Conversation with a Committee of the United States House of Representatives
[Philadelphia, 12 March 1792]1
The President informed the Committee that the request of the House of Representatives, contained in the Resolution now handed to him, should be complied with.2 And added, that the letter from the King of France having been communicated to the House merely as a piece of information, and there being a Vessel to sail immediately for France he had answered the letter. But, upon learning that this Resolution had been passed in the House, the Secretary of State had been desired to get back the answer, which was already on board the Vessel, that another might be written, communicating the sentiments of the House agreeably to their request.3
Sometime before 9 A.M. on 12 Mar., GW wrote to Thomas Jefferson: “The P——would be glad to see Mr Jefferson immediately, and requests him to bring the Copy of the P——t’s letter to the French King with him” (AL, DLC: Jefferson Papers). Jefferson later this day described their meeting: “Mar. 12. 92. sent for by the Presidt & desired to bring the letter he had signed to the k. of France. went. he said the H. of Repr. had on Saturday [10 Mar.] taken up the communication he had made of the king’s letter to him, and come to a vote in their own name, that he did not expect this when he sent his message & the letter, otherwise he would have sent the message without the letter as I had proposed. that he apprehendd the legislature wd be endeavoring to invade the executive. I told him I hd understood the house had resolved to request him to join their congratulations to his on the completion & acceptance of the constitution on which part of the vote there were only 2. dissentients ([Robert] Barnwell & [Egbert] Benson) that the vote was 35. to 16 on that part which expressed an approbation of the wisdom of the constitution: that in the letter he had signed I had avoided saying a word in approbation of the constitution, not knowing whether the King in his heart approved it. why indeed says he I begin to doubt very much of the affairs of France. there are papers from London as late as the 10th of Jan. which represent them as going into confusion. he read over the letter he had signed, found there was not a word which could commit his judgment about the constitution, & gave it me back again—this is one of many proofs I have had of his want of confidence in the event of the French revolution. the fact is that Gouverneur Morris, a high flying Monarchy-man, shutting his eyes & his faith to every fact against his wishes, & believing every thing he desires to be true, has kept the President’s mind constantly poisoned with his forebodings. that the President wishes the revolution may be established I believe from several indications. I remember when I recd the news of the king’s flight & capture, I first told him of it at his assembly. I never saw him so much dejected by any event in my life. he expressed clearly on this occasion his disapprobation of the legislature referring things to the heads of departments” (Jefferson’s Memoranda of Consultations with the President, 11 Mar.–9 April 1792, DLC:Jefferson Papers).
At 10:00 A.M. on 12 Mar., GW sent Tobias Lear to Jefferson “to ask what answer he shall give the committee, & particularly whether he shall add to it that ‘in making the communication it was not his expectation that the house should give any answer.’ I told mister Lear that I thought the house had a right, independantly of legislation, to express sentiments on other subjects. that when these subjects did not belong to any other branch particularly they would publish them by their own authority; that in the present case which respected a foreign nation, the Pres. being the organ of our nation with other nations, the house would satisfy their duty if instead of a direct communication they shd pass their sentiments thro’ the President. that if expressing a sentiment were really an invasion of the Executive power, it was so faint a one that it would be difficult to demonstrate it to the public, & to a public partial to the French revolution, & not disposed to consider the approbation of it from any quarter as improper. that the Senate indeed had given many indications of their wish to invade the Executive power. the Represent. had done it in one case which was indeed mischeivous & alarming, that of giving orders to the heads of the executive departments without consulting the Pres. but that the late vote for directing the Sec. of the Treasy to report ways & means, tho’ carried, was carried by so small a majority & with the aid of members so notoriously under a local influence on that question, as to give a hope that the practice would be arrested, & the constnl course be taken up, of asking the Pres. to have information laid before them. but that in the prest instance, it was so far from being clearly an invasion of the Executive, & wd be so little approved by the genl voice that I cd not advise the Pres. to express any dissatisfaction at the vote of the house. & I gave Lear in writing what I thought should be his answer” (Jefferson’s Memoranda of Consultations with the President, 11 Mar.- 9 April 1792, DLC: Jefferson Papers). Jefferson’s written answer to GW of 12 Mar. 1792 reads: “Verbal answer proposed to the President to be made to the Committee who are to wait on him with the resolution of the 10th inst. congratulatory on the completion & acceptance of the French constitution. That the President will, in his answer, communicate to the king of the French, the sentiments expressed by the H. of representatives in the resolution which the committee has delivered him” (DLC: Jefferson Papers).
1. A committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, composed of James Madison, Thomas Tudor Tucker, John Francis Mercer, John Vining, and John Page, had been appointed on 10 Mar. to convey a resolution to the president, but it did not do so until two days later. On 13 Mar., Tucker “reported that the committee had discharged the duty assigned to them” (Annals of Congress description begins Joseph Gales, Sr., comp. The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States; with an Appendix, Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and All the Laws of a Public Nature. 42 vols. Washington, D.C., 1834–56. description ends , 2d Cong., 1st sess., 457–58).
2. For the House resolution of 10 Mar., see GW to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, 5 Mar., n.2.
3. Later this day Lear wrote Jefferson: “The President intended that T. Lear should have left the enclosed Resolution with the Secretary of State, that he might take the sentiment therein expressed to be inserted in the reply to the King of the French” (DLC: Jefferson Papers). For the English translation of GW’s final reply to Louis XVI, which covered copies of the congratulatory resolutions of the House and Senate, see GW to Louis XVI, 14 Mar. 1792. See also Jefferson to GW, 13 March.