George Washington Papers

From George Washington to the United States Senate, 17 September 1789

To the United States Senate

[New York] September 17th 1789.

Gentlemen of the Senate

It doubtless is important that all treaties and compacts formed by the United States with other nations whether civilized or not, should be made with caution, and executed with fidelity.

It is said to be the general understanding and practice of nations, as a check on the mistakes and indiscretions of ministers or Commissioners, not to consider any treaty, negociated, and signed by such officers, as final and conclusive untill ratified by the sovereign or government from whom they derive their powers. this practice has been adopted by the United States, respecting their treaties with european nations; and I am inclined to think it would be adviseable to observe it in the conduct of our treaties with the Indians: for tho’ such Treaties, being on their part made by their chiefs or rulers, need not be ratified by them, yet being formed on our part by the agency of subordinate officers, it seems to be both prudent and reasonable, that their acts should not be binding on the nation untill approved and ratified by the government. It strikes me that this point should be well considered and settled, so that our national proceedings in this respect may become uniform, and be directed by fixed and stable principles.

The treaties with certain Indian nations, which were laid before you with my message of the 25th May last suggested two questions to my mind—Vizt 1st whether those treaties were to be considered as perfected, and consequently as obligatory, without being ratified, if not, then 2dly whether both, or either and which of them ought to be ratified; on these questions, I jequest your opinion and advice.

You have indeed advised me “to execute and enjoin an observance of” the treaty with the Wyandots &c. You gentlemen doubtless intended to be clear and explicit and yet without further explanation, I fear I may misunderstand your meaning—for—If by my executing that treaty, you mean that I should make it (in a more particular and immediate manner than it now is) the act of Government, then it follows that I am to ratify it. If you mean by my executing it, that I am to see that it be carried into effect and operation, then I am led to conclude either that you consider it as being perfect and obligatory in its present state and therefore to be executed and observed, Or that you consider it as to derive its completion and obligation from the silent approbation and ratification which my proclamation may be construed to imply. Altho I am inclined to think that the latter is your intention, yet it certainly is best that all doubts respecting it be removed.

Permit me to observe that it will be proper for me to be informed of your sentiments relativ⟨e⟩ to the treaty with the six nations, previous to the departure of the Governor of the Western Territory, and therefore I recommend it to your early consideration.1

Go: Washington

LS, DNA: RG 46, First Congress, Records of Executive Proceedings, President’s Messages—Indian Relations. This message was delivered by Henry Knox on 17 Sept. (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 , 2:40). GW’s letter to the Senate involved the president’s uncertainty concerning the ratification of the Indian treaties concluded by Arthur St. Clair at Fort Harmar in January 1789. See GW to the United States Senate, 25 May 1789. In considering GW’s 25 May message on 8 Sept., the Senate had already resolved that the president “be advised to execute and enjoin an observance” of the Fort Harmar treaty with the “Wyandot, Delaware, Ottawa, Chippawa, Pattawatima and Sac Nations” (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 , 2:38).

1GW’s message to the Senate was committed to a committee consisting of Charles Carroll, Rufus King, and George Read. The committee reported on 18 Sept. that “the Signature of treaties with the Indian Nations has ever been considered as a full completion thereof, and that such treaties have never been solemnly ratified by either of the contracting Parties as hath been commonly practised among the civilized Nations of Europe, wherefore the Committee are of opinion that the formal ratification of the Treaty concluded at Fort Harmar on the 9th day of January 1789, between Arthur St. Clair . . . and the Sachems and Warriors of the Wyandot, Delaware, Ottawa, Chippawa, Pattawatima and Sac Nations is not expedient or necessary, and that the Resolve of the Senate of the 8th September 1789 respecting the said treaty, authorises the President of the United States to enjoin a due observance thereof.

“That as to the Treaty made at Fort Harmar on the 9th of January 1789, between the said Arthur St. Clair and the Sachems and Warriors of the Six Nations (except the Mohawks) from particular circumstances affecting a part of the ceded lands the Senate did not judge it expedient to pass any act concerning the same” (ibid., 2:42). On 22 Sept. the Senate confirmed the Fort Harmar treaty with the Wyandot and allied tribes, but “It being suggested” that the treaty with the Six Nations “may be construed to prejudice the claims of the States of Massachusetts and New York and of the Grantees under the said States respectively,” consideration of this treaty was postponed to the next session of the Senate (ibid., 2:43).

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