Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase died on May 7, 1873. Morrison Waite wasn’t confirmed to succeed him for over eight months, but that wasn’t for want of presidential effort. Ulysses Grant offered the Chief Justice position to seven candidates, formally nominating three of them.
Grant’s first offer went to Roscoe Conkling, a close personal friend, political ally, and powerful U.S. Senator. Conkling quickly disqualified himself, citing his lack of judicial experience. Grant then turned to a close associate with judicial experience—Attorney General George H. Williams. Williams was a district judge in Iowa from 1847-52. President Pierce appointed him Chief Justice of the Oregon Territorial Supreme Court in 1853. He served as a delegate to the Oregon Constitutional Convention in 1857 and left the bench in 1858. The state legislature Williams helped design elected him to the U.S. Senate in 1865, where he served until 1871, including a stint on the all-important Joint Committee on Reconstruction. He was a member of the joint Anglo-American commission to settle the Alabama Claims, and he’d been serving as Attorney General since December 1871. Grant sent Williams’ Chief Justice nomination to the Senate on December 1, 1873.
Yet despite Williams’ prominence, his nomination evoked a “storm of adverse reactions. . . . Both the bar and the press were severely critical of his achievements and his promise.” Henry Abraham shares these critics’ low estimates of Williams’ abilities, writing that the nominee’s “record as attorney general was undistinguished and his talents as a lawyer were clearly mediocre”; the flak-dispensers “rightly deemed Williams to be lacking in stature.” Angered and aggrieved at this hostile reception, Williams asked Grant to withdraw his nomination.
Grant fulfilled Williams’ request on January 8, 1874, in some of the most cursive prose you’ll ever see: