Birth of the Nation: The First Federal Congress, 1789-1791 Back to the Exhibit

William Maclay's description of Washington's Senate appearance, August 22, 1789

Saturday, 22 August 1789

      Senate met and went on the Coasting bill, the Door Keeper soon told Us of the Arrival of the President. The President was introduced and took our President’s Chair– he rose and told us bluntly that he had called on Us for our advice and consent to some propositions respecting the Treaties to be held with the Southern Indans 20 said he had brought Genl. Knox with him who was well acquainted with the business. He then turned to Genl. Knox Who was seated at his on the left of the Chair. Genl. Knox handed him a paper which he handed to the President of the Senate, who was seated on a Chair on the floor to his right. our President hurried over the Paper. Carriages were driving past and such a Noise I could tell it was something about indians, but was not master of one Sentence of it. Signs were made to the door Keeper to shut down the Sashes. Seven heads (as we since learn) were stated at the End of the Paper which the Senate were to give their advice and consent to. they were so framed that this could be done by Aye or No. Our President The President told Us a paper from an Agent of the Cherokees21 was given to him just as he was coming to the Hall. he motioned to General Knox for it, and handed it to the President of the Senate. it was read, it complained hard of the unjust Treatment of the People of North Carolina &ca. their Violation of Treaties &ca. Our President now read off, the first article to which our advice and consent was requested. it referred back principally to some statements in the body of the Writing which had been read. Mr. Morris rose said the Noise of carriages had been so great that he really could not say that he had heard the body of the paper which was read and prayed it might be read again, it was so. It was no sooner read than our President immediately read the first head over and put the Question do you advise and consent &ca.

      There was a dead pause. Mr. Morris wispered me, we will see who will venture to break silence first. Our Presi Our President was Proceeding As Many As– I rose reluctantly indeed, and from the length of the pause, the hint given by Mr. Morris, and the proceding of our President, it appeared to me, that if I did not, no other one would. and we should have these advices and consents ravish’d in a degree from Us. Mr. President. The paper which you have now read to Us appears to have for it's basis Sundry Treaties and public Transactions, between the southern Indians and the United States & and the States of Georgia North and south Carolina. The business is new to the Senate, it is of importance, it is our duty to inform ourselves as well as possible on the Subject. I therefore call for the reading of the Treaties and other documents alluded to in the paper now before Us.22 I cast an Eye at the President of the United States, I saw he wore an aspect of Stern displeasure. General Knox turned up some of the Acts of Congress, and the Protests of One Blount Agent for North Carolina23 – Mr. Lee rose and named a particular Treaty which he wished read, the Business laboured with the Senate, there appeared an evident reluctance to proceed. The first Article was about the Cherokees, it was hinted that the Person just come from them, might have more information. The President of U.S. rose said he had no objection to that article being postponed and in the mean time he could see the Messenger. the 2d Article which was about the Chickasaws and Choctaws was likewise postponed. the 3d Article more immediately concerned Georgia and the Creeks.24 Mr. Gun from Georgia moved this to be postponed to Monday he was seconded by Few Genl. Knox was asked, when Genl. Lincoln25 would be here on his way to Georgia. he answered, not untill Saturday next the Whole House seemed against Gun and Few. I rose & said When I considered the Newness and the importance of the Subject. that One Article had already been postponed, That Genl. Lincoln the first named of the Trusees had Commissioners would not be here for a Week. The deep interest Georgia had in this affair, I could not think it improper that the Senators from that State should be indulged in a postponement untill monday. more especially as I had not heard any inconvenience pointed out that could possibly flow from it. the Question was put and actually carried. But Elsworth immediately began a long discourse on the Merits of the Business. he was answered by Mr. Lee Who appeald to the Consti(tu)tion with regard to the powers of making War. Butler & Izard answered &ca. Mr. Morris at last informed the disputants that they were debating on a Subject that was actually postponed. Mr. Adams denyed in the face of the House that it had been postponed. this very Trick has been played by him and his New England Men more than Once, the Question was however put a 2d time and carried. I had at an early stage of the business wispered Mr. Morris that I thought the best way to conduct the business was to have all the papers committed– my reasons were that I saw no chance of a fair investigation of subjects while the President of the U.S. sat there with his Secretary at War, to support his Opinions and over awe the timid and neutral part of the Senate– Mr. Morris hastily rose and moved that the papers communicated to the Senate by the P. of the U.S. should be referred to a committee of 5, to report immediately as soon as might be, on them. he was seconded by Mr. Gun. several Members Grumbled some Objections. Mr. Butler rose made a lengthy speech against committment. said we were acting as a Council no Councils ever committed anything, Committees were an improper mode of doing business, it threw business out of the hands of the Many into the hands of the few. &ca. &ca. I rose and supported the mode of doing business by Committees, asserted that Executive Councils did make use of Councilsommittees, that Committees were used in all public deliberative bodies &c. &ca. I thought I did the Subject Justice. but concluded, the Commitment cannot be attended with any possible inconvenience, some articles are already postponed untill Monday. Whoever the Committee are (if committed) they must make their report on Monday morning. I spoke thro’ the Whole in a low tone of Voice. Peevishness itself I think could not have taken offence at anything I said. as I sat down the President of the U.S. started up in a Violent fret. This defeats every purpose of my coming here, were the first words that he said, he then went on that he had brought his Secretary at War with him to give every necessary information, that the Secretary knew all about the Business–and yet he was delayed and could not go on with the Matter– he cooled however by degrees said he had no Objection to putting off the Matter untill Monday, but declared he did not understand the Matter of Commitment, he might be delayed he could not tell how long, he rose a 2d time and said he had no Objection to postponement untill Monday at 10 O’Clock. by the looks of the Senate this seemed agreed to. a pause for some time ensued. We waited for him to withdraw, he did so with a discontented Air, had it been any other, than the Man who I wish to regard as the first Character in the World, I would have said with sullen dignity. I cannot now be mistaken the President wishes to tread on the Necks of the Senate. Committment will bring this matter to discussion, at least in the Committee when he is not present. he wishes Us to see with the Eyes and hear with the ears of his Secretary only. the Secretary to advance the Premisses the President to draw Conclusions. and to bear down our deliberations with his personal Authority & Presence, form only will be left for Us– This will not do with Americans. but let the Matter Work it will soon cure itself.26


      20 Documents related to treaties with the southern Indians are printed in the SEJ. pp. 165-250.

      21 The paper is printed in the SEJ, pp. 199-201. Bennet Ballew, a trader of Scottish origin, accompanied the Cherokee delegation to New York, acting as their agent, interpreter, and negotiator. (Virginia Independent Chronicle. 23 April 1790)

      22 These documents arc printed in the SEJ, pp. 165–99.

      23 Willian, Blount (1749–1800), governor and superintendent of Indian affairs for the Territory South of the River Ohio, 1790–96, was horn on Pamlico Sound, North Carolina. A Martinsborough merchant and land speculator, he served during the I78Os in both houses of the state legislature, Congress, the Federal Convention, and as a Federalist at the November 1789 ratification convention. Benjamin Hawkins defeated him for election to the first United States Senate. See also SEJ, p. 526. Blount’s protest of 28 November 1789 against the Treatv of Hopewell asserted that several of its stipulations violated the rights of North Carolina. His objection was included among other documents submitted to Congress by the president on 7 August 1789 and is printed in DHFFC 5:1091.

      24 A map of the Cherokee lands, south of what is now Tennessee and North Carolina. and those of the Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Creeks is printed in the SEJ, p. 241.

      25 Benjamin Lincoln (1733–1810) was appointed in 1789 as one of three commissioners to negotiate a treaty with the southern Indians and also as collector for the ports of Boston and Charlestown, Massachusetts. Born into a farming family in Hingham, Massachusetts, he served the town as clerk, justice of the peace, and in the provincial congresses. Massachusetts appointed Lincoln a general in 1776, Congress bestowed on him the rank of major general in the Continental army a year later, and in 1778 he achieved command of the southern army. General Lincoln was appointed the first secretary at war and served in that office during 1781-83. Returning home in 1783, he engaged in farming and land speculation in Maine, commanded the Massachusetts troops sent to suppress Shays’s Rebellion early in 1787, and served as lieutenant governor. At the state ratification convention in 1788, he voted as a Federalist. See also SEJ, pp. 507–8.


(Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

digitized from DHFFC transcription   
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