Thomas Jefferson Papers

Memorandum on References by Congress to Heads of Departments, [10 March 1792]

Memorandum on References by Congress to Heads of Departments

[10 Mch. 1792]

On the 2d. of January 1792. Messrs. Fitzsimons and Gerry (among others) dined with me. These two staid with a Mr. Learned of Connecticut after the company was gone. We got on the subject of References by the legislature to the heads of departments, considering their mischief in every direction. Gerry and Fitzsimmons clearly opposed to them.

Two days afterwards (Jan. 4.) Mr. Bourne from Rho. isld. presentd. a memorial from his state complaining of inequality in the assumption and moved to refer it to the Sec. of the Treasury. Fitzsim., Gerry and others opposed it but it was carried.

Jan. 19. Fitzsimmons moved that the Pr. of the U.S. be requested to direct the Sec. of the Treasury to lay before the house information to enable the legislature to judge of the additional revenue necessary on the encrease of the military establishment. The house on debate struck out the words ‘Pres. of the U.S.’

Mar. 7. The subject resumed. An animated debate took place on the tendency of references to the heads of departments; and it seemed that a great majority would be against it. The house adjourned. Treasury greatly alarmed, and much industry supposed to be used before next morning when it was brought on again and debated thro’ the day and on the question the Treasury carried it by 31. to 27. but is deeply wounded, since it was seen that all Pensylva. except Jacobs voted against the reference, that Tucker of S.C. voted for it and Sumpter absented himself, debauched for the moment only because of the connection of the question with a further assumption which S. Carolina favored, but that they never were to be counted on among the Treasury votes. Some others absented themselves. Gerry changed sides. On the whole it shewed that treasury influence was tottering.

MS (DLC); entirely in TJ’s hand; at foot of text: “committed to writing this 10th. of Mar. 92.” Entry in SJPL reads: “Notes of conversations and facts on References by legislature to Heads of departments.” Included in the “Anas.”

The House of Representatives’ custom of requesting reports from the Secretary of the Treasury concerning matters on which it was about to legislate was one of the principal sources of Hamilton’s power over Congress. This practice, which was sanctioned by the act of 1789 that brought the Department of Treasury into being, enabled Hamilton to exert a significant degree of control over the deliberations of Congress, not only through his celebrated reports on public credit, the national domain, the bank of the United States, and manufacturing, but through a host of other communications to the House on issues of lesser note as well. TJ’s opposition to this procedure stemmed from his growing conviction that it was one of the means by which the Secretary of the Treasury was able to exercise undue ministerial influence over Congress for his allegedly monarchical ends—a conviction that was shared by the emerging Republican opposition in the House (see TJ to Washington, 23 May 1792). Republican congressmen explained the constitutional and ideological mischief they perceived in this custom during a spirited debate in the House on 7 and 8 Mch. 1792 over a motion to ask the Secretary of the Treasury to submit a report on ways and means of raising the additional revenue needed to finance a recently passed act that significantly expanded the size of the army. They contended that the House was perfectly competent to draft a revenue bill on its own and maintained that requesting a prior report from Hamilton on this matter was tantamount to surrendering the House’s constitutional authority to originate money bills to the Secretary of the Treasury. The proposed motion, William Findley of Pennsylvania declared, was “contrary to the principles of the Government, and inconsistent with the purity and independence of the House of Representatives, whose duty it is exclusively to prepare or originate revenue laws” (Annals description begins Annals of the Congress of the United States: The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United StatesCompiled from Authentic Materials by Joseph Gales, Senior, Washington, Gales & Seaton, 1834–56, 42 vols. All editions are undependable and pagination varies from one printing to another. The edition cited here has this caption on both recto and verso pages: “History of Congress.” Another printing, with the same title-page, has “Gales & Seatons History” on verso and “of Debates in Congress” on recto pages. Those using the latter printing will need to employ the date or, where it is lacking, to add approximately 52 to the page numbers of Annals as cited in this volume. description ends , iii, 447). They also charged that legislative references to the heads of executive departments undermined the independence of Congress and paved the way for the creation of a monarchical form of government in America—a central theme in Republican political ideology. This practice, warned John Page of Virginia, “can be supported on no other principles, but such as may be used to subvert our Government, and to introduce a Monarchy, as unlimited as that lately abolished in France; for surely if more wisdom can be found in a few Heads of Departments, than in the whole Representative body of the people—and if those Heads can be made responsible, whilst the Representatives are free from responsibility, and despatch and energy can be obtained without the expense of a Congress, or of this House at least, I see not why the people might not make a favorite President as absolute as the Kings of France have been, and call on Congress, like the Parliaments of Paris, only to register his edicts” (same, p. 442). But Federalist representatives brushed aside Republican objections to the proposed motion, arguing that legislative references to executive officers were legal, that the House would be derelict in its duty to the people if it did not avail itself of Hamilton’s expert knowledge of public finance, and that the House was free to accept or reject the treasury secretary’s recommendations. In response to the passage of this controversial motion on 8 Mch. 1792, Hamilton submitted proposals for raising additional revenue to the House nine days later, which were subsequently approved by that body with only minor changes (same, p. 437–52; Syrett, Hamilton description begins The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, ed. Harold C. Syrett and others, New York, 1961-1979, 27 vols. description ends , xi, 139–49). Of the three congressmen with whom TJ discussed the issue of legislative references in January 1792, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts and Amasa learned of Connecticut voted in favor of the motion to ask Hamilton for a report on how to raise additional revenue, whereas Thomas Fitzsimmons of Pennsylvania voted against it (JHR description begins Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, Washington, Gales & Seaton, 1826- description ends , i, 531).

Hamilton concurred in TJ’s opinion that the House would have voted against him if the roll had been called on the 7th instead of the 8th of March. He credited James Madison with organizing the opposition in the House to making a legislative reference to him and regarded the continuance of this practice as so essential to his power in dealing with Congress that he later informed a political ally in Virginia that he would have resigned as Secretary of the Treasury if the Madisonian view of this issue had prevailed in the House (Hamilton to Edward Carrington, 26 May 1792, Syrett, Hamilton description begins The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, ed. Harold C. Syrett and others, New York, 1961-1979, 27 vols. description ends , xi, 432–3). For his part, TJ was overly sanguine in interpreting the close vote in the House on 8 Mch. 1792 as evidence that treasury influence was tottering. Not until March 1794 did the House reject a proposal to submit a legislative reference to Hamilton (Leonard D. White, The Federalists: A Study in Administrative History [New York, 1948], p. 68–74).

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