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“i Walk On Untrodden Ground”
WASHINGTON AFTER THE REVOLUTION: IV As the very first President, Washington had to invent his own job. What about a cabinet? How do you “advise” with tiresome senators? Should you have slaves in the executive mansion? How do you deal with all those uninvited visitors? And with the Vice President—especially when you know that he is terribly jealous?
October 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 6
Having been handed by Knox the proposed text of the treaty, Adams stood up and started to read it aloud. “Carriages were driving past, and such a noise!” Maclay noted. “I could tell it was something about ‘Indians,’ but was not master of one sentence of it. Signs were made to the door-keeper to shut down the sashes.” It was now possible to hear a little, but the reading had gone on to supplementary documents. This finished, Adams asked for advice and consent to the first section of the treaty instructions.
Robert Morris suggested that the section be read again. It was. Adams asked again for advice and consent. Maclay then rose to say, “The business is new to the Senate. It is of importance. It is our duty to inform ourselves.” He requested the reading of some additional papers that had been mentioned. Washington, he felt, was surveying him with “stern displeasure.”
The reading of documents began; various members asked to hear others; there was the usual confusion of random discussion; and Washington finally agreed to postpone consideration of the first article. On to the secondl A matter came up referring to Georgia, and a member from that state asked that it be postponed till Monday. Maclay was gleefully putting his shoulder to the wheel of confusion, since he “saw no chance of a fair investigation … while the President of the United States sat there, with his Secretary of War, to support his opinions and overawe the timid and neutral part of the Senate.” However, it was Washington’s own crony Morris who moved that the papers brought by the President be submitted to a committee for study.
Washington started up in what Maclay called “a violent fret.” He cried, “This defeats every purpose of my coming here!” He had brought Knox with him to present all the necessary information, “and yet he was delayed and could not go on with the matter!”
Maclay described Washington cooling “by degrees.” The President finally agreed to a postponement till Monday. Then he departed “with a discontented air. Had it been any other man than the man whom I wish to regard as the first character in the world, I would have said, with sullen dignity.”
On Monday Washington reappeared, well in control of himself. “He was placid and serene, and manifested a spirit of accommodation.” Although in the end he achieved his purpose—only minor changes were made in the treaty instructions—Washington had to sit hour after hour, listening to an inconsequential and boring debate. As he finally departed from the Senate chamber, he was overheard to say that “he would be damned if he ever went there again.”
The British system, in which the Prime Minister defends his policies before Parliament, demonstrates that it is possible so to set up a government that there can be effective personal meetings between the chief executive and the legislature. But in the United States Washington had forever slammed that door. He never again consulted the Senate in person. No President has ever taken part, in the British manner, in parliamentary debates.
Washington still sometimes sent the secretaries of War or Foreign Affairs to the Senate to deliver documents that would help the senators advise, but the idea seems already to have been growing in his mind that if there were to be any effective foreign negotiations, the prior advice of the Senate would have to be skimped in favor of ultimate consent. Otherwise, the negotiators’ hands would be tied before the negotiation started. They might, indeed, be further embarrassed by what seemed a public commitment, since the senators might leak decisions to the newspapers. Concerning the most important foreign negotiations he faced —those with England—Washington resolved to proceed in an unofficial manner that would, among other things, obviate the necessity of consulting the Senate.
England had never fully recognized the victor of the Revolution by appointing a minister to the United States. Since America had retaliated in 1788 by calling John Adams home, official relations between the two nations were in abeyance. However, a British consul, Sir John Temple, appeared in New York and handed to Jay a series of questions from his government concerning American foreign trade, produce, population, and the matter of whether a new system of justice would aid “the recovery of British debts according to treaty.”
Washington did not respond by sending to London a consul bearing any official document. He preferred to inquire informally, through “a special agent,” whether the British were willing to change their legislation aimed at curbing American commerce, and whether they would also evacuate the western posts they were holding in violation of the peace treaty. It seemed to Washington natural to select as a personal envoy a personal friend; and one of his closest friends, Gouverneur Morris, was already in Europe.
Washington had first met Morris in New York in 1776, as the General was trying to prepare for the impending onslaught of British armed might. Morris had been sent to him by the local congress as a member of a secret committee. Later, at Valley Forge, Morris appeared as a representative of the Continental Congress and proved immensely helpful in straightening out the desperate supply situation. By then the New York patrician had moved to Philadelphia to become a partner of Robert Morris, who, despite the similarity of names, was no relation. As inflation threatened to wash the cause under, the two Morrises established a little bank that did something to stem the tide. They became Washington’s first mentors on the sophistications of finance, as they were also to a much more eager pupil, Alexander Hamilton.