Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from William Branch Giles, 31 March 1796

From William Branch Giles

Philadelphia March 31st. 1796

Dear sir

I send you herewith a paper containing the Presidents refusal to comply with the call of the House of R. for the papers respecting the Brittish treaty. From your perfect acquaintance with the state of public affairs, and the views of parties, all comments upon this extraordinary production are rendered unnecessary; the language is too plain to be mistaken, and must press upon your mind a crowd of the most serious reflections.

The proper course to be pursued has not yet been settled. It is probable that the President’s reply will be referred to a committee to prepare something in the nature of a manifesto, which will present to the public the reasons induceing the call on the part of the House. It is also probable that the House will refuse to act upon the treaty until the papers called for shall be placed upon the table.

These measures will require nerves, but we have no reasons to doubt of them from present appearances. Be pleased to make my best respects to the Ladies of your family and believe me to be your sincere friend &c.

Wm. B. Giles

RC (DLC); at foot of text: “Mr. Thomas Jefferson”; endorsed by TJ as received 15 Apr. 1796 and so recorded in SJL.

I send you herewith a paper: on 30 Mch. 1796, President Washington responded to the request by the House of Representatives for the documents surrounding the Jay Treaty negotiations with a written message rejecting the demands. It appeared in Philadelphia newspapers the next day (Philadelphia Gazette and Philadelphia Aurora, 31 Mch. 1796). In his refusal to comply with the call of the house, the president cited the importance of secrecy in diplomatic negotiations and argued that sharing the papers with the House would “establish a dangerous precedent.” Calling upon his experience as a member of the Philadelphia Convention, he claimed to know “the principles on which the Constitution was formed,” according to which treaty-making powers were “exclusively vested in the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate” and that every treaty so made and promulgated became the “law of the land.” Finally, citing the closed journals of the Convention on deposit in the office of the Department of State, Washington noted that the body had “explicitly rejected” the proposition “that no Treaty should be binding on the United States which was not ratified by a Law” (Fitzpatrick, Writings description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, Washington, D.C., 1931–44, 39 vols. description ends , xxxv, 2–5).

The following day, the House considered the proper course to be pursued and resolved, by a 55 to 37 vote, to refer the president’s message to the committee of the whole, where treaty opponents planned to bring their reasons for differing with the president before the public. The debate began 6 Apr. 1796 with Thomas Blount of North Carolina offering two resolutions which were probably agreed upon at a meeting of House Republicans the previous Saturday evening. The first declared that the House had a right and duty to deliberate on any aspect of a treaty that required its action before being executed; and the second asserted that the House need not state reasons when applying to the executive for information. In a lengthy reponse to Washington’s message, Madison supported the resolutions. They were passed the next day without further debate (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 Washington, D.C., Gales & Seaton, 1834–56, 42 vols. All editions are undependable and pagination varies from one printing to another. The first two volumes of the set cited here have “Compiled … by Joseph Gales, Senior” on the title page and bear the caption “Gales & Seatons History” on verso and “of Debates in Congress” on recto pages. The remaining volumes bear the caption “History of Congress” on both recto and verso pages. Those using the first two volumes with the latter caption will need to employ the date of the debate or the indexes of debates and speakers. description ends , v, 762–83; Beckley to Monroe, 2 Apr. 1796, Gerard W. Gawalt, ed., Justifying Jefferson: The Political Writings of John James Beckley [Washington, 1995], 114). For a discussion of the House vote and for the debate on appropriations for the treaty, see Madison to TJ, 11, 18 Apr. 1796.

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