Quite often here at the Redwood Library we stumble across an artifact in our vault that really knocks our socks off. Today we offer a letter written by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson on behalf of President George Washington. It is a letter informing one William Channing Esq. that he has been appointed by the President as the First U. S. Attorney of the State of Rhode Island under the newly ratified Constitution of the United States.
Not much is known about William Channing, but what we do know is he was born in Newport in 1751, the son of a wealthy merchant named John Channing. His grandparents immigrated to Massachusetts in 1711. William would graduate Princeton College in 1769 and as soon as he does so will begin his Career in Law. In 1773 William would marry Lucy Ellery, daughter of William Ellery signer of the Declaration of Independence. They would have three children together; William E. (1780-1842) who would go on and make a name for himself as one of the foremost Unitarian preachers of the early 19th century, Walter ( 1786-1876) who would become a doctor, and Edward T.(1790-1856) who would follow in his father’s footsteps into Law . He was elected as attorney general of the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantation and served in this position during the American Revolution from 1777 to 1787, after which a new Attorney General was elected. Fortunately for Channing it would not be the end of his career.
In the summer of 1790, William Channing received an important letter from then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson acting on behalf of America’s first President, George Washington.
In September of the previous year, the first congress established the judicial system that we know today through the Judiciary Act of 1789. This act stipulated the creation of the Supreme Court and circuit courts, divided the court system into districts, and also gave power to the President to nominate and appoint the positions of U.S Attorney and U.S. Marshall to said districts. When Rhode Island finally ratified the Constitution in 1790 they were officially recognized in their statehood and an Attorney was appointed to act on behalf of the State of Rhode Island, William Channing. With the letter came the official commission signed by both President Washington and Secretary of State Jefferson.
Washington and Jefferson have made quite the names for themselves in the history books, but what ever happened to William Channing? He would only serve as U.S Attorney for the State of Rhode Island for three years, dying in 1793. He is listed as having been laid to rest in the Newport common Burial Grounds. Lucy and the children would move to Massachusetts and live out the rest of their lives. But with these artifacts their story, or how little we know of it, will go on.