the “proudest act” of John Adams’ life

I can’t think of a better way to kick off this series. A fellow intern took my picture with this document, and my wife says I look happier in that photo than in our engagement pictures. What you see here is, of course, John Adams’ nomination of John Marshall to serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. The Marshall nomination is stored in the Legislative Treasures Vault, unlike most of the Center’s holdings. The Vault is one of the most high-security rooms in the United States. Nicolas Cage wouldn’t dream of breaking in.

As far as I’m aware, this is the only Supreme Court nomination message that mentions a recent declination–that is, all other nominees are chosen “in the place of,” “to replace,” or “vice” (used as a preposition) the incumbent, if the incumbent is mentioned at all. Also notice that the nomination message seems to have been written in Adams’ own hand. Even before the messages were printed (which didn’t happen until late 1902 or early 1903), DIY drafting was definitely not the norm. I haven’t seen enough of Adams’ messages to know for certain whether he bothered to draft the less consequential nominations himself. His son, for instance, merely autographed the message nominating his (JQA’s) principal cabinet members and left the composition to someone else.

Note that the message was sent not from the “Executive Mansion” or the “President’s House” but from the “United States.” Both Washington and Adams followed this convention. (Subsequent presidents, at least by Monroe’s time, referred to the place of signature as “Washington.” Later versions were “Executive Mansion,” “White House,” and “The White House.”) I wish I knew why Adams selected “a Chief Justice,” not “the Chief Justice.” Also notice the ink blot at the top. Could the president not have tested his quill pen on one of Jefferson’s campaign posters?

The message itself contains zero punctuation. By comparison, Adams’ message nominating his son to be Minister Plenipotentiary to Prussia still lacks the vocative comma but does contain one: “I nominate John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, to be Minister Plenipotentiary . . .”  From what few Washington messages I’ve seen, our first president seems to have punctuated his nominations sufficiently. E.g., “Gentleman of the Senate, I nominate Jurist McCertworthy, of Juritania, to be Librarian of Mount Vernon, in the place of William Maclay, who has time only for his blasted diary.”

Washington, Adams, and Jefferson addressed their nominations’ recipients as “Gentlemen of the Senate.” Presidents Monroe through Obama have begun, “To the Senate,” “I nominate to the Senate,” “To the Senate of the United States,” or something similar. Also take a look at the date of the Marshall nomination. Had inaugurations been regulated by the terms of the 20th Amendment in Adams’ day, this really would have been a midnight appointment!

Marshall had been serving as Secretary of State since June 1800. Adams spent that summer in Peacefield (where he would soon return permanently), during which time he “left Marshall in charge.” “From July through October 1800,” Jean Edward Smith tells us, “Marshall was America’s de facto chief executive.” After Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth’s resignation in December due to ill health, Adams could waste no time in finding a replacement. The lame-duck Federalist Congress was eagerly pushing a measure to reduce the size of the Court to five. If Adams couldn’t name a successor and have him confirmed, this legislation would enable Jefferson to nominate a new Chief (though presumably from among the five sitting members). Adams didn’t receive Jay’s declination until shortly before January 20, and he needed a willing, confirmable nominee immediately. As Marshall later told Justice Joseph Story,

When I waited on the President with Mr. Jays letter declining the appointment he said, ‘Who shall I nominate now?’ I replied that I could not tell . . . After a moments hesitation he said ‘I believe I must nominate you.’ I had never before heard myself named for the office and had not even thought of it. I was pleased as well as surprized, and bowed in silence. Next Day I was nominated.

Talk about being in the right place at the right time. For more on the Marshall nomination, see this article and Chapter 6 of this book.