George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Jonathan Trumbull, Jr., 31 October 1793

From Jonathan Trumbull, Jr.

Lebanon [Conn.] 31st Octo. 1793

Dear sir

By some unaccountable delay, the Letter with which you have favored me, of the 13th inst. did not reach me ’till the 30th.

While writing mine of the 2d of this month, the doubt which you have been pleased to mention, respecting the Law of Congress, fixg the seat of Government, occurred to me; but turng to the Law, I found the 5th sec: mentions—“That prior &ca all offices attached to the Seat of Government shall be removed to Phila. &ca at which place, the session of Congress next ensuing shall be held.” the 6th Sec: mentions “That in the Year 1800—the Seat of Government shall be transferred &ca and all offices &ca shall be also removed” &ca but not a word of the Legislature—by which it would seem, it is left to its own adjournments, and the discretion of the President on extra Occasions.1

Indeed I conceived that the Constitution in granting this discretion, must have contemplated place, as well as time of meeting—because the necessity for its exercise, might be grounded equally in one as the other—Witness the existing instance—the first that has occurred.2

Moreover the Constitution must be paramount to the Law in such Cases: otherwise the power granted may be so controuled as not to be sufficient to surmount the necessity of the occasion3—the like necessity may also exist under other circumstances—such as, the total destruction of the City by fire, or other means, its being in complete possession of an Enemy—& other insurmountable calamities which might occur—In all which cases, if the Law fixing the Seat of Govermment must rise superior to the Constitution, the discretionary Power of the President, calculated to afford a remedy under such exigencies, must be futile, & prove totally inadequate to the purposes for which it was intended.

I also considered that should doubts arise, they would be easily obviated by reflecting, that this exercise of discretion could not be dangerous; because it would be in the power of Congress, as soon as met, to remedy the Evil, should they apprehend any, by an immediate adjournment to where-ever they might judge proper—besides it is calculated to remedy an existing inconvenience & danger to themselves, which in its nature, is only temporary, & is hoped to prove of but short continuance.

As to the Place of meeting, I am very sensible it will be an object of delicacy to decide—When I took the liberty to suggest the hints I gave to you, this difficulty presented itself; and I was then almost tempted to add a word on that head, but was repressed by the fear of assuming too much—I therefore now mention—what I before thought—that in casting about, it is probable the Towns of Baltimore & New York will present themselves to your Mind as the most convenient places. to the latter I am sensible Objections will be started by some; notwithstandg its superiour advantages perhaps for the present temporary Occasion—to obviate therefore these objections to New York, should they appear with weight—and to save any uneasiness in the minds of our southern Brethren from that Quarter, I have thought for myself, (& in this I have been joined by others)—that I should perfectly acquiesce in Baltimore—I should mention the expedient of convening Congress somewhere in the vicinity of Philadelphia, and leave the final decision of Place to their determination; but that I fear, such Event may occasion disputes & delay—not to say heats perhaps—which might prove much more detrimental to our general Interests, than your fixing at once a place by your own Judgment & discretion—I most sincerely hope, that, whatever place is appointed, the melancholly occasion of leaving Philadelphia may speedily be removed—and that Congress may soon be able to return to that City again. With real regard & respect, I am, most most affectionately, Dear sir Your Obedient & obliged humble servant

J. Trumbull

P.S: Before closing this Letter, we are gratified with much more favorable Accounts from Phila. than for some time past—I really hope they may prove true—and that circumstances in that distressed City may continue to meliorate, so that you may have complete relief from your present dilemma on that Score. Yours as above–


1Trumbull was referring to “An Act for establishing the temporary and permanent seat of the Government of the United States,” 16 July 1790 (Stat. description begins Richard Peters, ed. The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, from the Organization of the Government in 1789, to March 3, 1845 . . .. 8 vols. Boston, 1845-67. description ends , 1:130).

2On the draft the text in this paragraph was written as an insertion to be placed in front of a sentence that does not appear in the ALS: “This View of the Law—compared with the constitutional Power of the Presidt satisfied my mind—& occasioned my writing as I did.” Trumbull evidently was referring to Article 2, section 3 of the Constitution, which stated that the president “may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them.”

3At this place on the draft, Trumbull wrote the following before revising and then striking it: “as in this Instance particularly calls for the Exercise of Discretion.”

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