Joseph Nourse (1754-1841)

America’s First Civil Servant

Joseph Nourse

As first Register of the Treasury, Joseph Nourse was a highly respected and distinguished civil servant. With a career that spanned 40 years and six presidential administrations, Nourse played a key role in administering the finances of the new Republic.

Born on July 16, 1754, in London, England, Joseph Nourse was the eldest son of James Nourse (1731-1784) and Sarah Fouace (1735-1784). In March 1769, the Nourse family — James, Sarah, their nine children, and two servants — left England on board the Liberty, bound for America. They arrived two months later in Hampton, Virginia and eventually established Piedmont, their family farm in Berkeley County, Virginia (now West Virginia).

During the American Revolution, Nourse served first as military secretary to General Charles Lee, and then by 1777 as deputy secretary of the Board of War. He returned briefly to the family farm, but in 1779 was back in Philadelphia where he continued his civil service as Assistant Auditor General for the Board of Treasury. One of his duties included authenticating Continental currency by affixing his signature to it. In 1781, the Confederation Congress elected Nourse Register of the Treasury, a position he held under the Articles of  Confederation and then under the first six presidents of the United States.

Moving with the Federal government from Philadelphia to the City of Washington in 1800, Nourse quickly established his family in nearby Georgetown, just across Rock Creek. He first purchased a property at 3101 P Street. In 1804 he acquired a much grander home, “Jackson’s house on Cedar Hill,” as Nourse always referred to today’s Dumbarton House. As Register of the Treasury, he and his wife, Maria Bull Nourse (1765-1850) whom he married in 1784, were invited to many formal events at the President’s House and to the residences of other prominent social and political leaders of the fledgling Federal city.

With the election of President Andrew Jackson, Joseph Nourse was forced from office in 1829. In his retirement, he remained an active participant in local and national religious organizations he had long supported. He served as an officer for the National Monument Society, maintained his personal and family accounts, and continued to enjoy his role as a devoted husband, father and grandfather. Joseph Nourse died at his Mount Alban home in northwest Washington in 1841.