George Washington Papers

Conference with a Committee of the United States Senate, 8 August 1789

Conference with a Committee of the United States Senate

[New York] August 8th 1789

Sentiments expressed by the President to the Committee from the Senate appointed to confer with him on the mode of Communication between the President and the Senate respecting Treaties and Nominations.

In all matters respecting Treaties, oral communications seem indispensably necessary—because in these a variety of matters are contained, all of which not only require consideration, but some of them may undergo much discussion—to do which by written communications would be tedious without being satisfactory.

Oral communications may be proper also for discussing the propriety of sending Representatives to foreign Courts, and ascertaining the Grade or character in which they are to appear and may be so in other cases.

But it may be asked where are these oral communications to be made? If in the Senate Chamber, how are the President and Vice-President to be arranged? The latter by the Constitution being ex-officio President of the Senate.

Would the Vice President be disposed to give up the Chair? if not

Ought the President of the United States to be placed in an aukward situation when there?

These are matters which require previous consideration and adjustment for meetings in the Senate Chamber or elsewhere.

With respect to Nominations

My present Ideas are that as they point to a single object unconnected in its nature with any other object, they had best be made by written messages—In this case the Acts of the President, and the Acts of the Senate will stand upon clear, distinct and responsible ground.

Independent of this consideration, it could be no pleasing thing I concieve for the President on the one hand to be present and hear the propriety of his nominations questioned—nor for the Senate on the other hand to be under the smallest restraint by his presence from the fullest and freest enquiry into the Character of the Person nominated.

The President in a situation like this would be reduced to one of two things; either to be a silent witness of the decision by Ballot, if there are objections to the nomination; or in justification thereof (if he think it right[)] to support it by argument—Neither of which might be agreeable and the latter improper; for as the President has a right to nominate without assigning reasons, so has the Senate a right to dissent without giving theirs.


The Senate appointed on 6 Aug. a committee “to wait on the President of the United States, and confer with him on the mode of communication proper to be pursued between him and the Senate, in the formation of Treaties, and making appointments to Offices” (see DHFC, description begins Linda Grant De Pauw et al., eds. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, March 4, 1789-March 3, 1791. 20 vols. to date. Baltimore, 1972–. description ends 2 : 24; Ralph Izard to GW, 7 Aug. 1789). The conference was probably precipitated by the Senate’s rejection of Benjamin Fishbourn’s nomination as collector of the customs at Savannah (see GW to the United States Senate, 6 Aug. 1789). The committee members conferred with GW on 8 and 10 Aug., and on 21 Aug. they reported to the Senate the results of the conference and their recommendations: “they have waited on the President of the United States, have conferred with him on the subject committed to them, and have collected from him the following sentiments. That the President being vested by the Constitution with the power of making Treaties, and appointing Officers, with the advice and consent of the Senate; when those powers are exercised, the Senate are evidently a Council only to the President, though their concurrence is necessary to his Acts. That it seems incident to this relation between them that not only the time, but the place, and manner of consultation should lie with the President, who may meet the Senate in the Senate Chamber, or convene them to his own house according to circumstances.

“That whenever the Government shall have buildings of it’s own, an Executive Chamber will no doubt be provided, where the Senate will generally attend the President: the place may depend on the nature of the business.

“That the opinions both of the President, and Senate as to the proper manner may be changed by experience. That in some kinds of business, it may be found best for the President to make his propositions in person; in others by written message.

“That on some occasions it may be most convenient that the President should attend the deliberations and decisions of the Senate on his propositions; on others that he should not; or that he should not attend the whole of the time. That in other cases, as in Treaties of a complicated nature, it may happen that he send his propositions in writing, and attend the Senate in person, after they shall have had sufficient time for Consultation. That in the appointment of foreign Ministers it may be proper that the President should consult the Senate in person, not only respecting the nomination, but the quality of the Officer to be appointed. That many other varieties as to the mode may be suggested by practice.

“The Committee therefore recommend that the Senate should accommodate their Rules to the uncertainty of the particular mode, and place that may be adopted.”

The committee then suggested in their report the resolution that was adopted by the Senate on the same day: “Resolved, That when Nominations shall be made in writing by the President of the United States to the Senate, a future day shall be assigned, unless the Senate unanimously direct otherwise, for taking them into consideration. That when the President of the United States shall meet the Senate in the Senate Chamber, the President of the Senate shall have a Chair on the floor, be considered as at the head of the Senate, and his Chair shall be assigned to the President of the United States. That when the Senate shall be convened by the President of the United States, to any other place, the President of the Senate, and Senators shall attend at the place appointed. The Secretary of the Senate shall also attend, to take the minutes of the Senate.

“That all questions shall be put by the President of the Senate, either in the presence or absence of the President of the United States; and the Senators shall signify their assent or dissent, by answering viva voce ay, or no” (DHFC, description begins Linda Grant De Pauw et al., eds. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, March 4, 1789-March 3, 1791. 20 vols. to date. Baltimore, 1972–. description ends 2:29–30; see also ibid., 23–25).

According to Sen. Ralph Izard, one of the members of the committee, GW had acknowledged at the meeting that he had conferred with members of the House of Representatives on nominations, but “likewise said he had not acted so with the Senators. as they could have an Opportunity, of giving their advice & consent afterwards” (Bowling and Veit, Diary of William Maclay, description begins Kenneth R. Bowling and Helen E. Veit, eds. The Diary of William Maclay and Other Notes on Senate Debates. Baltimore, 1988. description ends 121). For GW’s comments on the conference, see his letter to James Madison, 9 Aug. 1789.

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