officious light in which my conduct was viewed for havg. written the letter alluded to.

" 'Since then, I was informed by the Honourable James Mercer, that his Brother Colo. John Mercer, who was at that time (July 10th) in this town, was furnished with documents to prove, that General Washington had wrote a letter upon the present Constitution, to Governor Johnson of Maryland; and that Governor Johnson was so much displeased with the officiousness of General Washington, as to induce him to take an active part in bringing about the amendments proposed by a committee of the Convention of Maryland.'

"If the letter which I wrote to you at Annapolis, while the Convention of your state was in Session, was so considered, I have only to regret that it ever escaped me. My motives were declared. Having such proofs as were satisfactory to me, that, the intention of the leaders of opposition was to effect an adjournment of your Convention (if a direct attack should be found unlikely to succeed) I conceived that a hint of it could not be displeasing to the Supporters of the proposed Constitution, in which light, as well from a letter I had received from you, as from universal report & belief, I had placed you—for I defy any anti-foederalist to say, with truth, that I ever wrote to, or exchanged a word with him on the subject of the New Constitution if (the latter) was not forced upon me in a manner not to be avoided. Nothing therefore could be more foreign from my design than to attempt to make proselytes, or to obtrude my opinions with a view to influence the judgment of any one. The first wish of my heart, from the beginning of the business, was, that a dispassionate enquiry, free from sinister & local considerations might, under the exisiting & impending circumstances of this Country, (which could not be unknown to any Man of observation & reflexion) take place; and an impartial judgment formed of it.

"I have no other object, Sir, for making this enquiry than merely to satisfy myself whether the information (for information was all I had in view) was considered by you as an improper interference on my part, or, that the documents, and interpretation of this matter, by Colo. Mercer, is the effect of one of those mistakes, which he is so apt to fall into."

Johnson replied to Washington with fond surprise, 10 October. "I lately received your Letter of the 31st of August, scarce any Thing could have surprised me more than the Occasion of it for instead of being displeased I thought myself much Obliged by the letter you wrote me in the Time of our Convention. To strenghten the Friends of the new Constitution and expedite its Adoption I showed that, and other Letters, containing much the same Information and Sentimts. to some Gent. and mentioned them to others—a strange Conduct had I been under the Impressions suggested! Nor do I recollect any Conduct of mine which can be called active to bring about any Amendments—I was not well pleased at the manner of our breaking up, I thought it to our discredit and should be better pleased with the Constitution with some Alterations, but I am very far from wishing all that were proposed to take place."

Taking his cue from Washington, Johnson places the blame for the misunderstanding squarely on James Mercer. And to underscore that he could never find Washington's actions officious, Johnson urges him to recognize that he will shortly be called upon to fill the office of the presidency: "We cannot Sir do without you and I and thousands more can explain to anyone but yourself why we cannot do without you" (quoted in Delaplaine, Life of Thomas Johnson (1927), pp. 459–60).

Johnson's soft answer successfully turned away Washington's wrath; three years later, President Washington appointed him to the Supreme Court.

The JAMES S. COPLEY LIBRARY: MAGNIFICENT AMERICAN HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS: FIRST SELECTION

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New York