George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Thomas Jefferson, 1 April 1790

From Thomas Jefferson

[1 April 1790]

Th: Jefferson has the honor to inform the President that mr Madison has just delivered to him the result of his reflections on the question How shall communications from the several states to Congress through the channel of the President be made?1

“he thinks that in no case would it be proper to go by way of letter from the Secretary of state: that they should be delivered to the houses either by the Secretary of state in person or by mr Leir. he supposes a useful division of the office might be made between these two, by employing the one where a matter of fact alone is to be communicated, or a paper delivered &c. in the ordinary course of things and where nothing is required by the President; and using the agency of the other where the President chuses to recommend any measure to the legislature and to attract their attention to it.”

The President will be pleased to order in this what he thinks best. T. Jefferson supposes that whatever may be done for the present, the final arrangement of business should be considered as open to alteration hereafter. the government is as yet so young, that cases enough have not occurred to enable a division of them into classes, and the distribution of these classes to the persons whose agency would be the properest.

He sends some letters for the President’s perusal praying him to alter freely any thing in them which he thinks may need it.2

AL, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters; LB, DLC:GW.

1After his arrival in New York on 21 Mar. 1790, GW held several conferences with the secretary of state on the duties of his office and on specific questions concerning the administration. On 22 Mar. they conversed for over an hour, and on 23 Mar. they discussed American captives in Algiers, the establishment of the diplomatic service, and the possibility of a commercial treaty with Spain. See Conversation with Thomas Jefferson, 23 Mar. 1790. The two met again on 26 Mar. to discuss diplomatic appointments (Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 6:49–54). At one of these meetings, probably that of 22 Mar., GW asked Jefferson to confer with James Madison “as to the mode of conveying official communications from the states through the channel of the President to the two federal houses,” and particularly whether Madison thought such messages should come from GW through Tobias Lear or through the secretary of state, communicating by letter or appearing in person (Jefferson to Madison, c.March 1790, in Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950—. description ends 16:286). Madison’s reply, quoted by Jefferson in this letter, has not been found. During the first sessions of Congress, GW received several reports from state governors regarding legislative action, mostly on proposed amendments to the Constitution. See, for example, GW to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, 8 Mar. 1790. Before Jefferson took up his post as secretary of state, Lear delivered these messages in person to both houses of Congress. This practice was subsequently continued.

In the first year of his administration, GW was greatly concerned with establishing efficient routine procedures for dealing with political matters and handling correspondence with dispatch. His custom of requesting advice from his cabinet and from political allies was apparent from the start. The method he established for handling policy questions and paperwork is perhaps best described by Jefferson in a circular to his cabinet dated 6 Nov. 1801, at the beginning of his own administration: “Having been a member of the first administration under Genl. Washington, I can state with exactness what our course then was. Letters of business came addressed sometimes to the President, but most frequently to the heads of departments. If addressed to himself, he referred them to the proper department to be acted on: if to one of the Secretaries, the letter, if it required no answer, was communicated to the President simply for his information. If an answer was requisite, the Secretary of the department communicated the letter & his proposed answer to the President. Generally they were simply sent back, after perusal, which signified his approbation. Sometimes he returned them with an informal note, suggesting an alteration or a query. If a doubt of any importance arose, he reserved it for conference. By this means he was always in accurate possession of all facts & proceedings in every part of the Union, & to whatsoever department they related; he formed a central point for the different branches, preserved an unity of object and action among them, exercised that participation in the gestion of affairs which his office made incumbent on him, and met himself the due responsibility for whatever was done. During mr. Adams’s administration, his long & habitual absences from the seat of government rendered this kind of communication impracticable, removed him from any share in the transaction of affairs, & parcelled out the government in fact among four independant heads, drawing sometimes in opposite directions. That the former is preferable to the latter course cannot be doubted. It gave indeed to the heads of departments the trouble of making up, once a day, a packet of all their communications for the perusal of the President; it commonly also retarded one day their dispatches by mail: but, in pressing cases, this injury was prevented by presenting that case singly for immediate attention; and it produced us in return the benefit of his sanction for every act we did” (Stagg, Madison Papers, Secretary of State Series, description begins Robert J. Brugger et al., eds. The Papers of James Madison, Secretary of State Series. 9 vols. to date. Charlottesville, Va., 1986—. description ends 2:227–29). The entries in JPP description begins Dorothy Twohig, ed. The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793–1797. Charlottesville, Va., 1981. description ends for 1793 through 1797 corroborate Jefferson’s description.

2The letters have not been identified.

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