George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, 25 November 1791

To Thomas Jefferson

[Philadelphia] Friday 25th Novr 1791

As the meeting proposed to be held (at nine O’clock tomorrow morning) with the heads of the Great Departments) is to consider important subjects belonging (more immediately) to the Department of State—The President desires Mr Jefferson would commit the several points on which opinions will be asked to Paper, in the order they ought to be taken up.1

AL, DLC: Thomas Jefferson Papers; ADf, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters; LB, DLC:GW. GW misaddressed the draft “to the Secretary of the Treasury” before crossing out the “the Treasury” and writing “State” above the line.

During his first administration GW sometimes had asked “the heads of the Great Departments,” as well as the attorney general, and occasionally the vice-president and chief justice, for their written opinions on important policy matters outside their respective departments. No evidence has been found that they ever met together with the president to discuss policy, however. Apparently GW first provided for the possibility of collective action by his department heads during his absence on the Southern Tour in the spring of 1791 when he authorized them and Vice-President John Adams to meet if circumstances necessitated it and promised his approval on his return to Philadelphia of any decisions they might make (see GW to Hamilton, Jefferson, and Henry Knox, 4 April 1791). The document of this date, however, is the earliest surviving evidence of GW initiating a meeting of his cabinet, a term he never seems to have used during his presidency. Evidence of GW continuing this convenient practice in 1792 is sporadic, showing that he did meet with his department secretaries as a group several times from December 1791 to December 1792 (see GW to Jefferson, 9, 27 Dec. 1791; Jefferson’s Memoranda of Consultations with the President, 11 Mar.—9 April 1792, 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 , 23:258–65). Only when relations with France broke down in early 1793 did GW rely more heavily upon the informal institution of cabinet meetings, at which he would solicit collective advice from his department heads, consider and digest their information and opinions, and formulate a unified plan of action by balancing differing opinions. These meetings probably derived from GW’s military experience during the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War, when he held councils of war with his officers. For Jefferson’s later description of the system by which GW conducted cabinet business, which apparently had been perfected before Jefferson left office in December 1793, see Jefferson to GW, 1 April 1790, n.1.

1On 26 Nov. Jefferson drafted the following agenda for the cabinet meeting that day: “Questions to be considered of. I. As to France. Shall it be proposed to M. de Ternan, to form a treaty, ad referendum, to this effect. ‘The citizens of the U.S. and of France, their vessels, productions & manufactures shall be received and considered, each in all the dominions of the other, as if they were the native citizens, or the ships; productions or manufactures of that other, and the productions of the sea shall be received in all the dominions of each as if they were the productions of the country by the industry of whose citizens they have been taken or produced from the sea. Saving only as to the persons of their citizens, that they shall continue under those incapacities for office, each with the other, which the Constitutions of France, or of the U.S. or any of them, have or shall establish against foreigners of all nations without exception.’ If not, Shall a treaty be proposed to him, ad referendum, in which the conditions shall be detailed on which the persons ships, productions & manufactures of each shall be received with the other, and the imposts to which they shall be liable be formed into a tariff? Shall the Senate be consulted in the beginning, in the middle, or only at the close of this transaction? II. As to England. Shall mister Hammond be now asked Whether he is instructed to give us any explanations of the intentions of his court as to the detention of our Western posts, and other infringements of our treaty with them? Shall he be now asked Whether he is authorized to conclude, or to negotiate, any commercial arrangements with us?” (DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters). Jefferson’s first draft of a proposed treaty of commerce with France, which he evidently showed GW on 26 Nov., is in DLC: Jefferson Papers; see also 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 , 22:346–47. For background to commercial relations with France and Hamilton’s policy initiatives concerning them, see Louis XVI to GW, 28 May, n.2; Ternant to Montmorin, 9, 24 Oct., in Turner, Correspondence of the French Ministers, description begins Frederick J. Turner, ed. Correspondence of the French Ministers to the United States, 1791–1797. Washington, D.C., 1904. In Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1903, vol. 2. description ends 57–62. Jefferson had just written to William Short on 24 Nov.: “M. de Ternant tells me he has no instructions to propose to us the negociation of a commercial treaty, and that he does not expect any. I wish it were possible to draw that negociation to this place” (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 , 22:328–32).

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