Building a nation depends not only on the laws that define the government, but also on the quality of the individuals who serve it. President George Washington, as he filled the various offices of the new federal government throughout 1789, fully understood the importance of selecting able men. He brought into his Cabinet some of the brightest minds in the country, including the champion of the rights of man, Thomas Jefferson, as Secretary of State, and the apostle of a strong central government, Alexander Hamilton, as Secretary of the Treasury. For other offices of the government, Washington sought men with strong local ties and a deep commitment to the new nation. Edmond Randolph, for example, the first Attorney General, was a prominent Virginian who served the new country by fighting in the Revolutionary War and representing Virginia in the Second Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention. By drafting such men as Randolph, Jefferson, and Hamilton, Washington tried to balance the need for a powerful national government against the jealously protected rights of the states.
Washington considered the several offices created by the Judiciary Act of 1789 of premier importance to the new nation. "Impressed with a conviction that the due administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good Government," he wrote Randolph on September 28, four days after signing the Act into law, "I have considered the first arrangement of the Judicial department as essential to the happiness of our Country, and to the stability of its political system; hence the selection of the fittest characters to expound the laws, and dispense justice, has been an invariable object of my anxious concern." The Supreme Court Justices, the Attorney General, the district court judges and attorneys, the court clerks, and the United States Marshals would define, administer, and enforce the growing body of federal laws. By their actions, these men would determine the boundary between federal authority and local autonomy.
The President carefully considered whom to appoint to the judiciary offices. Long before the bill reached his desk, he consulted with his advisors and reviewed the credentials of the various candidates. Many of them he knew personally. By the time the bill was ready for his signature, Washington had made most of his selections.
On September 26, 1789, he signed the commissions of thirteen Marshals. He spent most of Thursday, October 1, dispatching "many of the Commissions of the Judiciary Judges, Marshals, and Attorneys." This work also occupied most of the President's time the next day. Ever conscious of the importance of each office, Washington chose men on whom he could depend to support the federal government without endangering the rights of the states.
The first generation of United States Marshals appointed by Washington proved their commitment to the new nation in time of war, yet their strong ties to their local communities ensured their respect for the individual states.
According to one historian, Washington's Marshals were "an able group of men. . .representing on the whole a type that was politically active." During Washington's first administration, Congress created sixteen judicial Districts. The first Marshal in each of these Districts provides a good sample from which to draw generalizations about Washington's appointees. Each state constituted one judicial District, except Massachusetts which was divided into the Districts of Massachusetts and Maine. (Maine did not become a state until 1820.) In addition, the territory of Kentucky, which did not enter the union as a state until 1792, was one of the original judicial Districts. By 1791, Washington had appointed the first Marshal for each of the original sixteen Districts.
The sixteen men who composed the first generation of United States Marshals set a number of precedents that have been followed with relative consistency down to the present day. They were loyal, dedicated men who had served their country in the past and were prepared to serve it again. Most were prominent in their communities and had strong political connections. Most were members of the president's political party, loyal and sympathetic to his programs, and opposed to his political opponents. Consequently, most lost their job as Marshal when another party came to power.
In general, Washington chose men who were well-respected and active in the affairs of their local communities and states. Most had spent many years, if not their entire lives, in their Districts and had established strong connections within the local political structures. Washington expected them to support the courts and the federal government within their Districts, but to do so in such a way that the community chauvinism would not be offended. Because they were products of these communities and sympathetic to local pride, the first generation of Marshals was generally successful in carrying out this dual assignment.
In addition to their local ties, the first Marshals shared a national commitment. Fourteen served in the military during the Revolutionary War. By the end of the war, one, the youngest, was a private; one briefly served as a Captain; two were Majors; three were Lieutenant Colonels; five were Colonels; one was a Brigadier General; and one, too young to serve, was a general's aide. Of the two who did not see military service, one turned his trading ships into privateers and represented his state in the Continental Congress, and the other worked as a counselor to his governor and sat in his state's legislature.
At least seven of the sixteen lived their entire lives in the Districts they served as Marshal. Most of the remainder spent several decades in their Districts, although one lived in his District only four years before his appointment as Marshal. Their average age at the time of their appointment was 42. The youngest was 25, the oldest 57. They remained in office an average of approximately six years, though this ranged from a tenure of one year to twenty years. After leaving office, five transferred to more lucrative posts within the federal government, such as collector or customs or supervisor or inspector of revenue. One became Secretary of War under Thomas Jefferson, and three represented their communities in Congress. One was killed in the line of duty and one died of disease while in office. The remainder retired to their private affairs. The descendants of the first sixteen Marshals included a Supreme Court Justice, a Civil War general, and a Secretary of State.
At least two had some law enforcement experience, one as a sheriff and one as a marshal of the Admiralty Courts established by the Second Continental Congress shortly after the outbreak of the Revolution. One was a trained physician, though he had little time to practice that profession. The others made their livings as farmers, merchants, businessmen, lawyers, and politicians.
Regardless of their careers, the Revolutionary War disrupted their lives and ruined the fortunes of several. Although most recouped their losses to become wealthy men by the 1790's, a few never fully recovered and one died in or near poverty. All but a few regularly corresponded with George Washington, and many called him friend. Most owed their appointments to their previous associations with the President, including their service under his command during the war. At least five joined the Society of the Cincinnati (one was a founding member), an honorary association of veterans named for Washington's resemblance to Cincinnatus, the famous Roman farmer turned soldier. The few who did not know Washington personally depended on references from friends for their appointments.
They were, in sum, patriots. One would fight again during the War of 1812 as the commanding general of the largest American army operating during the war. The first Marshals helped establish the new judicial system and the new federal government on a firm foundation based on local ties and affiliations. Since the Marshal was not a stranger to the people of his District, the exercise of federal power at the local level was made slightly more palatable to the American people.
Brief biographies of the first generation of U.S. Marshals, giving some detail of their lives, follow in their generally accepted order of appointment, though 13 were commissioned on September 26, 1789