George Washington Papers

From George Washington to the United States Senate, 9 February 1790

To the United States Senate

United States [New York]

Gentlemen of the Senate,February 9th 1790

You will perceive from the papers herewith delivered,1 and which are enumerated in the annexed list,2 that a difference subsists between Great Britain and the United States relative to the boundary line between our Eastern, and their Territories. A plan for deciding this difference, was laid before the late Congress;3 and whether that, or some other plan of a like kind, would not now be elegible, is submitted to your consideration.

In my opinion it is desireable that all questions between this and other nations, be speedily and amicably settled; and in this instance I think it advisable to postpone any negociations on the subject, until I shall be informed of the result of your deliberations, and receive your advice as to the propositions most proper to be offered on the part of the United States.

As I am taking measures for learning the intentions of Great Britain respecting the further detention of our Posts &c.4 I am the more sollicitous that the business now submitted to you, may be prepared for negociation, as soon as the other important affairs which engage your attention will permit.

Go: Washington

LS, DNA: RG 46, First Congress, Records of Executive Proceedings, President’s Messages—Foreign Relations; LB, DLC:GW.

This communication to the Senate concerned the northeastern boundary with Canada. The British and American negotiators at the Treaty of Paris in 1782 had used John Mitchell’s 1755 map to determine which of the two large streams that flow into Passamaquoddy Bay formed the boundary between the United States and Canada. The fact that Mitchell’s map designated the eastern stream as the St. Croix placed the boundary at that river, a point that remained in dispute between the United States and Great Britain. A mixed commission appointed under the terms of the Jay Treaty defined the boundary in 1798 as the western stream, known locally as the Schoodic. As early as 1785, in a report to the Confederation Congress of 21 April, Secretary for Foreign Affairs John Jay contended that “effectual Measures should be immediately taken” to settle the dispute over the line, suggesting that commissioners should be appointed to consider the boundary (JCC, description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends 28:287–90). By the late 1780s settlers from Nova Scotia were moving into the disputed area, “pretending,” as Jefferson noted in a letter to Benjamin Franklin “that it is the Western, and not the Eastern River of the Bay of Passamaquoddy, which was designated by the Name of St. Croix in the Treaty of Peace with that Nation.” Jefferson requested that Franklin communicate “any Facts which your Memory or Papers may enable you to recollect, and which may indicate the true River the Commissioners on both sides had in their View, to establish as the Boundary between the two Nations. It will be of some Consequence to be informed by what Map they traced the Boundary” (Jefferson to Franklin, 31 Mar. 1790, in Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends 16:283). In his reply to Jefferson, 8 April, Franklin assured him that “I am perfectly clear in the Remembrance that the Map we used in tracing the Boundary was brought to the Treaty by the Commissioners from England, and that it was the same that was published by Mitchell above 20 Years before. Having a Copy of that Map by me in loose Sheets I send you that Sheet which contains the Bay of Passamaquoddy, where you will see that Part of the Boundary traced.—I remember too that in that Part of the Boundary, we relied much on the Opinion of Mr Adams, who had been concerned in some former Disputes concerning those Territories” (ibid., 326). Jefferson sent similar letters to Henry Laurens, John Adams, and John Jay (ibid., 283). That the movement of settlers was widely known is indicated not only by the enclosures to GW’s letter to the Senate but also by articles appearing in a number of newspapers. One article reprinted from a Boston newspaper stated that “Since the peace, the subjects of the British King have taken possession of all the lands between the St. Croix and Shooduck rivers, a tract nearly as large as the state of New-Hampshire, and now hold possession of the same under the pretence that the Shooduck is the true river St. Croix. They also claim all the islands in the Bay of Passamaquoddy, although many of them lay several miles to the westward even of the river which they call the boundary. They have offered many insults to the inhabitants of these islands, taken several vessels, and committed other outrages that must oblige us speedily to adopt measures to prevent such insults in future” (Daily Advertiser [New York], 29 Mar. 1790).

GW’s letter was delivered to the Senate on 9 Feb. by Tobias Lear and was “postponed for consideration.” On 10 Feb. GW’s letter was sent to a committee consisting of Caleb Strong, Pierce Butler, William Paterson, Benjamin Hawkins, and William S.Johnson, and on 18 Feb. the letter and accompanying messages concerning the boundary that GW sent to the Senate that day were also remanded to the committee (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 2:59, 62, 63). The committee presented its report for the consideration of the Senate on 10 Mar., and on 24 Mar. the Senate resolved that “effectual Measures should be taken as soon as conveniently may be to settle all Disputes with the Crown of Great Britain relative to that Line. That it would be proper to cause a Representation of the Case to be made to the Court of Great Britain, and if the said disputes cannot be otherwise amicably adjusted, to propose that Commissioners be appointed to hear and finally decide those disputes, in the manner pointed out in the report of the late Secretary of the United States for the Department of foreign Affairs of the 21st of April 1785, a Copy of which Report accompanied the first of the said Messages” (ibid., 65–66).

1Copies of these documents appear in 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 2:359–87.

2As the original list has not been found, the text of the enclosure is taken from the letterbook copy.

3GW is probably referring to the Confederation Congress’s resolution of 13 Oct. 1785 to transmit to John Adams, American ambassador to the Court of St. James, copies of papers detailing British encroachments in Maine, forwarded by Gov. James Bowdoin of Massachusetts, so that “effectual Measures should be immediately taken to settle all Disputes with the Crown of Great Britain relative to that Line” and to instruct Adams to represent the case to the king and obtain an adjustment consistent with the Paris peace treaty. Failing that, he was instructed to propose a settlement of the dispute “by Commissaries mutually appointed for that Purpose . . . conformable to the Laws of 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 2:381–82).

4GW instructed Gouverneur Morris to proceed to London as an unofficial envoy to inquire into British intentions concerning their treaty violations as well as the possibility of negotiating a new commercial treaty (GW to Morris, 13 Oct. 1789 [second letter], and note 1; Morris to GW, 22 Jan. 1790 [first letter]).

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