Alexander Hamilton Papers

Cabinet Meeting. Opinion Respecting the Proposed Treaty with the Indians Northwest of the Ohio, [25 February 1793]

Cabinet Meeting. Opinion Respecting the
Proposed Treaty with
the Indians Northwest of the Ohio1

[Philadelphia, February 25, 1793]

The President having required the attendance of the heads of the three departments and of the Attorney general at his house on Monday the 25th. of Feb. 1793. the following questions were proposed and answers given.

1. The Governor of Canada having refused to let us obtain provisions from that province or to pass them along the water communication to the place of treaty with the Indians,2 and the Indians having refused to let them pass peaceably along what they call the bloody path, the Governor of Canada at the same time proposing to furnish the whole provisions necessary, Ought the treaty to proceed?
Answer unanimously, it ought to proceed.
2. Have the Executive, or the Executive & Senate together authority to relinquish to the Indians the right of soil of any part of the lands North of the Ohio, which has been validly obtained by former treaties?
The Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary at war & Attorney general are of opinion that the Executive & Senate have such authority, provided that no grants to individuals nor reservations to states be thereby infringed. The Secretary of State is of opinion they have no such authority to relinquish.
3. Will it be expedient to make any such relinquishment to the Indians if essential to peace?
The Secretaries of the Treasury & War & the Attorney general are of opinion it will be expedient to make such relinquishment, if essential to peace, provided it do not include any lands sold or reserved for special purposes (the reservations for trading places excepted). The Secretary of state is of opinion that the Executive and Senate have authority to stipulate with the Indians and that if essential to peace it will be expedient to stipulate that we will not settle any lands between those already sold or reserved for special purposes, and the lines heretofore validly established with the Indians.
Whether the Senate shall be previously consulted on this point?
The Opinion unanimously is that it will be better not to consult them previously.

Th. Jefferson
Alexander Hamilton
H Knox
Edm: Randolph

DS, in the handwriting of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress; letterpress copy, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.

1For background to this document, see “Conversation with George Hammond,” November 22, 1792, note 4, December 15–28, 1792, February 24–March 7, 1793; H to Hammond, December 29, 1792; “Draft of Instructions for William Hull,” January 14, 1793; Hull to H, February 6, 1793; George Washington to Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Knox, and Edmund Randolph, February 24, 1793.

Jefferson’s account of this cabinet meeting reads as follows:

“1st. Question. We were all of opinion that the treaty shd. proceed merely to gratify the public opinion, & not from an expectation of success. I expressed myself strongly that the event was so unpromising that I thought the preparations for a campaign should go on without the least relaxation, and that a day should be fixed with the Commss. for the treaty beyond which they should not permit the treaty to be protracted, by which day orders shd. be given for our forces to enter into action. The President took up the thing instantly after I had said this, and declared he was so much in the opn that the treaty would end in nothing that he then in the presence of us all gave orders to Genl. Knox not to slacken the preparns for the campaign in the least but to exert every nerve in preparing for it. Knox said something about the ultimate day for continuing the negocians; I acknoleged my self not a judge on what day the campaign should begin, but that whatever it was, that day should terminate the treaty. Knox said he thought a winter campaign was always the most efficacious against the Indians. I was of opn since Gr. Britain insisted on furnishing provns, that we should offer to repay. Hamilton thot we should not.

“2d. Question. I considered our right of preemption of the Indian lands, not as amounting to any dominion, or jurisdn, or paramountship whatever, but merely in the nature of a remainder after the extingmt of a present right, which gave us no present right whatever but of preventing other nations from taking possession and so defeating our expectancy: that the Indians had the full, undivided & independent sovereignty as long as they chose to keep it & that this might be for ever: that as fast as we extended our rights by purchase from them, so fast we extended the limits of our society, & as soon as a new portion became encircled within our line, it became a fixt limit of our society: that the Executive with either or both branches of the legislature could not alien any part of our territory: that by the L. of nations it was settled that the Unity & indivisibility of the society was so fundamental that it could not be dismembered by the Constituted authorities except 1. where all power was delegated to them (as in the case of despotic govmts) or 2. where it was expressly delegated. that neither of these delegations had been made to our general govmt, & therefore that it had no right to dismember or alienate any portion of territory once ultimately consolidated with us: and that we could no more cede to the Indians than to the English or Spaniards, as it might accding to acknolegd principles remain as irrevocably and externally with the one as the other: but I thought that as we had a right to sell & settle lands once comprehended within our lines, so we might forbear to exercise that right, retaining the property, till circumstances should be more favorible to the settlement, and this I agreed to do in the present instance if necessary for peace.

“Hamilton agreed the doctrine of the law of nations as laid down in Europe, but that it was founded on the universality of settlement there, conseqly. that no lopping off of territory cd. be made without a lopping off of citizens, which required their consent: but that the law of nations for us must be adapted to the circumstance of our unsettled country, which he conceived the Presidt. & Senate may cede: that the power of treaty was given to them by the constn. without restraining it to particular objects, conseqly. that it was given in as plenipotentiary a form as held by any sovereign in any other society. E. R. was of opn there was a difference between a cession to Indns. & to any others, because it only restored the ceded part to the condn in which it was before we bought it, and consequently that we might buy it again hereafter. Therefore he thought the Exec. & Senate could cede it. Knox joined in the main opn. The Presidt. discovd. no opn, but he made some efforts to get us to join in some terms which could unite us all, and he seemed to direct those efforts more towards me: but the thing could not be done.

“3d. Qu. We agreed in idea as to the line to be drawn, to wit so as to retain all lands appropriated, or granted or reserved.

“4th. Qu. We all thought if the Senate should be consulted & consequently apprised of our line, it would become known to Hammond, & we should lose all chance of saving any thing more at the treaty than our Ultimatum.” (AD, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.)

This account is printed in the “Anas,” Ford, Writings of Jefferson description begins Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (New York, 1892–1899). description ends , I, 218–20.

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