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The Senate irritates the President

This post continues our celebration of the 225th anniversary of the First Congress.

The Constitution gives the President the “power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties.”

George Washington, portrait. (National Archives Identifier 532860)

George Washington, portrait. (National Archives Identifier 532860)

This first time the President attempted to seek that advice occurred in August 1789 when first President George Washington sent a message to the Senate asking “to advise with them” on a treaty with the Southern Indians (at that time the United States treated Indian tribes as foreign nations).

On August 22, 1789, Washington arrived at Federal Hall in New York City (then the capital) with Secretary of War Henry Knox, and they proceeded to read aloud a series of documents related to the various Southern Indian tribes.

The incident was not recorded in the Senate Executive Journal, but Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania kept a diary and documented what transpired: apparently the noise from the Manhattan traffic below drowned out the reading of the documents.

As a result, the Senate decided to appoint a committee rather than debate the issue in front of the President, which caused great consternation to Washington.

(Henry Knox (3/4 length). National Archives Identifier 532928)

(Henry Knox (3/4 length). National Archives Identifier 532928)

After regaining his composure, Washington agreed to come back to receive the Senate’s advice. Shortly thereafter, however, Washington decided that all future dealings with the Senate with regard to treaties would be done in writing. By the end of his administration, he simply submitted completed treaties for ratification.

Washington’s irritation with the Senate and his decision on how to manage future treaty negotiations was based, in part, on a minor problem with traffic noise.

As with many of Washington’s decisions, however, it set a precedent and became standard practice for all Presidents.

For more information on the 225th anniversary of the First Congress visit the Tumblr page Congress in the Archives or Twitter; use #Congress225 to see all the postings.

Message of President George Washington Requesting that the Senate Meet to Advise Him on the Terms of the Treaty to Be Negotiated with the Southern Indians, 08/21/1789. (National Archives Identifier 306283)

Message of President George Washington Requesting that the Senate Meet to Advise Him on the Terms of the Treaty to Be Negotiated with the Southern Indians, 08/21/1789. (National Archives Identifier 306283)

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Comments

Comment from John Constance
Time August 22, 2014 at 11:29 am

This was one of the late Senator Patrick Moynihan’s favorite stories. To much laughter from his colleagues, he told it one night at our first US Senate dinner in the rotunda of the National Archives. It was offered, “in lieu of an invocation”.