Stuff was a lot harder for George Washington

Warning: History nerd alert.

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, 1797

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, 1797

Times change, to state the obvious. I previously noted that before the 20th century there had never been a Senate committee hearing at all on a Supreme Court nomination, and the first time a nominee actually showed up for one was 1939. But I just stumbled on a Washington Post “Retropolis” piece from earlier this month that recapped the process for the very first spate of such nominations, when George Washington was president, and neither tweets, TV, telephones nor telegraphy had been invented. The highlights include:

Washington nominated the first six Supreme Court justices on Sept. 24, 1789, moments after Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1789. Though the Supreme Court was described in Article III of the brand-new Constitution, the act was needed to establish the details, such as how many justices there would be (six at the time). It also established the rest of the federal court system and the position of attorney general.

Within two days, all of the nominees — John Blair Jr. of Virginia, William Cushing of Massachusetts, Robert Harrison of Maryland, John Jay of New York, John Rutledge of South Carolina and James Wilson of Pennsylvania — were confirmed by voice vote in the Senate. It happened so fast, it’s likely some didn’t even know they were nominated. After all, back then, news traveled at the speed of a horse.

Which turned out to be a problem. Harrison, who had served side by side with Washington during the Revolutionary War, wrote the president to decline the job. “I must hazard, in an eminent degree, the loss of my health,” he wrote. He was too sick to make the trip to the temporary capital in New York City, he said.

Washington and another friend, Alexander Hamilton, wrote Harrison back, begging him to reconsider. Months later, Harrison attempted to make the journey, but turned back before he made it out of Maryland. He again declined the position, and died a few months later.

Have a great weekend.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 09/21/2018 - 09:20 pm.

    Gives one a glimpse of how important (or unimportant) people thought the job was before Justice John Marshall..

  2. Submitted by carl brookins on 09/24/2018 - 07:31 am.

    Can somebody explain why a properly vetted candidate for any high Federal judgeship and the Supreme Court should have anything to discuss with the Senate, other than his or her judicial philosophy? Questions about a nominee’s youthful peccadilloes should have been dealt with before the nomination is sent forward. Apparently this White House avoided a real background check in the hopes such questions would never arise.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 09/24/2018 - 08:48 am.

      Well, beyond judicial philosophy it is also important to analyze if the candidate is truthful in their testimony.

      Beyond youthful peccadilloes (AKA: sexual assaults shortly before and after gaining the age of majority), Kavanaugh’s lack of truthfulness in testimony while serving GWB was cheerfully excused by the Trump / GOP team. Now they would like to do the same about “youthful peccadilloes” and lying about it.

      He gone…

      And the real question could become:

      “Will Senate Majority Leader Schumer invoke the McConnell rule and leave the next confirmation process to after the 2020 election?

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