Cabinet Opinions on Indian Affairs
[25 Feb. 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, 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 and 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 and Attorney general are of opinion that the Executive and 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 and War and 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.
4. Whether the Senate shall be previously consulted on this point?
The Opinion unanimously is that it will be better not to consult them previously.
MS (DLC: Washington Papers); undated; in TJ’s hand, signed by TJ, Hamilton, Knox, and Randolph; written with Cabinet opinions on the debt to France of same date on one sheet folded to make four pages; endorsed by Tobias Lear. PrC (DLC); unsigned; overwritten in part by a later hand. Entries in SJPL: “[Opins of heads of deptmts.] on proceeding in treaty with the hostile Indians” and “on previous consultation with Senate.”
The President put these questions to the Cabinet because on the previous day he had received dispatches from General William Hull to the Secretary of the Treasury and the Secretary of War containing two critically important pieces of intelligence about the forthcoming Lower Sandusky peace conference with the hostile Western tribes. In the first place Hull reported that Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe of Upper Canada had refused his request to purchase supplies in Canada and transport them to the Indians attending this conference. Hull had been dispatched on this mission by Hamilton after the Treasury Secretary received assurances from George Hammond that Simcoe would be amenable to such a request. At the same time, moreover, Hull enclosed various documents which made it clear for the first time to the Washington administration that the Western Indians were demanding an Ohio river boundary as a condition of peace with the United States (Washington, Journal description begins Dorothy Twohig, ed., The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793–1797, Charlottesville, 1981 description ends , 66–7; Syrett, Hamilton description begins Harold C. Syrett and others, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, New York, 1961–87, 27 vols. description ends , xiii, 382–3, 479, xiv, 9–13). As a result, the Cabinet decided to allow the treaty to proceed in order to mollify domestic critics of the Indian war and not from any genuine hope that a peaceful settlement was possible as long as the Western tribes sought to interpose an Ohio river boundary between themselves and the United States (Notes on Cabinet Opinions, 26 Feb. 1793). For a discussion of the origins of the Lower Sandusky conference, see Notes for a Conversation with George Hammond, [ca. 10 Dec. 1792], and note.
In addition to the intrinsic historical importance of the subjects with which they deal, this document and the one that follows are also significant in American constitutional history as the first written corporate opinions that the Cabinet submitted to the President. Hitherto Cabinet members had either submitted individual written opinions in response to specific requests by Washington or made their views known during group meetings held in his presence. The combination of a formal consultation of the heads of the three executive departments and the Attorney General with the President and the subsequent submission to the chief executive of a corporate opinion embodying the views of these officers was an important milestone in the development of the American Cabinet system. See Mary L. Hinsdale, A History of the President’s Cabinet (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1911), 7–16, for a generally useful account of the evolution of the Cabinet during Washington’s administration that nevertheless overlooks the significance of these two documents.