James Madison Papers

“Helvidius” Number 3, [7 September] 1793

“Helvidius” Number 3

[7 September 1793]

In order to give color to a right in the Executive to exercise the Legislative power of judging whether there be a cause of war in a public stipulation—two other arguments are subjoined by the writer to that last examined.

The first is simply this, “It is the right and duty of the Executive to judge of and interpret those articles of our treaties which give to France particular privileges, in order to the enforcement of those privileges,”1 from which it is stated as a necessary consequence, that the Executive has certain other rights, among which is the right in question.

This argument is answered by a very obvious distinction. The first right is essential to the execution of the treaty as a law in operation, and interferes with no right invested2 in another Department. The second3 is not essential to the execution of the treaty or any other law; on the contrary the article to which the right is applied, cannot as has been shewn, from the very nature of it be in operation as a law without a previous declaration of the Legislature; and all the laws to be enforced by the Executive remain in the mean time precisely the same, whatever be the disposition or judgment of the Executive. This second right would also interfere with a right acknowledged to be in the Legislative Department.

If nothing else could suggest this distinction to the writer, he ought to have been reminded of it by his own words “in order to the enforcement of those privileges”—was it in order to the enforcement of the article of guaranty, that the right is ascribed to the Executive?

The other of the two arguments reduces itself into the following form: The Executive has the right to receive public Ministers; this right includes the right of deciding, in the case of a revolution, whether the new government sending the Minister, ought to be recognized or not; and this again, the right to give or refuse operation to pre-existing treaties.

The power of the Legislature to declare war and judge of the causes for declaring it, is one of the most express and explicit parts of the Constitution. To endeavor to abridge or effect4 it by strained inferences, and by hypothetical or singular occurrences, naturally warns the reader of some lurking fallacy.

The words of the Constitution are “he (the President) shall receive Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls.” I shall not undertake to examine what would be the precise extent and effect of this function in various cases which fancy may suggest, or which time may produce. It will be more proper to observe in general, and every candid reader will second the observation, that little if any thing more was intended by the clause, than to provide for a particular mode of communication, almost grown into a right among modern nations; by pointing out the department of the government, most proper for the ceremony of admitting public Ministers, of examining their credentials, and of authenticating their title to the privileges annexed to their character by the law of nations. This being the apparent design of the Constitution, it would be highly improper to magnify the function into an important prerogative, even where no rights of other departments could be affected by it.

To shew that the view here given of the clause is not a new construction, invented or strained for a particular occasion—I will take the liberty of recurring to the cotemporary work already quoted, which contains the obvious and original gloss put on this part of the Constitution by its friends and advocates.

“The President is also to be authorised to receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers. This, though it has been a rich theme of declamation, is more a matter of dignity than of authority. It is a circumstance, that will be without consequence in the administration of the government, and it is far more convenient that it should be arranged in this manner, than that there should be a necessity for convening the Legislature or one of its branches upon every arrival of a foreign Minister, though it were merely to take the place of a departed predecessor.” Fed. vol. II. p. 237.5

Had it been foretold in the year 1788 when this work was published, that before the end of the year 1793, a writer, assuming the merit of being a friend to the Constitution, would appear, and gravely maintain, that this function, which was to be without consequence in the administration of the government, might have the consequence of deciding on the validity of revolutions in favor of liberty, “of putting the United States in a condition to become an associate in war,” nay “of laying the Legislature under an obligation of declaring war,” what would have been thought and said of so visionary a prophet?

The moderate opponents of the Constitution would probably have disowned his extravagance. By the advocates of the Constitution, his prediction must have been treated as “an experiment on public credulity, dictated either by a deliberate intention to deceive, or by the overflowings of a zeal too intemperate to be ingenuous.”6

But how does it follow from the function to receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers that so consequential a prerogative may be exercised by the Executive? When a foreign Minister presents himself, two questions immediately arise: Are his credentials from the existing and acting government of his country? Are they properly authenticated? These questions belong of necessity to the Executive; but they involve no cognizance of the question, whether those exercising the government have the right along with the possession. This belongs to the nation, and to the nation alone, on whom the government operates. The questions before the Executive are merely questions of fact; and the Executive would have precisely the same right, or rather be under the same necessity of deciding them, if its function was simply to receive without any discretion to reject public Ministers. It is evident, therefore, that if the Executive has a right to reject a public Minister it must be founded on some other consideration than a change in the government or the newness of the government; and consequently a right to refuse to acknowledge a new government cannot be implied by the right to refuse a public Minister.

It is not denied that there may be cases in which a respect to the general principles of liberty, the essential rights of the people, or the overruling sentiments of humanity, might require a government, whether new or old, to be treated as an illegitimate despotism. Such are in fact discussed and admitted by the most approved authorities. But they are great and extraordinary cases, by no means submitted to so limited an organ of the national will as the Executive of the United States; and certainly not to be brought, by any torture of words, within the right to receive Ambassadors.

That the authority of the Executive does not extend to7 question, whether an existing government ought to be recognized or not, will still more clearly appear from an examination of the next inference of the writer, to wit, that the Executive has a right to give or refuse activity and operation to pre-existing treaties.

If there be a principle that ought not to be questioned within the United States, it is, that every nation has a right to abolish an old government and establish a new one. This principle is not only recorded in every public archive, written in every American heart, and sealed with the blood of a host of American martyrs; but is the only lawful tenure by which the United States hold their existence as a nation.

It is a principle incorporated with the above, that governments are established for the national good and are organs of the national will.

From these two principles results a third, that treaties formed by the government, are treaties of the nation, unless otherwise expressed in the treaties.

Another consequence is that a nation, by exercising the right of changing the organ of its will, can neither disengage itself from the obligations, nor forfeit the benefits of its treaties. This is a truth of vast importance, and happily rests with sufficient firmness on its own authority. To silence or prevent cavil, I insert however, the following extracts:

“Since then such a treaty (a treaty not personal to the sovereign) directly relates to the body of the State, it subsists though the form of the republic happens to be changed, and though it should be even transformed into a monarchy—For the State and the nation are always the same whatever changes are made in the form of the government—and the treaty concluded with the nation, remains in force as long as the nation exists.” Vattel, B. II. § 185.8

“It follows that as a treaty, notwithstanding the change of a democratic government into a monarchy, continues in force with the new King, in like manner; if a monarchy becomes a republic, the treaty made with the King does not expire on that account, unless it was manifestly personal.” Burlam. part IV, c. IX, § 16. ¶ 6.9

As a change of government then makes no change in the obligations or rights of the party to a treaty, it is clear that the Executive can have no more right to suspend or prevent the operation of a treaty, on account of the change, than to suspend or prevent the operation, where no such change has happened. Nor can it have any more right to suspend the operation of a treaty in force as a law, than to suspend the operation of any other law.10

The logic employed by the writer on this occasion, will be best understood by accommodating to it the language of a proclamation, founded on the prerogative and policy of suspending the treaty with France.

Whereas a treaty was concluded on the   day of   between the United States and the French nation, through the kingly government, which was then the organ of its will: And whereas the said nation hath since exercised its right (no wise abridged by the said treaty) of changing the organ of its will, by abolishing the said kingly government, as inconsistent with the rights and happiness of the people, and establishing a republican in lieu thereof, as most favorable to the public happiness, and best suited to the genius of a people become sensible of their rights and ashamed of their chains: And whereas, by the constitution of the United States, the executive is authorised to receive ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls: And whereas a public minister, duly appointed and commissioned by the new Republic of France, hath arrived and presented himself to the executive, in order to be received in his proper character: Now be it known, that by virtue of the said right vested in the executive to receive ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, & of the rights included therein, the executive hath refused to receive the said minister from the said republic, and hath thereby caused the activity and operation of all treaties with the French nation, hitherto in force as supreme laws of the land, to be suspended until the executive, by taking off the said suspension, shall revive the same; of which, all persons concerned are to take notice, at their peril.

The writer, as if beginning to feel that he was grasping at more than he could hold, endeavours, all of a sudden, to squeeze his doctrine into a smaller size, and a less vulnerable shape. The reader shall see the operation in his own words.

“And where a treaty antecedently exists between the United States and such nation (a nation whose government has undergone a revolution) that right (the right of judging whether the new rulers ought to be recognized or not) involves the power of giving operation or not to such treaty. For until the new government is acknowledged, the treaties between the nations, as far at least as regards public rights, are of course suspended.”

This qualification of the suspending power, though reluctantly and inexplicitly made, was prudent, for two reasons; first, because it is pretty evident that private rights, whether of judiciary or executive cognizance, may be carried into effect without the agency of the foreign government; and therefore would not be suspended of course by a rejection of that agency. Secondly, because the judiciary, being an independent department, and acting under an oath to pursue the law of treaties as the supreme law of the land, might not readily follow the executive example, and a right in one expositor of treaties, to consider them as not in force, whilst it would be the duty of another expositor to consider them as in force, would be a phænomenon not so easy to be explained. Indeed as the doctrine stands qualified, it leaves the executive the right of suspending the law of treaties in relation to rights of one description, without exempting it from the duty of enforcing it in relation to rights of another description.

But the writer is embarked in so unsound an argument, that he does not save the rest of his inference by this sacrifice of one half of it. It is not true, that all public rights are of course suspended by a refusal to acknowledge the government, or even by a suspension of the government. And in the next place, the right in question does not follow from the necessary suspension of public rights, in consequence of a refusal to acknowledge the government.

Public rights are of two sorts; those which require the agency of government; those which may be carried into effect without that agency.

As public rights are the rights of the nation, not of the government, it is clear that wherever they can be made good to the nation, without the office of government, they are not suspended by the want of an acknowledged government, or even by the want of an existing government; and that there are important rights of this description, will be illustrated by the following case:

Suppose, that after the conclusion of the treaty of alliance between the United States and France, a party of the enemy had surprised and put to death every member of congress; that the occasion had been used by the people of America for changing the old confederacy into such a government as now exists, and that in the progress of this revolution, an interregnum had happened. Suppose further, that during this interval, the states of South-Carolina and Georgia, or any other parts of the United States, had been attacked and been put into evident and imminent danger of being irrecoverably lost, without the interposition of the French arms; is it not manifest, that as the Treaty is the Treaty of the United States, not of their government, the people of the United States could not forfeit their right to the guarantee of their territory by the accidental suspension of their government; and that any attempt, on the part of France, to evade the obligations of the Treaty, by pleading the suspension of government, or by refusing to acknowledge it, would justly have been received with universal indignation, as an ignominious perfidy?

With respect to public rights that cannot take effect in favour of a nation without the agency of its government, it is admitted that they are suspended of course where there is no government in existence, and also by a refusal to acknowledge an existing government. But no inference in favour of a right to suspend the operation of Treaties, can be drawn from either case. Where the existence of the government is suspended, it is a case of necessity; it would be a case happening without the act of the executive, and consequently could prove nothing for or against the right.

In the other case, to wit, of a refusal by the executive to recognize an existing government, however certain it may be, that a suspension of some of the public rights might ensue, yet it is equally certain, that the refusal would be without right or authority; and that no right or authority could be implied or produced by the unauthorised act. If a right to do whatever might bear an analogy to the necessary consequence of what was done without right, could be inferred from the analogy, there would be no other limit to power than the limit to its ingenuity.

It is no answer to say that it may be doubtful whether a government does or does not exist; or doubtful which may be the existing and acting Government. The case stated by the writer is, that there are existing rulers; that there is an acting Government; but that they are new rulers; and that it is a new Government. The full reply, however, is to repeat what has been already observed; that questions of this sort are mere questions of fact; that as such only, they belong to the executive; that they would equally belong to the executive, if it was tied down to the reception of public ministers, without any discretion to receive or reject them; that where the fact appears to be, that no Government exists, the consequential suspension is independent of the executive; that where the fact appears to be, that the Government does exist, the executive must be governed by the fact, and can have no right or discretion, on account of the date or form of the Government, to refuse to acknowledge it, either by rejecting its public minister, or by any other step taken on that account. If it does refuse on that account, the refusal is a wrongful act, and can neither prove nor illustrate a rightful power.

I have spent more time on this part of the discussion than may appear to some, to have been requisite. But it was considered as a proper opportunity for presenting some important ideas, connected with the general subject, and it may be of use in shewing how very superficially, as well as erroneously, the writer has treated it.

In other respects so particular an investigation was less necessary. For allowing it to be, as contended, that a suspension of treaties might happen from a consequential operation of a right to receive public ministers, which is an express right vested by the constitution; it could be no proof, that the same or a similar effect could be produced by the direct operation of a constructive power.

Hence the embarrassments and gross contradictions of the writer in defining, and applying his ultimate inference from the operation of the executive power with regard to public ministers.

At first it exhibits an “important instance of the right of the executive to decide the obligation of the nation with regard to foreign nations.”

Rising from that, it confers on the executive, a right “to put the United States in a condition to become an associate in war.”

And, at its full height authorises the executive “to lay the legislature under an obligation of declaring war.”

From this towering prerogative, it suddenly brings down the executive to the right of “consequentially affecting the proper or improper exercise of the power of the legislature to declare war.”

And then, by a caprice as unexpected as it is sudden, it espouses the cause of the legislature; rescues it from the executive right “to lay it under an obligation of declaring war”; and asserts it to be “free to perform its own duties, according to its own sense of them,” without any other controul than what it is liable to, in every other legislative act.

The point at which it finally seems to rest, is, that “the executive in the exercise of its constitutional powers, may establish an antecedent state of things, which ought to weigh in the legislative decisions”; a prerogative which will import a great deal, or nothing, according to the handle by which you take it; and which, at the same time, you can take by no handle that does not clash with some inference preceding.

If “by weighing in the legislative decisions” be meant having an influence on the expediency of this or that decision in the opinion of the legislature; this is no more than what every antecedent state of things ought to have, from whatever cause proceeding; whether from the use or abuse of constitutional powers, or from the exercise of constitutional or assumed powers. In this sense the power to establish an antecedent state of things is not constituted.11 But then it is of no use to the writer, and is also in direct contradiction to the inference, that the executive may “lay the legislature under an obligation to decide in favor of war.”

If the meaning be as is implied by the force of the terms “constitutional powers” that the antecedent state of things produced by the executive, ought to have a constitutional weight with the legislature: or, in plainer words, imposes a constitutional obligation on the legislative decisions, the writer will not only have to combat the arguments by which such a prerogative has been disproved: but to reconcile it with his last concession, that “the legislature is free to perform its duties according to its own sense of them.” He must shew that the legislature is, at the same time, constitutionally free to pursue its own judgment and constitutionally bound by the judgment of the executive.


Printed copy (Philadelphia Gazette of the U.S., 7 and 11 Sept. 1793). Reprinted in [Madison], Letters of Helvidius, pp. 22–33. For JM’s later revisions, see “Helvidius” No. 2, 31 Aug. 1793, n. 2, and nn. 2–4, 7, and 11, below.

1This argument in “Pacificus” No. 1 and other quotations from that essay used by JM in “Helvidius” No. 3 are found in Syrett and Cooke, Papers of Hamilton description begins Harold C. Syrett and Jacob E. Cooke, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton (26 vols.; New York, 1961–79). description ends , 15:41–42.

2In later edition, corrected to read “vested” (The Federalist with Helvidius [1818 ed.], p. 613).

3In later edition, “, viz. the right in question,” is here added (ibid.).

4In later edition, corrected to read “affect” (ibid., p. 614).

5The Federalist No. 69 (Syrett and Cooke, Papers of Hamilton description begins Harold C. Syrett and Jacob E. Cooke, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton (26 vols.; New York, 1961–79). description ends , 4:596). JM cited the M’Lean 1788 edition.

6The Federalist No. 24 (ibid., 4:419).

7In later edition, “a” is here added (The Federalist with Helvidius [1818 ed.], p. 616).

8Vattel, Law of Nations.

9Burlamaqui, Principes du droit politique.

10The text printed on 7 Sept. ends here. The Gazette of the U.S. misnumbered the 11 Sept. text as a continuation of “Helvidius” No. 2.

11In later edition, corrected to read “contested” (The Federalist with Helvidius [1818 ed.], p. 623).

Index Entries