Thomas Jefferson Papers
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From Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, [1 April 1790]

To George Washington

[1 Apr. 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?

‘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.1 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.

RC (DNA: RG 59, MLR); docketed by a clerk: “The Secy. of State Upon the mode of sending communications from the President to both Houses, April 1st. 1790.” FC (DNA: RG 59, SDC). Enclosures: Not identified.

Madison’s opinion, quoted in part at least in the above, has not been found and is not recorded in SJL. TJ’s request for Madison’s opinion was made at Washington’s suggestion (TJ to Madison, at end of Mch. 1790)—another of the many indications that at this time Madison stood closer to Washington than any other member of Congress. It is significant also that Washington’s first request for an opinion from his new secretary of state was concerned with matters of form and made of TJ himself a sort of channel of communication between the president and Madison. Most of the communications from governors of states during this session were reports of legislative actions on the proposed amendments to the constitution. Before TJ arrived in New York, these communications were delivered in person by the president’s secretary, Tobias Lear, to the senate and house of representatives. This was the practice that was subsequently continued, an arrangement perhaps as pleasing to Lear, who liked form, as to TJ who did not (Annals description begins Annals of the Congress of the United States: The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … Compiled from Authentic Materials by Joseph Gales, Senior, Washington, Gales & Seaton, 1834–56, 42 vols. The edition employed here is that which contains the running heads on verso and recto pages respectively: “Gales & Seatons History” and “of Debates in Congress.” Another printing, with the same title-page but with running heads on both recto and verso pages reading “History of Congress,” has a different pagination, so that pages cited in the edition employed here should be converted by subtracting approximately fifty-two from the number given in the citation. All editions are undependable. description ends , i, 972, 976, 977, 978, 984, 989, 992, 997, 1018, 1024, 1026, 1088, 1114, 1141, 1143). Washington raised no question about the transmittal of communications other than those originating with the states of the union, thus implying that he may have been aware that some preferential distinction was expected or would be welcomed. Lear’s continuing to be the channel for transmitting, without distinction as to origin, messages concerning individuals, Indian tribes, states, and foreign nations was thus a muting, in however slight a degree, of the exaggerated emphasis upon state sovereignty under the former government. For Washington the matter was complicated by the feelings engendered at the previous session of Congress over the mode of communication “proper to be pursued between [the president] and the Senate in the formation of treaties and making appointments to office” and also by the “undue emphasis” that Washington at this time placed upon ceremonial matters (Freeman, Washington description begins Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington, N.Y., 1948–1957, 7 vols. description ends , vi, 222). Washington had also made it plain in his manner of handling Governor Hancock’s invitation to dinner and in other incidents that, in every punctilio, he would insist that the primacy of the office of president be recognized (same, p. 244–5).

It was equally characteristic of TJ that he should have placed less emphasis upon form and upon the dangers of setting precedents, and that he should have looked to the time when enough cases should multiply to make possible a distribution into classes. In brief, TJ aproached his new task with a characteristic desire for flexibility and for the introduction of system. It was symbolic of his attitude toward the office that one of the first purchases made by him for the department was a copying press. It was also in perfect keeping with his approach to business that he should have outlined to Washington in his first interview the matters of foreign policy that he considered of the first importance. Washington, respecting substance as well as form, carefully noted in his diary the cardinal points of TJ’s program: “First with respect to our Captives in Algiers, in which, after detailing their situation—the measures he [Jefferson] had taken for their relief—and the train in which the business was in by means of a Genl.———who is at the head of a religious society in France … it was concluded between us, that it had better remain in that train a while longer,—this person had been authorized to go as far as £150 Sterlg. each, for the ransom of our Captives; but the Algerines demanding a much larger sum it was conceived that acceding to it might establish a precedent which would always operate and be very burthensome if yielded to: and become a much stronger inducement to captivate our People than they now have, as it is more for the sake of the Ransom than for the labour, that they make Slaves of the Prisoners. Mr. Short was to be written to on this subject and directed to make enquiry” of the general and of his expectations of redemption. (2) “He is of opinion, that excepting the Court of France, there is no occasion to employ higher grades in the Diplomatic line than Chargé des Affaires: and that these, by the respectability of their appointments, had better be at the head of their grade, than Ministers Plenipotentiaries by low salaries at the foot of theirs. The reason of the distinction, in favor of a Minister Plenipo’ at Versailles, is, that there are more Ambassadors at that Court than any other and therefore that we ought in some measure to approximate our Representative—and besides, its being a Court with which we have much to do.” (3) Then, “With respect to the appointment of Consuls he refers to a letter on the nature of this business—the places where necessary—and the characters best entitled to appointments which he had written on the subject, while in France, to the Secretary of Foreign Affairs,” dated 18 Nov. 1788. (4) “That it might be advisable to direct Mr. Carmichael to Sound the Spanish Ministry with respect to the obstacles which had hitherto impeded a Commercial Treaty, to see if there was any disposition in them to relax in their Territorial claims and exclusive right to the Navigation of River Mississippi” (Washington, Diaries, ed. Fitzpatrick, iv, 106–8; Washington had received TJ first on Sunday at one o’clock, then conversed with him on Monday “for more than hour … on business relative to the duties of his office,” and on Wednesday, 23 Mch. 1790, had the conversation recorded above).—At one of these early conferences with Washington, TJ gave to Washington copies of the medals authorized by Congress commemorating the actions at Stony Point and Cowpens and on 25 Mch. 1790 Washington transmitted these to Anthony Wayne, Stephen Stewart (father of John Stewart), Daniel Morgan, John E. Howard, and William Washington (FC cf Washington’s letters of transmittal in DNA: RG 59, MLR; those to Stewart and Wayne are printed in Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick, xxxi, 27).

1Thus in RC; in FC the copyist corrected TJ’s misspelling of Tobias Lear’s name.

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