Presidential Series: Volume 19

DATE 1 October 1795- 31 March 1796

Introduction

The 1794 Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation with Great Britain (Jay Treaty) continued to be an important issue during the months treated in volume 19 of the Presidential Series (October 1795 through March 1796).  GW’s August 1795 ratification of the treaty, with the condition (renegotiation of Article XII) attached by the Senate, had emboldened treaty supporters and largely stopped the flow to him of petitions on the subject.  Newspaper critics, however, continued to inveigh against the treaty, and some even dared to criticize GW’s presidency more broadly.  The Maryland legislature responded with a resolution declaring their “unabated reliance” on GW’s “integrity, Judgement and patriotism,” but the Virginia legislature passed a resolution commending her senators for their opposition to the treaty.  The attached condition led some to believe that the treaty would have to be resubmitted to the Senate for a new ratification, but GW decided otherwise.  After receiving news of the exchange of ratifications in London, he proclaimed the treaty on 29 Feb. 1796.

Treaty critics, however, had one last argument: that the treaty could not take effect without consent of the House of Representatives because its provisions encroached upon areas constitutionally delegated to Congress, such as the regulation of trade.  Could the Senate and the executive use the treaty-making power to legislate by themselves?  Pursuant to that theory, Edward Livingston introduced a resolution calling on GW to supply a copy of the instructions, correspondence, and other documents relative to the treaty negotiations.  GW consulted his cabinet and Alexander Hamilton, who agreed that the House had no right to make such a demand, although they were somewhat divided about whether GW should, after denying the right, produce some documents.  In the end, GW refused to supply any material.  His explanatory message both disputed the opponents’ view of the treaty-making power and claimed executive privilege.

The Jay Treaty also increased tensions with France despite a ceremonial exchange of flags designed to evince the close relations between the two countries.  When GW’s private letter to Gouverneur Morris of 22 Dec. 1795 was intercepted by a French ship and read by the French government, it, too, had “an ill effect.”

Other treaty negotiations proved less controversial.  In this volume GW received news that treaties had been reached with Algiers and Spain, while the existing treaty with Morocco had been reaffirmed by that country’s new ruler.

As president, GW felt that he must weigh his personal feelings against his responsibility as head of state.  In a February 1796 letter to Thomas Pinckney, GW discussed how his public role constricted his efforts to obtain freedom for Lafayette, who had been captured while fleeing France in 1792 and was still imprisoned in Austria.  Similarly, when Lafayette’s son arrived in America in late summer 1795, GW immediately offered assistance but felt obliged for a time to keep the young man at a distance, lest he offend the French government.  Only at the end of February 1796 did he invite young Lafayette to “make me a visit about the first of April,” although by the end of March it was clear that GW intended to take the young man into his household.

Another continuing issue was Edmund Randolph’s effort to vindicate his conduct as secretary of state.  As the State Department fielded Randolph’s requests for documents, GW, despite obvious annoyance about Randolph’s account of GW’s actions in regard to the Jay Treaty, assured his former cabinet officer that nothing would be withheld from inspection.  In the end, GW’s friends assured him that Randolph’s published Vindication did more damage to himself than to GW.

In the wake of Randolph’s resignation and the death of Attorney General William Bradford in August 1795, GW once again needed to reorganize his cabinet.  Filling those positions and two vacancies on the Supreme Court proved difficult, however, as a number of men rejected appointments.  GW finally appointed Charles Lee as attorney general and shifted Timothy Pickering to secretary of state, bringing in James McHenry, a former aide, to be secretary of war.

Among the domestic issues claiming GW’s attention were Indian relations, the Federal City, and the site for a new federal armory on the Potomac River.  The Treaty of Greenville with the Northwest Territory tribes, coupled with assurances from Creek agent James Seagrove and Gov. William Blount of the pacific dispositions of the Creeks and Cherokees, offered the possibility of peace along the western frontier.  GW opened his annual message to Congress with that news and again urged legislation for the creation of federal trading houses to supply the tribes.  This optimistic scenario, however, was tempered by news of the murder of some Creek Indians and of a potential incursion of settlers onto Cherokee lands.

In regard to the Federal City, GW was asked once again to referee a dispute between the commissioners and one of their employees.  More seriously, the commissioners reported that a shortage of money threatened to slow construction.  GW corresponded with the commissioners about their plans to obtain money from Europe and their applications for assistance from the Maryland legislature and from Congress.  And he again tried to spur Robert Morris to make payment on his debt to the commissioners.

Two letters from Tobias Lear reported his preliminary efforts and then final success in securing the land for a federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Va., much to GW’s satisfaction.

In his personal life, GW continued to act as the head of his extended family, approving the marriage of Elizabeth Parke Custis and offering continued financial assistance to his niece Harriot Washington.  He also maintained weekly correspondence with his farm manager about operations at Mount Vernon, and he received reports about the troublesome collection of rents from his lands in western Virginia and Pennsylvania.  At last, a final settlement of GW’s long and complicated executorship of the Thomas Colvill estate seemed near.  GW’s decision to advertise publicly a desire to sell his western lands and to lease out all but the Mansion House farm at Mount Vernon is the subject of much correspondence in February and March 1796.  As he anticipated retirement, GW sought to simplify his affairs.

Jacket Essay

Volume 19 of the Presidential Series (October 1795 through March 1796) features the final stages of the controversy about the 1794 Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation with Great Britain (Jay Treaty). In August, George Washington had ratified the treaty, with a condition attached by the Senate, and he now awaited news of British ratification. Newspaper critics continued to inveigh against the treaty, and the attached condition led some to believe that the entire treaty would have to be resubmitted to the Senate.  Washington, however, decided otherwise. After receiving news of the exchange of ratifications in London, he proclaimed the treaty on 29 Feb. 1796.

Critics now contended that the treaty could not take effect without the consent of the House of Representatives because its provisions encroached upon areas constitutionally delegated to Congress. Could the Senate and the executive use the treaty-making power to legislate by themselves? Pursuant to that theory, Edward Livingston introduced a resolution calling on Washington to supply documents relative to the treaty negotiations. After consulting with his cabinet and Alexander Hamilton, the president refused to supply any material. His explanatory message to the House disputed the opponents’ view of the treaty-making power and, in an important precedent, claimed executive privilege.

Other treaty negotiations proved less controversial. Washington received news that treaties had been reached with Algiers and Spain, and the existing treaty with Morocco had been reaffirmed.

Despite a ceremonial exchange of flags, tensions grew between France and the United States, in large part because of the Jay Treaty. When a private letter from Washington to Gouverneur Morris was intercepted by a French ship and read by the French government, it, too, had “an ill effect.”

In these circumstances, the Marquis de Lafayette’s continued imprisonment in Austria and the arrival of his son in America forced the president to weigh his personal feelings against his responsibility as head of state. Washington immediately offered assistance to the young man but felt obliged for a time to keep him at a distance, lest he offend the French government. Nonetheless, by the end of March it was clear that he intended to take the young man into his household.

Another continuing issue was Edmund Randolph’s effort to vindicate his conduct as secretary of state. In the end, Washington’s friends assured him that Randolph’s published Vindication did more damage to himself than to the president.

Highlighted domestic issues include Indian relations and the Federal City. Washington opened his annual message to Congress by announcing the Treaty of Greenville with the Northwest Territory tribes and reports of the “wanton murders” of Creeks by some Georgia citizens. To promote peace on the frontier, he asked Congress to find “means of rendering justice” to the Indians and to act on his proposal for Indian trading houses.

When the Federal City commissioners reported that a shortage of money threatened to slow construction, Washington corresponded with them about their plans to obtain money from Europe and their applications for assistance from the Maryland legislature and from Congress.

Other documents discuss land acquisition for a federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Va., and the president’s efforts to fill two cabinet positions and two Supreme Court vacancies.

In his personal life, Washington continued to act as the head of his extended family, approving the marriage of Elizabeth Parke Custis and offering continued financial assistance to his niece Harriot Washington. He also maintained weekly correspondence with his farm manager about operations at Mount Vernon, and he received reports about the collection of rents from his lands in western Virginia and Pennsylvania. A final settlement of his long and complicated executorship of the Thomas Colvill estate seemed near. Much correspondence in February and March 1796 concerns Washington’s advertisement offering for sale his western lands and for lease all but the Mansion House farm at Mount Vernon. As he anticipated retirement, the president sought to simplify his affairs.


David R. Hoth, ed., The Papers of George Washington: Presidential Series volume 19, October 1795 through March 1796. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 2016.

Purchase from the University of Virginia Press.