[guest post by JVW]
Today is the 290th birthday of the Indispensable American, George Washington. Since I started guest blogging here, I have attempted to write some sort of remembrance of our first President each February 22. I failed last year, but prior to that here is what has been covered:
2015 – George Washington’s Birthday
2016 – George Washington Quiets the Rebellion
2017 – George Washington Fears for His Country’s Future
2018 – George Washington Agrees to Serve Another Term
2019 – George Washington Goes Back to His Farm
2020 – George Washington Rallies the Troops
I kind of struggled to come up with a topic this year that might be interesting yet is not a particularly well-known story about one of the most storied figures in history. Fortunately, earlier today I joined in on a National Review Plus Conference Call with historian Richard Brookhiser, who has written a magnificent book on President Washington’s two terms, and during a discussion on Presidents he gave us an anecdote which I think will work for this year’s salute to The Father of Our Country.
William Maclay was a Pennsylvania lawyer who had fought with George Washington at the Battle of Fort Duquesne in the French and Indian War. He would later serve as a commissary for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. In 1789 he was elected along with the more renown Robert Morris as the first two United States Senators from the Keystone State. Morris was the luckier of the two Senators, having drawn a lot for a full six-year term which (in order to stagger Senate elections for each state) left Maclay with a two year term. After spending his two years in New York (where the first post-Constitution Congress met), Maclay decided to return to his estate on the Susquehana River rather than seek reelection. Probably the most significant legislative effort by William Maclay was a resolution which would have required the Senate’s consent for any Executive branch dismissal, which failed when Vice President John Adams cast the tie-breaking vote against it.
But one thing Senator Maclay did to earn him the gratitude of future generations was keep a diary of that first Congressional session, the only Senator known to have done so. The diary survived after his death in 1804, and it is the only real record we have of those years in the Senate, a formal federal record of the session having been poorly kept. Because Maclay was something of a gossip and rather grouchy to boot, the diary is a very interesting read.
One story he relates is an account of when President Washington himself came to Senate chambers to formally (and quite literally) conduct the “Advice and Consent” requirement for treaties as laid out by Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution. Vice President Adams accompanied him, and the two sought to get Senate approval of a treaty the Administration was seeking with the Creek Indians. Here is how Rick Brookhiser describes what unfolded:
As the Vice-President read the proposed terms, “carriages were driving past,” wrote Senator Maclay, “and such a noise! I could tell it was something about Indians, but was not master of once sentence of it.” After closing the windows, the Senate began an inconclusive discussion. . . .
Brookhiser told us today that one Senator then interrupted and rose to suggest that the Administration provide copies of all other treaties with native tribes by way of comparison. Another Senator then suggested that a special committee be formed to hash through all of these issues and then report back to the main body. This brought a different Senator to his feet exclaiming that the signing of treaties was an important duty that required the attention of all Senators, and thus the matter should be for the committee of the whole. Still another interjected that every great legislative body throughout history used smaller groups for deep study of issues, and this would be the appropriate tact for this treaty with the Creek. And so it went on.
Meanwhile, the President was getting impatient. He understood that as the first Chief Executive of the new nation, the steps he took would come to be considered the norm for his successors, and he wanted to establish the idea of the United States as a republic with co-equal branches of government and separation of powers. But sitting in the Senate’s cramped chambers on a hot summer’s day listening to a collection of bloviating popinjays discussing procedural minutiae was not particularly suited to the Founding Father’s temperament. “This defeats every purpose of my coming here!” Washington groused, in what Maclay termed “a violent fret.” The session was adjourned, and since it was a Saturday there was no session scheduled the next day. It has gone down in legend that the Senate doorman would overhear the President muttering as walked out the building that he would “be dammed if he ever went there again.” And, as Brookhiser reminds us, no President ever has.
Imagine what George Washington would think about a Senate session featuring Elizabeth Warren, Ted Cruz, Sheldon Whitehouse, Josh Hawley, Chuck Schumer, and Mitch McConnell. By refusing to return to that body’s chambers, our first President probably did more to properly delineate the line between the Executive and Legislative branches of government than had he continued to make periodic visits.