George Washington Papers

From George Washington to the Cabinet, 25 March 1796

To the Cabinet

Philadelphia 25th March 1796


The Resolution moved in the House of Representatives for the Papers relative to the Negociation of the Treaty with Great Britain having passed in the affirmative,1 I request your opinion

Whether that branch of Congress hath—or hath not a right, by the Constitution, to call for those Papers?

Whether, if it does not possess the right, it would be expedient, under the circumstances of this particular case, to furnish them?

And, in either case, what terms would be most proper to comply with, or to refuse the request of the House?

These opinions in writing, and your attendance, will be expected at 12. Oclock tomorrow.

Go: Washington

ALS (to Oliver Wolcott, Jr.), CtHi: Oliver Wolcott, Jr., Papers; ADfS, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters; copies, MHi: Pickering Papers; LB, DNA: RG 59, GW’s Correspondence with His Secretaries of State. GW docketed the draft: “The Heads of Departmts and Atty Genl.”

In addition to the replies of the cabinet officers, GW at some point acquired a letter written to Connecticut representative Jonathan Trumbull by Oliver Ellsworth, the newly appointed chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In that letter, dated 13 March, Ellsworth wrote that “The instant the President & Senate have made a Treaty, the Constitution makes it a law of the land; and of course, all persons & bodies in whatever station or department within the jurisdiction of the United States are bound to conform their actions & proceedings to it.” In consequence, “The claim of the House of Representatives to participate in or control the Treaty making power is as unwarrented as it is dangerous. It has no support but from the usage of the British House of Commons the reason of which does not here apply,” because “a Treaty made by the King has not the effect of a law of the land.” While the House might have use for “some” treaty papers pursuant to an impeachment or a declaration of war, “neither of those objects are avowed by the House nor are they to be presumed.” The fact “That an appropriation is necessary to carry the Treaty into effect … does not give the House any more right to examine the expediency of the Treaty or controul its operation than they would have without this circumstance. Their obligation to appropriate the requisite Sums does not result from any opinion they may have of the expediency of the Treaty, but from their knowledge of its being a Treaty, an authorised & perfect compact which binds the Nation & its Representatives” (DLC:GW).

1The resolution, “That the President of the United States be requested to lay before this House, a copy of the instructions to the minister of the United States who negotiated the treaty with the king of Great-Britain, (communicated by his message of the first instant) together with the correspondence and other documents relative to the said treaty, excepting such of the said papers as any existing negotiation may render improper to be disclosed,” was approved by the House on 24 March (Journal of the House, description begins The Journal of the House of Representatives: George Washington Administration 1789–1797. Edited by Martin P. Claussen. 9 vols. Wilmington, Del., 1977. description ends 8:278–80).

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