From George Washington1
Philadelphia 31st Mar: 1796
My dear Sir,
I do not know how to thank you sufficiently, for the trouble you have taken to dilate on the request of the House of Representatives for the Papers relative to the British Treaty;2 or how to apologize for the trouble (much greater than I had any idea of giving) which you have taken to shew the impropriety of that request.
From the first moment, and from the fullest conviction in my own mind, I had resolved to resist the principle wch. was evidently intended to be established by the call of the House of Representatives; and only deliberated on the manner, in which this could be done, with the least bad consequences.
To effect this, three modes presented themselves to me—1. a denial of the Papers in toto, assigning concise, but cogent reasons for the denial; 2 to grant them in whole; or 3. in part; accompanied with a pointed protest against the rights of the House to controul Treaties, or to call for Papers without specifying their object; and against the compliance being drawn into precedent.
I had as little hesitation in deciding that the first was to most tenable ground, but from the peculiar circumstances of this case It merited consideration, if the principle could be saved, whether facility in the provisions might not result from a compliance. An attentive examination however of the Papers and the subject, soon convinced me that to furnish all the Papers would be highly improper; and that a partial delivery of them would leave the door open for as much calumny as the entire refusal—perhaps more so—as it might, and I have no doubt would be said, that all such as were essential to the purposes of the House, were withheld.
Under these impressions, I proceeded, with the heads of Departments and the Attorney General, to collect materials; & to prepare an answer, subject however to revision, & alteration, according to circumstances.3 This answer was ready on Monday4—and proposed to be sent in on Tuesday but it was delayed until I should receive what was expected; not doing it definitively on that day, the delivery of my answer was further postponed till the next; notwithstanding the anxious solicitude which was visible in all quarters, to learn the result of Executive decision.
Finding that the draft I had prepared, embraced most, if not all the principles which were detailed in the Paper I received yesterday; though not the reason⟨in⟩gs—That it would take considerable ⟨t⟩ime to copy the latter—and above all, hav⟨ing⟩ understood that if the Papers were refused a fresh demand, with strictures might be expected; I sent in the answer wch. was ready; reserving the other as a source for reasoning if my information proves true.
I could not be satisfied without giving you this concise acct. of the business. To express again my sincere thanks for the pains you have been at to investigate the subject, ⟨and to assure you, over & over, of the warmth of my friendship and of the affectionate regard with which
I am Your Affectionate
AL[S], Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress; ADfS, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress.
1. For background to this letter, see the introductory note to H to Washington, March 7, 1796. See also H to William Loughton Smith, March 10, 1796; H to Rufus King, March 16, 1796; H to Washington, March 24, 26, 28, 29, 1796.
3. On March 25, 1796, the day after the House had adopted Edward Livingston’s resolution requesting that the President submit the papers relating to the negotiation of the Jay Treaty, a committee composed of Livingston and Albert Gallatin delivered the resolution to the President, who informed them that he would take it “into consideration” (Annals of Congress description begins 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 (Washington, 1834–1849). description ends , V, 760). On the same day, the President wrote to the members of the cabinet: “The Resolution moved in the House of Representatives, for the Papers relative to the Negotiation of the Treaty with G. B having passed in the affirmative I request your opinion,
“Whether that Branch of Congress hath—or hath not a right, by the Constitution, to call for those Papers?
“Whether, if it does not possess the right, it wd. be expedient under the cricumstances of this particular case to furnish them?
“And, in either case, in what terms would it be most proper to comply with or to refuse the request of the house?
“These opinions in writing, and your attendance, will be expected at ten oclock tomorrow.” (ADfS, RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters, 1790–1799, National Archives.)
Of the cabinet members only Charles Lee thought that the President should comply with the request of the House (LC, dated March 26, 1796, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress).
4. The draft was prepared by Timothy Pickering, and it was delivered to Washington on March 29, 1796. See the introductory note to H to Washington, March 7, 1796.
5. Material within broken brackets has been taken from the draft in the George Washington Papers, Library of Congress.